The Elder Sophrony once described this by saying, “The way up is the way down.” The spiritual life is a paradox. The excellence of the Pharisees was met with condemnation from Christ: they could not see their own emptiness. The emptiness of the weak and “sinful” was met with mercy and healing. Their acknowledged weakness made the working of the power of God effective in their lives.
What passes for a “moral life” in our culture, is little more than the successful internalization of middle-class behavior. “I’m doing ok,” we think. It is quite common for those who are “doing ok,” to feel generally secure and superior to those who fail to do so. In earlier modern centuries, this modest morality was sufficient to earn someone the title of “Christian.” It meant nothing more than being a gentleman.
It is necessary, I think, to see the emptiness of our efforts (moral futility). Just as we cannot make ourselves to live, neither do we make ourselves better persons. An improved corpse is still a corpse. Our repentance is born out of the revelation of our emptiness and the futility of life apart from God. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”
It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.