That No One Should Despair of Himself, or Pray Against His Enemies, or Give Up When He Does Not Receive What He Asks For;
And To Husbands, On Maintaining Peace Towards Their Wives
A Homily by St. John Chrysostomos
I am very grateful to you for the eagerness with which you welcomed my words on prayer, because you have made me happy. Happy is he that speaketh in the ears of those who hearken (Ecclesiasticus 25:9). I am convinced of this, not only by the applause and praise that I received, but also by what I saw you doing. For, as I was exhorting you not to pray against your enemies and telling you that we irritate God by so doing, and legislate in opposition to Him (for, He Himself said, Pray for your enemies [cf. St. Matthew 5:44], and when we pray against our enemies, we demand that He abolish His own law); as, therefore, I was saying these things and the like, I saw many among you striking their faces and breasts, groaning bitterly and stretching their hands out to Heaven, asking forgiveness for having uttered such prayers. Then I, too, lifting up my eyes to Heaven, gave thanks to God that the word of my teaching had borne fruit for us so quickly. Such is the nature of spiritual seed: it does not require years, periods of time, or days; if it but enters into a noble soul, it immediately manifests an ear of corn that is flourishing and perfect. This is what happened yesterday in your case. I sowed the word of compunction, and the sighing of confession sprouted, a sighing which bore a great wealth of blessings. For, if that publican, because he said, while beating his breast, Be gracious to me, a sinner, went away justified rather than the Pharisee, how much confidence may we reasonably expect to acquire, when we have displayed such great compunction in a short time? And yet, there is nothing worse than a publican; for, this occupation is the ultimate definition of evil. Christ shows this by the fact that He constantly uses prostitutes and publicans as examples of the most extreme degree of depravity. Tax-collecting stands for open violence, unpunished robbery, a despicable kind of greed, a business devoid of rationality, and shameful commerce; nevertheless, one who lived amid such great evils was able to cast aside such reproaches by means of mere words and to receive more than he requested. For, his petition was, Be gracious to me, a sinner; and, God was not only gracious to him, but even justified him more than the Pharisee. This is why Paul says: Unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). And yet, the Pharisee prayed and stood in the Temple, called upon the same God, uttered more words, and began his prayer by giving thanks to God. How is it, then, that the latter lost the goods that he had, whereas the former received a confidence which he did not have? Because the manner of their prayer was not the same. For, the Pharisee was full of boasting, arrogance, and foolishness, while the publican was full of great gratitude. Hence, the latter, though he was burdened by innumerable sins, cast them all aside and was justified, whereas the former, who had put out to sea with a shipload of good deeds, almsgiving, and fasting,dashed against the attitude of vainglory and arrogance as against a rock, and suffered shipwreck in the harbor itself. For, to suffer a loss in prayer is the same as being shipwrecked in a harbor. But this did not happen by the nature of prayer, but by his own free choice.
Do you see how prayer is not sufficient for our salvation, if we do not pray in accordance with those laws which Christ established? Now, what laws did He establish? To pray for our enemies and for those who greatly distress us. Unless we do this, we will assuredly perish, as is clear from the example of the Pharisee. For, if this man, who did not pray against his enemies, received such a heavy punishment simply for vainglory, what punishment is in store for those who deliver many long speeches against their enemies? What are you up to, O man? You stand there, asking for forgiveness of your sins, and yet you fill your mind with anger? At a time when we should be at our gentlest, while conversing with the Master, making entreaty for our own sins, and beseeching mercy, loving-kindness, and forgiveness, do we become enraged, as savage as wild beasts, and fill our mouths with bitterness? Tell me, how shall we be able to attain to salvation, when we project the image of suppliants, but utter arrogant words and rouse the Master to anger against us? You have entered the church to heal your own wounds, not to make your neighbors wounds more painful. This is a time for propitiation, a time for prayer and sighing, not for anger; a time for tears, not for irascibility, a time for compunction, not for irritation. Why do you confuse the proper order of things? Why do you fight against yourself? Why do you demolish your dwelling? One who prays must, above all, have a gentle spirit, a restrained mind, and a contrite heart; one who utters exclamations against his enemies could never achieve this state; for, being filled with anger, he cannot control his mind.
