Several years ago, after concluding a confession within which she had admitted to some rather serious things, a lady asked me: “What would you call those things? My neuroses? My woundedness? My struggle areas? My immaturities?” Half-jokingly, I answered: “Call them sin! Afford to them and to yourself the dignity of a rich and timeless symbol.”
Her confession had been honest and she was not, in posing that question, trying to evade responsibility or guilt. Yet, within her, there was something which made her hesitate to simply say: “I sinned…I am a sinner.” In that hesitation, she is a child of our age. Today, unless we are speaking of corporate or systematic evil, there is a general hesitancy to use the word sin. It is rare that we hear someone simply and humbly say, beyond any reference to circumstances or excuse: ‘I’ve sinned. There aren’t any excuses…outside of being human.’ We are poorer for not being able to say that.
First of all, we are poorer because our sense of sin is connected with our sense of love. To sin is to betray…in love. To have lost a sense of personal sin is to have lost a sense of being personally and deeply loved. Lovers know that their immaturities, woundedness, and neuroses play a part in their struggles. They also know that, ultimately, there is something called betrayal, sin.
Secondly, more superficially, not to speak of ourselves as sinners is to lower the symbolic hedge under which we live. Bluntly put, psychological symbols – neuroses, immaturity, woundedness – do not link our actions to anything interesting, rich, or timeless. The symbol of sin does. A sin, in the end, can be ever so much more interesting and rich than a neurosis or an immaturity. Daniel Berrigan once, sarcastically, stated that when the obituary for our age is written it will tell future generations that our age died of “nothing more serious than moral acne, hemorrhoids of the spirit.”
I would like to think that our faults have more dignity than that! The symbol of sin links our faults to the weaknesses of all who have ever struggled and with all who will ever struggle. A sense of sin grounds us, humbly, in history. More seriously, however: To admit that we sin gives us the space to be honest and a place within which to receive forgiveness.
When we refuse to admit that we sin we are forced to be dishonest because, in the end, no one can, honestly, stand before God and others and not have to say: “I am weak, I do things I shouldn’t. The good I want to do, I cannot. The evil I want to avoid, I end up doing. I need forgiveness.” Not to say this, is to lie. Not to admit sin forces us to rationalize, to give excuses, to project blame, and to over-emphasize psychological and sociological influences on our behavior.
We see this already in the Adam and Eve story. Confronted by God after their sin, they are unable to simply admit sin. Instead we see the proclivity for rationalization…“The woman you gave me offered me the fruit! The devil tempted me!” Had there been, then, the simple honesty to admit sin, human history might have been different. Instead of crying out for redemption, Adam and Eve burrowed themselves more deeply into their own woundedness. The same is true for us. When we lie and rationalize we refuse to stand in the space within which we can receive forgiveness and we retreat more deeply into what is not best in us.
It is when we can stand before God and others as the publican did and say in the face of our betrayals, “These things are wrong. I shouldn’t be doing this, but I can’t help myself,” that we can receive the forgiveness that washes us clean. Forgiveness doesn’t wash away neuroses or immaturities. It washes away sin. It is when we humbly and simply own our sin that we take our place among God’s broken, the ones Jesus came to save, and are given the chance to start again, new, fresh, loved.
A man I know is fond of expressing his displeasure with his own moral failures by saying: “That was incredibly stupid…but it seemed like a good idea at the time!” That’s a contemporary form of the publican’s prayer. There’s an honesty in that which allows him to accept forgiveness.
Another person I know, a lady who has been coming to me for the sacrament of reconciliation for some time, always begins her confession with the beautiful phrase: “I am a loved sinner.” In that expression, she keeps in correct balance the most important truths of humanity: We are sinners and we are loved in spite of it. To admit sin sets us free to receive love under the only condition it can be truly offered. To acknowledge that we are loved, in spite of sin, sets us free from false guilt and self-hatred.
Martin Luther had, precisely, this in mind when he so wisely said: “Sin bravely!”