The Self-Identified Sinner

(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on February 20, 2015)

For I know my transgressions,ash-wednesday-2015-forehead-3
 and my sin is always before me.
 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me

(Psalm 51:3-5, NIV).

For many Christians all around the world and throughout many centuries, this time of year is one of the holiest in the entire church calendar. Beginning just a couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we are now in the period of time called Lent (40 days plus Sundays) leading up to Easter. And while Easter reminds us of celebration, renewal and unexpected hope, Lent is when our focus is on human sinfulness and brokenness. But why? Why focus on brokenness and sin?

The world is full of brokenness, obviously. There is war, inequality, poverty, hunger unfairness and injustice. But the world also contains so much beauty. Doesn’t it? There are plenty of examples of courage, compassion and wholeness. For every heartbreaking story of need, there is a remarkable and inspiring story of help. For every example of destruction, there is evidence of rebuilding. Sure, people sin, but don’t they also do good things?

Furthermore, sin language has been used abusively against all kinds of people. We are in an era when church attendance is in steep decline. The fastest growing religious group in the United States is “none,” as in no religious affiliation. As a person under 40 years old, I have meet plenty of people who have left the church because all they ever heard was that they were sinners with whom God was angry. I know many others who have no interest in even exploring faith for the same reason. Who wants to go to church to be condemned to hell every Sunday?

In response, some churches have doubled down on the condemnation. Others seem to have abandoned talking about sin altogether. They are the ones that specialize in positive affirmation and tips for an abundant life.

All of this is unfortunate. I think that we must face sin. But the fact of the matter is that things are complicated. The world is complicated, people are complicated, and sin is definitely complicated. As the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” To avoid facing sin is to ignore much of reality. And that is dangerous because it makes us blind to our own tendencies for evil. But how do we talk about sin honestly in a way that doesn’t drive people away from the church or into self-loathing?

There is a practice in 12-step recovery programs called “self-identification.” That means that it is up to the individual to self-identify as an addict or alcoholic. When a newcomer visits a 12-step meeting, no matter how obvious it is that she or he has a substance abuse problem, the group will never diagnose that person. They will never point a finger and say, “you are an addict!” And why? Because it just doesn’t work. All the wisdom of the group is worthless if it is shoved down someone’s throat. Which would be a shame, because there is a lot of wisdom to be had. But when the addict or alcoholic comes around on her or his own to self-identify as such, then they are able to take responsibility for their own recovery, engage the group’s wisdom and accept the help they need.

What if our posture regarding sin was this way? What if, instead of diagnosing others as sinners, we adopted a policy of self-identification? Not because other people aren’t indeed sinful, but because the good news of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness is made accessible only when one truly decides that she or he needs it. When someone tells me that I am sinful, it reveals that person as a hypocrite who cannot abide by the same rules by which I am condemned. When someone is humble enough to self-identify as sinful and respectful enough to allow me to come to my own conclusions, then I am able to hear her or his message.

I believe that such an approach would be powerful. It would definitely beat the strategy of hammering people about their failures or the practice of ignoring them altogether. After all, people sense deeply that something is wrong and they want to know what God is doing about it. To point to the empty tomb is a very powerful answer to that question. But it takes a humble messenger to bring the good news of Easter. Lent is this pathway to such humility. I hope that you use these holy weeks before Easter to do some prayerful reflection and honest appraisal. I don’t know about you, but my name is Joe, and I’m a sinner. And for anyone else who comes to the conclusion on your own that you are too, I have some incredible news I can’t wait to tell you about on Easter morning.

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