Therefore, let us not pray against our enemies, but let us not even be mindful of our own good deeds, lest we suffer the same fate as the Pharisee. For, just as it is good to recall ones sins, so it is also good to forget ones good deeds. Why is this? Because remembrance of our good deeds puffs us up with arrogance, whereas remembrance of our sins curbs and humbles our mind; the former makes us more sluggish, but the latter makes us more diligent. Indeed, those who do not think that they have anything good become more eager to acquire what is good, whereas those who reckon that they have stored up a great deal of merchandise, confident they have an abundance of this, do not display much zeal for obtaining more of it.
Wherefore, do not remember your good deeds, in order that God may remember them. Do thou first confess thy sins, it is written, that thou mayest be justified (Isaiah 43:26). And again: I will not remember thine iniquities, but do thou remember them (Isaiah 43:25). But why was God so quick to hearken to the publican, while He let Isaac implore and entreat Him on behalf of his wife for twenty years, and only then granted the prayers of the righteous man? I must now explain to you the remainder of my teaching from yesterday. Why, then, did this happen? So that from the story of the publican you might come to know the loving-kindness of the Master, Who is quick to hear, and from the story of Isaac the patience of a servant who is slow to receive and yet does not desist from supplication; so that, though you may be a sinner, you might not despair, and, though you may be righteous, you might not be puffed up. They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick (St. Matthew 9:12). The publican was in a bad way; this is why God was quick to stretch out His hand to him; Isaac was stronger, and this is why He left him alone, so as to increase his patience. But all of this is obvious enough. I must now tell you why Isaacs wife was barren: so that, when you see the Virgin becoming a mother, you might not disbelieve, and so that, when a Jew asks you, How did Mary give birth? you might reply to him, How did Sarah, Rebecca, or Rachel give birth? When some wondrous and mighty miracle is going to occur, many types prefigure it. Just as when an Emperor is about to enter, many soldiers run before him, so that His Majesty is not received suddenly and without preparation, likewise, when an extraordinary miracle is going to take place, it is prefigured by types, so that, having meditated on it beforehand, we might not be suddenly astounded or dumfounded by the miraculous nature of the event. This is also true of death. In this instance, Jonah was the precursor who trained our minds. For, just as the sea monster vomited him forth after three days, not finding him to be suitable fare (for the nature of sin is the proper and suitable sustenance of death—from sin is it born, from sin does it take root, by sin is it nourished); and just, as in our case, when we swallow a stone without realizing it, and at first the action of the stomach attempts to digest it, but, finding this sustenance to be alien to it, consults further with the digestive faculty and does not decompose the stone, but destroys its strength (hence, it cannot hold down its previous sustenance, but, in exhaustion, it vomits it up together with the stone in great pain); so, also, in the case of death: it swallowed the Cornerstone and was unable to digest it, since all of its strength was sapped; for this reason, together with this Stone it threw up the rest of the food that it had inside it, when it vomited forth human nature, which, in the end, it could not hold down. This is why the barren women [of the Old Testament] were precursors, that the birthgiving [of the Virgin] might be confirmed—or, rather, not only that this birthgiving might be confirmed, but more; for, if we examine the matter with precision, we shall find that barrenness is a figure of death itself.
Now, pay attention, for this is a subtle point. We are going to say how Sarahs barren womb leads us by the hand, as it were, to faith in the Resurrection. How, then, does it lead us? Just as her womb, being dead, was resurrected by the Grace of God and brought forth the living body of Isaac, so also Christ, having died, was resurrected by His own power. And listen to Paul testifying that our exegesis is not forced: [the Prophet Abraham] considered not...the deadness of Sarahs womb...but was strong in faith, giving glory to God and being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able also to perform (Romans 4:19-21). That is, God was able to bring it about that a living son be born from dead bodies. Then, leading us from that belief to this one, he adds: It was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him, but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4:23-24). What he is saying is this: God raised up Isaac from dead bodies; so also did He raise up His Son, Who had become dead. Do you want to learn what else barrenness symbolizes? The Church was to give birth to the multitude of the Faithful. Therefore, in order that you might not disbelieve that She who was infertile, unfruitful, and barren gave birth, one who was barren by nature preceded Her, preparing the way for Her who was voluntarily barren, and Sarah thus became a type of the Church. For, just as she, being barren, gave birth in old age, so also the Church, being barren, gave birth in the last times. Hear how Paul testifies that this is true: We are children of the free woman (Galatians 4:31). For, since Sarah, the free woman, is a type of the Church, for this reason he adds that we are children of the free woman. And again: Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise (Galatians 4:28). What does he mean by promise?
