Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”
He also said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added, “Without temptations no-one can be saved.”
Abba Poemen, the “Shepherd,” held a central position within the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, indicating that the one who collected the sayings together was probably from one of the communities which Abba Poemen directed. For this reason, when his name was invoked in one of the sayings, the audience would likely take note and pay extra attention, seeing either how the saying vindicates Poemen’s spiritual authority by his association with other great leaders like St. Anthony, or that the saying told the audience something important for their own spiritual development. Here, it is likely an element of both, with Poemen being made an heir to St. Anthony as well as allowing Anthony, through Poemen, indicate wisdom necessary not only for those who had taken their place in the desert, but for any Christian interested in their spiritual progression.
There are two major themes which come out of these short, interconnected sayings.
The first theme shows us the way we are to deal with our own sins. We need humility so we can acknowledge that we are indeed sinners who need God’s gracious forgiveness if we are to move forward in our spiritual life. No excuses should be made for them. Only when our sinful condition is accepted for what it is will we be able to recognize we are spiritually sick and in need of the great physician, Jesus Christ, to heal us from our sickness.Secondly, even when our sins are healed, even when we have purified ourselves from their taint in our lives, we will find ourselves being tempted throughout our whole life to sin again. Such temptation, far from being something we should be worried about, is actually a good thing, because it is by such temptation we can prove how grace has improved our moral worth to God. With every fight for virtue, we can gain another victory against temptation, and every victory against temptation is a step closer to the purity we need in order to attain our goal, heaven.
Far from being a thing of shame, far from being an indication that we are sinners worthy of condemnation, temptation is just a part of human existence; what we do with it, whether we give in to it and sin, or overcome it and increase our virtue in Christ, is what is important. Scripture indicates that Jesus himself was tempted. We should not consider ourselves to be greater than he, thinking that we can live life without facing temptation ourselves. Indeed, facing and overcoming temptation was one of many things he did in his ministry to fulfill the whole of the law and the prophets so that the path to heaven can be made open to all who would follow after him.
It is very important we keep these two themes with us throughout our lives, so that we do not either become too prideful and fall into great sin through lack of humility, but also so that we do not give up hope of salvation because we find ourselves constantly tempted to turn away from the path of righteousness and engage some sort of sin.
We must first accept we are sinners. We must not make excuses for our sins. Yes, there might be all kinds of conditions and habits which affect our culpability, but in the end, we must accept that whatever sin we do is a sin of our own doing. However great or slight the sin, the blame is ours insofar as we willed to sin. Yes, there are many factors which might make many sins to be minor in comparison to others, but in the end, if we will to sin, no matter how great the influence from outside, we still accepted the provocation and sinned and so must renounce what we have done without excuse.