SAINTS AND SINNERS
The sins we have committed ourselves are behind our backs, so we don’t see them, but the sins of others are before our eyes.
The sins we condemn most sharply in others are likely to be the very sins we commit most often ourselves. We condemn our own sins in others. It is less upsetting than turning around to condemn them in ourselves.
Even when we have enough clarity to condemn our own sins, we show a preference for condemning our past sins; it is more difficult to condemn the sins we intend to commit.
We are tempted to call our sins by many different names, making believe that they are not sins at all. But in any walk of life names change nothing; “periorbital haematosis” sounds very grand but it only means a black eye.
So we are sinners. That is part of the truth about us. The other part is that we are saints. The seed of sanctity has been sown in us, but it is stifled with weeds. There is much hoeing to do.
Anyone who has tried it will know that hoeing is a skilful job. In unskilled hands a hoe is as great a threat to the good plants as it is to the weeds. My programme of self-improvement could prove to be a greater disaster than the shortcomings it was intended to remedy. Any programme that looks only to the self will make me self-centred: sensitive to myself, indifferent or callous to others.
How then are we to be liberated from sin if our efforts at liberation are so ambiguous and ineffective? The Christian teaching from the beginning is that it is through repentance: a turning away from sin and a “living according to the truth.”
Truth is irreducibly objective. It makes no sense to talk about ‘my’ truth. I may indeed have an insight that no one else has had, but I immediately want to share it with others and even defend it by argument – showing but that fact that I believe it to be true in itself and not simply for me. In one sense we judge what is true and false, but in a deeper sense we are judged by the truth – even by the truths that we alone may have discovered.
To live “according to the truth” is to live with humility. There is a telling line in one of Hemingway’s novels, “The strong ones of the earth are all the same: they face the truth with a bullwhip.” The rest of us may be tempted not to face it at all.
When we face the truth with no ready-made attitude such as the arrogance of the strong or the timidity of the weak, we put ourselves in the way of being liberated from our sin. “The truth,” Jesus said, “will set you free.”
“Do not be afraid. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.” Jesus was speaking of good things and bad alike. Murder will out, we say. So will everything, good and bad alike. This seems frightening, but it is a word of hope. God cares enough about us to draw us out of the shadows. Our sins cannot be glossed over. A ‘nice’ doctor may be tempted to tell you that you are fine, but a good one will take your illness seriously and do what he or she can to help you heal. Most people would prefer a good doctor to a nice one.
To hide our sins is as foolish as to hide a disease. We tend to hide the bad things and reveal the good things. We hide what is ugly in us, and we advertise the attractive things, even when they are only a pretence of goodness.
When we hide something in the heart it grows like a plant in rich soil. But when we throw something out it withers and dies. This is how we nourish badness and throw away the seeds of goodness. If we had the courage to do the opposite we would be set free of our sins. Nourish what is good; give it time to grow; do not display it; it will display itself in a non-ego way eventually if it really is good. But throw out what is bad, confess it, let it be seen. It will die like a weed that has been skilfully hoed out. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
St Augustine in the 5th century said that all sin is a kind of lying. Ultimately only he who is “the way, the truth and the life” can set us free of sin.