Just as nature did not give birth to Isaac, it was not nature that gave birth to us, but the Grace of God. And again: But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26); this Jerusalem is the Church. But ye are come unto Mount Sion, Paul says, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, ...to the Church of the firstborn (Hebrews 12:22-23). If, therefore, the Church is the Jerusalem which is above, Sarah is a type of the Jerusalem which is above, as he says: These are the two covenants:
the one which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar...; but Jerusalem, which is above, is free, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:24-26). It is quite clear that Sarah is a type of the Jerusalem which is above, in terms of birthgiving and barrenness.
I know that what I have said is rather subtle; but if we pay attention, nothing of what I have said will elude us. These words of mine are rather mystical and dogmatic; but if you wish, I will speak on a more ethical level. Isaacs wife was barren, so that you might learn of her husbands chastity; for, he did not throw her out, although there was no law to prevent him from so doing; nor did he take another wife and introduce her into his household in addition to his lawful wife, as many do on the pretext of producing children, satisfying their own licentiousness, throwing out some women and introducing others. Other men arm themselves with concubines and fill their households with countless squabbles. But not so this righteous man; rather, he remained loving toward the wife allotted to him by God, implored the Master of nature to rectify the bonds of nature, and did not reproach his wife. And how do we know that he did not reproach her? From Scripture. If he had reproached her, Scripture would have said so and would not have kept silent about it; for, it tells of the good deeds of the righteous and their flaws, so that we may avoid the latter and emulate the former. Therefore, when the young wife Rachel lamented to Isaacs son, and his son chided her, Scripture set forth both sides and did not hide them. For, when she said, Give me children, and if not, I shall die, what did he say? Am I in the place of God, who hath deprived thee the fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2). Give me children—a womans request, and one devoid of reason. Do you say to your husband, Give me children, thereby passing over the Master of nature? This is why, in responding to her reproachfully, he blocked her irrational demand and taught her Whom she should ask. But this is not so in the case of Isaac; neither did he say any such thing, nor did Rebecca complain and lament to him.
From this we are taught chastity and faith. For, the act of making requests of God indicates faith in Him; that Isaac did not throw out his wife makes clear to us his chastity; that he neither reproached her nor fell into despair reveals his patience and moderation, as well as his great forbearance and love towards his wife. For he did not have, as many men now do in such circumstances, recourse to magic and sorcery, these unnecessary, foolish, harmful, and soul-destroying arts; but, omitting all of these things and mocking all human artifices, he had recourse to the Master of nature, Who alone is able to rectify such a situation.
Hear these words, you husbands, and be instructed, you wives, and let us all imitate the righteous man. Let there be nothing more honorable for a wife than her husband, and let there be nothing more desirable for a husband than his wife. Concord between husbands and wives is what holds together all our lives; this is what keeps the whole world together. For, just as when the foundation is shaken, the entire house is demolished, so also, when there is marital discord, our whole life is overturned. For see: the world consists of cities, cities of households, and households of husbands and wives. If, therefore, war breaks out between husbands and wives, that warfare enters into their homes; and when these are disturbed, cities are also destroyed; when cities are in disorder, of necessity the whole inhabited earth is filled with confusion, warfare, and combat. For this reason, God put much forethought into this matter. He does not allow a man to throw out his wife, except on grounds of fornication. What, then, you say, if she is abusive and extravagant, and has innumerable other faults? Endure it all courageously, and do not throw her out because of her faults, but correct those faults. The reason why you are the head is that you may care for the body. We do not decapitate our body, even if it has countless wounds. Therefore, do not separate your wife from you; for, as far as we are concerned, the wife is the body. Hence, the Blessed Paul said: So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies (Ephesians 5:28). And the same law applies to wives. Love your husband as you love your own head, O wife, and, if you honor your head, in like manner honor your husband. It is not without reason that I speak about this matter at such length. I know how many blessings are occasioned by a wife not being at variance with her husband; I also know how many evils arise when husbands and wives are at variance with each other. For, in that situation, neither wealth, nor beautiful children, nor a multitude of children, nor office, nor power, nor glory, nor honor, nor luxury and extravagance, nor any other success could ever gladden a wife or a husband, if they were quarreling with one another.
