Reference: Luke 4:1-13
The Eastern Orthodox theologian Peter Bouteneff has written a book titled “How to be a Sinner.” The title startles us, coming from a Christian, because we have grown accustom to the neo-Pharisees among us in churches telling us that church people don’t sin, except perhaps in a polite, abstract and minor way. There is a general denial in church culture that sin permeates the congregation. They are, we are told, “good people.” It is not unlike a person who has a chronic pain, but doesn’t want to go to the doctor, because it might turn out to be cancer. Even realizing that early diagnosis greatly improves their chances of survival, they simply prefer not to know.
Others observing these church people may, however, see their failings quite easily, leading to charges of hypocrisy against them. Jesus, for one, commented frequently on this phenomenon. He noted that only those in denial about their spiritual and moral status fail to observe a veritable plank in their own eyes while being critical of a splinter in the eyes of others (Matthew 7:3). “O the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us,” as Robbie Burns commented, sitting in church at that. When sick people go to the doctor, no one criticizes them for being hypocrites, probably because they admit to being sick. When sinners seek help by going to church, it should be the same. But the confusion caused by a church culture which expects people in church to have risen above sin destroys the possibility of help and leads to the common observation of hypocrisy. There is, for example, roughly the same statistical percentage of sexual abuse and pedophilia in non-religious institutions as in Christian ones. But because churches have cultivated an image of being morally superior, people are more shocked to learn of church people being abusers, and the hypocrisy is what makes it seem even worse in the church context than elsewhere.
Elsewhere, the whole idea of sin has been distorted. It is often applied mostly to supposed sexual sins. Among the unchurched, it is often trivialized to items that are so good, they must be sinful, such as chocolate or good perfume. Many in our world would dispute the idea that anything is sinful, even though they acknowledge wrongdoing in the secular context of crime, abuse and corruption. But we have lost the battle to be the ones who get to define what “sin” means.
Yet the Scriptural definition hasn’t changed. Sin is a wide rebellion against God’s will, a universal human dysfunction, pandemic and destructive. At a time when “diversity” is greatly valued, and some churches go to some effort to have special ministries to various different kinds of people, the target for orthodox evangelism is aimed at a single group, not at all diverse. They are called “sinners.” Since all of us are included, there is no need to ask if we fit the target. But many in our contemporary world do not have the self-insight to identify as such. Learning how to be a sinner starts right there. As with an alcoholic, the very first step is to admit that you have a problem which you yourself cannot solve. Only divine intervention can fix this. Many have tried to live a sinless life. Many even have deluded themselves into thinking they have reached a sinless state. All have, however, failed in the endeavor.
The one exception to that statement is, of course, also the divine intervention required. In the Gospel passage referenced above, he prepares for his public ministry on earth. After a long period of fasting in the desert, in a weakened state from the effort, he finds himself massively tempted. He is offered a life of material plenty (represented by bread), fame and power. The temptations which come to us fall primarily in the same three categories, just at a lower level of achievement.
How we deal with that is the measure of how we do as sinners.
First, we need to shake off any illusions that we have avoided being sinners. No sin is more damaging than the one which denies that I am a lost sinner, because it prevents access to the solution. The only hopeless sin is a denial that I am a sinner. Yet large numbers of people appear to do just that, between the secular who do not acknowledge the category and many of the churched who acknowledge the reality of sin, but don’t think they themselves are seriously infected.
Second, we need to realize that sin is total. Being a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with my worthiness. If it did, I would be lost. It is not that I can live pleasing God and helping mankind, with an occasional boost needed from Christ. Rather, only by the radical mercy and grace of God can I proceed. This is humbling. It is also true.
Third, once you have recognized your condition, repentance and regret follows. This is often a natural step, because a true understanding of what a jerk I can be, whatever else it does, gives birth to the wish that I were different than that and that I could have done things in life a whole lot better. This is a painful realization, which is one reason why so many would prefer not to think about it. But if you learn effectively how to be a sinner, you understand that an honest self-appraisal is the only way to avoid living a pretended and false existence. Many church cultures make this process difficult because they have no category for honest sinners. Some may condemn or disapprove of you when you are honest. Someone who stands “just as I am without one plea,” as the hymn puts it, can make those in full or partial denial very uncomfortable, and threaten to remove the mask of artificial piety worn by so many people in a church context. It is intriguing that traditional pre-Lenten festivities often include masked events, because when Lent arrives the masks of pretension can no longer suffice.
Fourth, understand that an honest repentance triggers an honest and complete absolution. God is fully aware of who you are and how extensive your sin and faults are, yet nevertheless forgives you, giving you a totality of grace without any contribution on your part. Knowing that God already is aware of your situation and has acted to resolve it allows you to be totally honest about yourself. Absolution is either given or retained. It is not conditional, “I forgive you if you do so many good things, participate in church life three days a week, give to charity,” etc. God knows the stink of your sins, better even than you do. It does not stop him from forgiving you. Only you can do that, by refusing to accept it unconditionally.
Fifth, while you can’t earn grace, you can be grateful for it. A Eucharistic life, even while you cannot avoid continuing to be a sinner, is exactly what living a Christian life means, and it is in the context of love, not law. The Anglican prayer of forgiveness petitions that you may have “time for amendment of life.” Life is a journey, with lots and lots of potholes and some major detours, but it can always be a journey in grace, in Eucharist, in amendment, and always towards the goal of arriving at the eighth day, the day beyond time and sin, when the memory of all the battles lost pales in the glory of grace fulfilled.
And there is no better time to start learning how to be a sinner than the Lenten journey itself, which encourages the crucial reflection and honest courage needed to walk the straight path.