A willingness to “own our crap”

July 7, 2011

I’ve been thinking, writing, and preaching a lot recently about sin, wrath, and our need for forgiveness. In part it’s because I’m doing this sermon series on the Letter to the Romans, and, let’s face it, Paul spills a lot of ink on these subjects. Acknowledgement of our sin is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without understanding the enormity of our sin problem—and the ways in which sin damages us, our relationship with others, and our relationship with God—the gospel is incomprehensible and irrelevant. If we acknowledge our problem with sin, then we see that we need to be forgiven—and, with God’s help, change.

My focus on sin is also, I suspect, personal: I am increasingly mindful of my own sin. When I say this, I’m not beating myself up about it (although I have at various times in the past); I’m not suffering from a temporary bout of low self-esteem (it’s actually pretty good at the moment); I’m not depressed about it. In fact, I actually feel better, spiritually speaking, with this increased awareness of my sin. The last thing I want is for someone to say, “Aw, Brent, you’re not so bad!” Because I really am. I am, in fact, a terrible sinner. I’m not too proud to say it. I happily pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

I think I’m experiencing something that John Wesley describes in a sermon entitled “The Repentance of Believers.” In it, Wesley talks about the kind of repentance that believers normally do through the process of sanctification (the grace by which the Holy Spirit changes us inwardly after we experience justification and new birth in Christ). Repentance as Wesley describes it is almost a new kind of self-awareness: even as we consciously sin less often (we hope!), we become more conscious of the sin that remains in our lives. And we trust the Spirit to change us.

Something like that… My point is that this new recognition of our sin, and our need for forgiveness, is something that happens down the road of the Christian life—after we place our faith in Jesus. As we grow in grace, we appreciate more and more how amazing God’s gift of forgiveness is. As Wright says in his commentary on Romans 4:23-25: “Forgiveness remains one of the most astonishing gifts, and the church should be the place where people are regularly astonished by it.”1

It’s one thing for churchgoers to be “regularly astonished” by this gift—as I often have been recently. But what about outsiders—people in our world who increasingly have little or no contact with the church, the Bible, and the gospel? How do they experience a sense of their own sin and the need for forgiveness? Do they experience these things?

There’s an otherwise good love song by English rocker Graham Parker called “And It Shook Me” in which he sings, “Some believe in a heaven up above/ With a God that forgives all with his great love/ Well, I forgive you if you forgive me, hey!/ Who needs the third party anyway?”

Do people outside the church only experience their sin and the need for forgiveness in interpersonal relationships but not from this “third party,” God? I highly doubt it.

I was struck by a conversation that Donald Miller recounts in Blue Like Jazz with an atheist friend named Laura, who is in tears as she tells him, “I feel like my life is a mess. I can’t explain it. It’s just a mess… Don, I want to confess. I have done terrible things. Can I confess to you?”

A few moments later, Miller tells her, “I think that God is wanting a relationship with you and that starts by confessing directly to Him. He is offering forgiveness.” She tells him, “You are not making this easy, Don. I don’t exactly believe I need a God to forgive me of anything” [emphasis mine].

“I know,” he says. “But that is what I believe is happening. Perhaps you can see it as an act of social justice. The entire world is falling apart because nobody will admit they are wrong. But by asking God to forgive you, you are willing to own your own crap.”2

I like that! Even though Laura didn’t believe in God, she still felt, at the same time, a desperate need to confess “the terrible things” she had done. She certainly didn’t need Miller telling her, “Hey, it’s O.K. You’re not so bad.” This is, at best, the only answer that a world with an empty heaven can offer: You’re not so bad. You could be worse. You haven’t murdered anyone, after all. I don’t think these answers heal what’s broken within people like Laura—and the rest of us.

We all probably know people who’ve gone off the deep end about some political cause. (Politics and sports are Americans’ favorite surrogates for Christianity.) We don’t like being around them because they sit so tall in the saddle of their high-horse. It’s all they want to talk about. We want to say, “Lighten up, already!”

Here’s the thing: Whether the person in question is a Greenpeace granola-head or an Ayn Rand-worshiping libertarian blowhard, they share something in common: a recognition, manifested in radically different ways, that the world is deeply wrong. And it needs to be fixed, and soon, or something catastrophic will happen.

This sense that the world is wrong and needs to change is a step in the right direction. This is why Miller was wise to have Laura think of her need for God’s forgiveness in social justice terms. Surely everyone can agree that something is deeply wrong with the world. Sooner or later, we hope—lest they become self-righteous Pharisees—they’ll see the large and small ways in which they contribute to the problem.

My contribution to the problem—whatever that problem may be—is my sin. And my sin requires God’s forgiveness.

Footnotes:

1. N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 506.

2. Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 52-53.
 

2 Responses to “A willingness to “own our crap””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I also acknowledge myself as a sinner, in need of God’s grace. I think, though, that a substantial chunk of atheists (and, in fact, even some who call themselves Christians) believe they are “good enough.” This is especially disturbing on the part of those latter; why do they think Jesus had to die, anyway? And can we have the Holy Spirit resident within us without realizing what pots of clay we are? Anyway, really good post.

  2. Jane Rogers Says:

    Good job, Brent! Did Wesley nail it or what! “And how hard is it even for the children of God wholly to conquer the pride of life!” We, who have been Christians a long time, are perhaps even more guilty of sin than the ignorant atheist! I feel like the more I know,(about what sin is), the more I realize I don’t know (what sin is). A large part of sin for me and for those like Laura is the attitude, “It’s not my problem; it’s those other people out there! I’m not that bad!”


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