I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.
It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.
Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…
Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.
Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.
The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.
I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.
But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.
The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.
And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.
Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.
The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)
For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.
Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.
There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.
However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.
And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.
All because we do not want to feel ashamed.
Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:
“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.
Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.
As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.
Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.