We’re All Sinners, and Accepting That Is Actually a Good Thing
This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.
It can seem gentler and kinder to think of human beings as basically good, our intuitions basically correct and our motives basically pure. But then we run into the hard facts of greed, genocide, abuse, oppression, lies, tyranny, hatred, jealousy, violence, murder, enslavement and even mundane selfishness, impatience, arrogance or resentment in our own heart.
It wasn’t until college that I ever really thought about the Christian doctrine of sin. I had grown up in a Baptist church hearing about how Jesus “died for our sins,” but it seemed that sin was the breaking of certain rules — drinking too much, sleeping around, lying, murder and stealing. I was a docile kid mostly into student theater and church. Not much of a rebel. So for me, being a sinner was more of an abstract religious idea than any kind of felt reality.
In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”
My favorite definition of sin comes from the English author Francis Spufford. He says that most of us in the West think of sin as a word that “basically means ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness.’” Instead, he calls sin “the human propensity to mess things up” — only he doesn’t use the word “mess,” and his word is probably closer to the truth of things.
This propensity is not only passive like an accident, but is also “our active inclination to break stuff,” Spufford says, including “moods, promises, relationships we care about and our own well-being and other people’s.”
This is the slow dawning that I had about myself in college, and with it came liberation. Far from being a crushing blow of self-hatred, the realization of my actual, non-theoretical sinfulness came with something like a recognition of grace. I saw that I was worse than I’d thought I was, and that truth knocked me off the eternal treadmill of trying to be better and do better and get it all right. It allowed me to slowly (and continually) learn to receive love, atonement, forgiveness and mercy.
Every week now in church, I kneel with my congregation and admit, in the words of the Anglican liturgy, that I have sinned against God, “in thought, word and deed” by what I have done and by what I have left undone, that I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself. With my whole community around me, week in and week out, I admit, as Spufford says, that I have broken stuff, including other people and myself with my human propensity to, ahem, mess things up.
The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.
In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.
This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.
This humbles me.
I need this humility. Our broader culture does too. The Lutheran theologian Martin Marty wrote that we live in a culture where “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.” He meant that we tend to reject the idea of sin and judgment in favor of a “you do you” moral individualism. We try to convince ourselves that there is only personal appetites and preferences, but we cannot quite shake a sense of good and evil because most of us retain a sense of justice, a sense that what we do matters. But when someone violates our often unspoken sense of justice or righteousness, there is no way of atonement. There is no absolution or restoration.
An understanding of universal sinfulness, in contrast, is the verdant soil from which grace can spring. The British author Tom Holland called the Christian doctrine of sin a “very democratic doctrine,” because it has a leveling quality. To paraphrase Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it draws the line separating good and evil not between political parties, cliques, classes, religious groups or ideological tribes, but instead through every human heart.
But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.
Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”
After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.
“Forgiveness flounders,” the theologian Miroslav Volf wrote, “because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” But if I am a sinner, then my enemy and I have something in common: We are both wayward and in deep need of grace.
Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at [email protected] or through the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”