Let us strive for this before all else. Does your wife have flaws? Do what Isaac did: pray to God. For, if this man, by his perseverance in prayer, overcame a natural defect, how much more will we be able to rectify voluntary flaws by constantly entreating God. If God sees you persevering for the sake of His Law, and bravely putting up with your wifes sins, He will help you to teach her aright and will reward you for your patience. For, how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? Or how knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? (I Corinthians 7:16). Do not be disheartened, he is saying, do not despair. It can happen that she, too, may be saved; but, if she remains incorrigible, you have not lost the reward for your patience. However, if you throw her out, you have sinned first by transgressing the law, and you will be judged an adulterer by God: For, whosoever shall put away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery (St. Matthew 5:32). It often happens that if you take a wife who is more irksome than she, not only do you commit a sin, but you also do not enjoy any respite. Yet, if you marry a better woman, because you dismissed your first wife, God does not allow you to have unalloyed pleasure from your second wife, and the fact that you dismissed your first wife is imputed to you as adultery. Therefore, when you see some difficulty befalling you, either in your marital life, or in some other situation, pray to God; for this is the only solution—and the best one—to the woes that come our way. Great indeed is the weapon of prayer. I have often said it, I am saying it now, and I will not stop saying it. Even though you are a sinner, look at the publican, who did not fail in his entreaties and who cleansed himself of so many sins. Do you want to know what a great thing prayer is? Even friendship with God does not accomplish as much as prayer. And this is not just my view; for I would not dare to state something of such importance on the basis of my own opinion. Learn from Scripture that whatever friendship does not accomplish is accomplished by prayer. Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves. And he shall answer and say, The door is shut, and my children are with me in bed; trouble me not. I say unto you, though he will not give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will give him as many as he needeth (St. Luke 11:5-8). Do you see how persistence is able to achieve whatever friendship cannot? For, lest you should suppose that the one who asked obtained what he needed because he was a friend, it says: Though he will not give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will give him. Even though friendship will not bring this about, yet persistence will bring about whatever friendship cannot. And where did this occur? In the case of the publican. For, the publican was not a friend of God, but he became His friend. And so, even though you are an enemy, you will become a friend by virtue of persistence. Look at the Syro-Phœnician woman and hear what Christ says to her: It is not meet to take the childrens bread, and to cast it to dogs (St. Matthew 15:26). Why did He do this, if it is not a good thing? The woman made it good by her persistence, so that you may learn that by persistence we become worthy of things of which we are unworthy.
I have made these points, in order that you may not say: I am a sinner; I have no confidence, I have no prayer. The man who has confidence is the one who does not think he has confidence. He who thinks he has confidence loses it, just as the Pharisee did. The man who thinks he is an outcast and lacking in confidence, just like the publican, is the one to whom God particularly hearkens. Look how many examples you have: the Syro-Phœnician woman, the publican, the thief on the Cross, and the friend in the parable who asked for three loaves and who obtained his request, not so much because of his friendship, as because of his persistence. Had each of these people said, I am a sinner, I am overcome with shame, and so I should not approach God, he would have made no progress. But since each of them regarded not the magnitude of his sins, but the wealth of Gods love for mankind, he was confident and had boldness, and, although he was a sinner, asked for things of which he was not worthy—and each achieved what he wanted. Let us keep all of these things in mind and pray without ceasing, with vigilance, with confidence, with good hopes, and with great zeal. Let us pray for our enemies with as much zeal as others pray against their enemies, and let us pray for our own brethren, and we will assuredly obtain all that is to our benefit. For, He who gives to us loves mankind, and we do not desire to receive to the extent that He desires to give. Knowing all of this, therefore, even if we have sunk to the lowest depth of evil, let us not even then despair of our salvation, but let us approach God with good hope, having persuaded ourselves that we will by all means receive what we ask for, if we ask in accordance with the laws which He has established. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20), Christ our God, the King of all, are due all glory, honor, and worship, together with His unoriginate Father and the All-Holy and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen