Sin has always seemed like such a loaded term to me, reserved for violations of the ten commandments and things I should feel deep shame for. I don’t steal or kill or lie, and so when I think of going to confession or calling myself a “sinner” it feels extreme and even a little silly.
But whenever I went to confession with Father Clay, it felt more like therapy than a punishment – more like, Come, be with Jesus rather than a come-to-Jesus. Over time I’ve come to see sin more broadly, as any time I’ve caused pain or lived incongruently with my purpose and for which I have a responsibility or calling to offer repair.
Generally, if I’m causing pain, it’s to my children when I’m parenting out of my own trauma or as my inner child rather than as my adult self. When I’m living incongruently with my purpose, I’m generally hurting myself. I believe my purpose is to bring as much love and truth to the world as I can. So when I’m not aligned to that, I’m pretending something painful isn’t painful, or I’m ignoring clear signs from the universe about what to do with my career. Or I’m letting my inner nine-year-old choose what I eat (that one is fun, but not congruent with healthful living!)
For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking of sin as something that needs healing. The effects of addiction and mental illness, the way we express our trauma, the way we repeat patterns from our upbringings. And that being forgiven of our sins is about being relieved of the burden of that shame and giving ourselves permission to move forward in a more healthful, loving way. It’s hard work to look at my patterns, see that they may cause pain, and disrupt them. Despite how “innocent” my intentions are or limited my capacity to do better in that moment is, I have a responsibility and a calling to offer repair so I can do a little better next time. And to accept God’s mercy every moment, rather than clinging to my shame and disappointment in myself.
This tension between intent/capacity and impact/pain is particularly acute during the pandemic. We’re stretched so thin, with pressures we never imagined in a dynamic that is nowhere near normal. As I’ve told you, I yell a lot. I sometimes pout when my kids won’t eat the dinner I prepared. I eat my feelings while complaining about their refusal to eat whole wheat bread or apples.
I parent like a nine-year-old all the time, rather than taking care of myself first so that I can parent like an adult. And that is my sin and my shame. My work is to move out of the shame, to accept God’s mercy to heal that shame rather than being defensive. That way I can be humble to the people I love the most and offer repair. So that they know that that’s what they deserve from their most cherished relationships. So that they can love themselves through their hard times and not accept anyone else’s bullshit, including mine. Ever. So that they know that the full sentence isn’t “I’m not perfect.” It’s, “I’m not perfect, but I want to be better, and I’ll try because we both deserve that.”
Yes, I’m doing the best I can, and the consequences of not continuing to ask for help doing better is that these kids will carry our baggage with them into adulthood. So. I have to give myself a break, and I have to do better. Both, at the same time.
I’ve been reading Nadia Bolz-Weber this month – she’s a recovering alcoholic and former evangelical who is now a Lutheran pastor. Her Instagram handle is @SarcasticLutheran, she has a lot of tattoos, she swears a lot, and she’s utterly open about her own shortcomings and work to move past them in a love-filled way. She writes a lot about redemption and resurrection in everyday moments, which has echoes of my constant work of repair within my family.
Father Clay also wrote and spoke so much about sin and trauma and how great these are for teaching us about ourselves and our opportunities to heal and live in a more love-led way.
My Sins Have Been My Greatest Spiritual Teachers
The very presence of God is in every human being. God’s presence is always there helping us. We don’t know it most of the time. It is hard for us to believe it, especially when things get so terrible for us. Even when it is hidden, that presence is in us and that is who we are. It doesn’t feel like that sometimes when life gets terribly difficult and unfair.
Also, we speak of Jesus as “redeemer.” Now, redemption doesn’t mean that we are kept from sin. What it means is that God will use our sins to bring about good. Think about that. That’s what the old phrase “God writes straight with crooked lines” is referring to, and God manages eventually to write straight with the crooked lines that we are.
The great mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich from England, wrote in the Middle English of her day, “Sin is behovely.” Now, if we put that in modern English, we would say, Sin is morally necessary. Think of that. Sin is morally necessary.”
You see, as we grow up, we all have egos that don’t work right. They are either inflated or deflated. What happens when we sin? Our sin can help us to realize, I need mercy. I need mercy. Sometimes we can get too stubborn, and I do too. I am just like you – too stubborn to know I need mercy. But, as you see, when we sin, we do wrong, we hurt ourselves, we hurt other people, and that can be an opportunity for us to start saying, Yes, I do need mercy.
That mercy of God is always present, and as we start to recognize that we need mercy, we allow that mercy to change us. This process is slow and painful. That is why, no matter how we have sinned, we don’t ever have to despair. God will use it. My own experience is that my sins have been my greatest spiritual teachers. Prepare yourself; I am going to use a little bit of profane language: Without my sins, I would be an arrogant son of a bitch. And that’s the truth. My sins have been my grace.
You see, when I am virtuous and good, that just makes me more proud and arrogant. It’s true. It is the way it works. We need sins. Doesn’t that sound strange? Without them, we can never go deep into the scripture and understand what Jesus was about. That is why Lady Julian said, “Sin is behovely.” Sin is morally necessary, because God uses sins to bring about good.
When we say, I am too bad, I sin too much, I am awful, I am irredeemable, kit is because we don’t understand that we are still loved and that this love is working in us, whether we know it or not, to change us so that we may grow from the sin itself. You know, if I were the devil, I would be awfully discouraged by this. Aha, I just got father to sin -good deal! Then God uses it to help me to grow. Isn’t that amazing? Our God is truly amazing. We just don’t know it.
So, God is not up there blaming, punishing and saying, Oh, you don’t do me right, so I am going to get you. When we view God in that way, that must make God so sad. God uses everything – all the tragedies of life, all the things that don’t work right, including our sins. God uses them to help us grow.
Remember, when we are born, the presence of God is there. God is there through our whole life, no matter what our life is like. God’s love is so great that it is able to draw us finally to be perfect lovers, and everything is okay. We don’t reach this goal fully in this life, but when we do reach it by the grace of God, that is the state we call heaven.
You see, heaven is not a place to go for being a good boy or girl. It is the state of perfect love that we are drawn to through our misfortunes, through our sins, through all the things that are screwed up inside of us. That’s the mercy of God that is here right now across the whole world, the whole universe. If we can just be able to say, I need it, that is our part – to say, I need it. The wonderful thing is that the love of God is so great that it helps us to do our part. That’s why we never need to despair.
From the homily, “Love is Always With Us,” published in Awesome Love by Father John Clay, © 2013