Repenting of Our Virtues - (Inferno Meditation 5)

“I was wearing a rope girdle, the same wherein
I once, indeed, had nursed a fleeting hope
To catch the leopard with the painted skin;

Now at my guide’s command, I loosed the rope
And took it off, and held it out to him
All neatly wound together and coiled up.

He took it, and leaning right-hand from the brim
Of the Pit, he tossed it over the precipice,
So that it dropped well out from the rocky rim.”
Inferno, Canto XVI, Lines 106-114

As Christians, we know that we must repent of our sins. This is primary and fundamental and is disputed by none. Thus far in Inferno, Dante has been learning of the realities of sin that he may properly repent of his own sins. However at this point in the story, something unusual happens. Coming to the end of the circles of the violent, Dante's descent is checked by a cyclopean abyss. It seems that the journey is at an end until, at Virgil's command, Dante unties the rope at his waist and allows Virgil to toss it off the cliff, thus summoning the winged monster Geryon who carries them to the bottom of the cliff.

While this may at first seem like Dante merely trying to spice up his story, and the description of flying on the back of Geryon is awe-inspiring, there is something much more profound at work. We are told that the rope around Dante's waist is the same one with which he tried to snare the leopard at the beginning of the story. The leopard in the poem represents the sins of incontinence and youth, sins such as lust, gluttony and anger. Before proceeding to the deepest level of Hell, and thus the deepest understanding of sin and the need for repentance, Dante must first give up the very thing with which he attempted to conquer his sins before his journey began. In other words, Dante learns that he must repent not only of his sins committed in his previous life, but also of his virtues. When a person repents and comes to Christ, whatever methods, rules or programs which he took in hand to solve his own problems must go out the window with his sins. The apostle Paul recognized this clearly in Philippians 3: 4-9

“…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith"

Paul had many good works to his record. He was circumcised at 8 days old, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew speaker of Hebrew speaking parents (in a time period when many Jews knew only Greek or Aramaic), from the strictest sect of the law, the Pharisees, an extremely zealous believer, and a blameless keeper of all the sacrificial requirements. If anyone had cause to boast of their past works, it was Paul. However, rather than boasting or having the attitude that Christ had saved him from his sins, but that he had been doing pretty well on his own, Paul has the opposite view. Like Dante's rope, Paul casts away all of his good works, calling them loss for the sake of Christ. He doesn’t regard his former accomplishments with pride. He doesn’t believe that he already had a handle on things and only needed a bit of grace in order to help him pull himself up by his bootstraps. No; he calls his former accomplishments “dung”. The Greek word here is “skubala”, which was a vulgar word in the culture of the day. I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to supply a modern vulgar and socially unacceptable word denoting excrement to give you an idea of how low Paul estimated his former accomplishments.

We, like Paul and like Dante, must cast aside all forms of spiritual discipline which we look to in order to make us holy apart from repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Fasting, prayer, daily quiet time, daily Bible reading, devotionals, prayer beads, bracelets; all of these can be good things until we make them into girdles to capture the leopard of sin in our own power. As soon as that happens, we must turn away and repent of our “virtues” done in our own strength that we may rely wholly on the strength of Him who wins the fight for us.

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