We become what we think about.
– Earl Nightingale
Recently a friend of mine was having a REALLY hard day and tearfully shared with me: “What is WRONG with ME?” The story isn’t mine to tell, so I’ll just say my confidant was heartbroken and disoriented. As we talked for a while my heart was both deeply grieved AND my spirit was lightened. The grief came from hearing stories of both others and self-shaming. My lightness, meanwhile, stemmed from seeing and listening to my friend’s courage and underlying trust in God, the nature of the world, and the goodness of people (INCLUDING said friend).
As a Christian this leads me to what I’m beginning to think is a problem … one that comes from Christianity. One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Romans 3.23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We take that, and a handful of verses like it, to mean EVERY human is a “sinner” … but are we? REALLY? And, if so, what does that mean? Does it mean we’re BORN BAD?
NOW, my goal in this blog, as always, is to write some life-giving goodness to BOTH Christians and non-Christians, which can be tricky sometimes. I imagine I may already have triggered or confused some of you, so let me ask you to bear with me as I think this applies to us all and we’re going somewhere good.
To reassure my Christian sisters and brother let me start by saying I do think we all sin (I’ll get to what it means). I also believe and trust Jesus the Christ is Lord and Savior, I just don’t think we need saving from either God or ourselves. The Christ didn’t save us from a punishing or angry God, but from our striving and grasping for the fruits of success, worth, identity, achieving, and being in control (i.e. playing “God”). From believing the lie we have to DO things to be worthy, to belong, and to be loved. I think salvation is more FROM forces more powerful than us, than FOR our wrongdoings, meaning we are rescued from Sin and Death vice for our sins and deaths. Jesus saves and frees us from slavery to the insecurities, fears, angers, and anxieties fed us by culture. Third, and leading into the “sinner” topic, we believe God is the Source of all life; so let me ask does a good God make mistakes and create broken creatures needing the “Manufacturer” to repair us?
Now, in the Bible we can find verses to back up most any view. Do you want to own slaves? There are passages to support you. Do you know someone who wants to rape women? There are sentences to back them up. Anyone want to kill babies out there? There is more than one part of the Bible favoring that. I can go on. My point here is, aside from pointing us to Christ, I think the primary purpose of the Bible is to give us themes and trajectories regarding the character and nature of God, as well as pointing us in the direction of how to live and be in the world. In other words, as I read it the Bible reveals a Divine Creator who is Love, a universe that’s friendly, a reality that’s good, and humans who are beloved sons and daughters of a Creator who is wildly FOR us, WITH us, and IN LOVE with us.
This brings me to the “sinner problem” and how it negatively affects pretty much everyone in the West, ESPECIALLY the U.S. It seems to me our society tells us we are inherently lacking, insufficient, unworthy, inferior, and unloved … meaning we’re “born bad”, we’re “sinners”. Isn’t this what consumerism and our advertisements are based on? They all essentially say: You NEED our product to be worthy, to belong, and/or be loved. Do you know what I mean? Our politics plays the same game by saying we’re only “in” when we’re part of the right party. Our culture is divided along racial, religious, gender, and national lines, naming some as in and others as out. My theory here is culture names us all “sinners”, which leads to division, insecurity, fear, and violence.
What I’m getting at is what DEFINES us? I totally get we ALL mess things up, we all do each other and the world wrong sometimes. We each can and sometimes do choose harm, EVERY one of us has “sinned”, which really and truly simply means, “to miss the mark”, and don’t we all miss the mark sometimes? We fall down, scratch our knees, get up, and heal. We make mistakes, learn from them, and grow. Missing the mark is part of what it means to be human. With that in mind, it seems to me EVERY one of us has sin, and for me it’s been vital to OWN and confront my shortfalls. The KEY, I think though, is what’s our True nature? What’s our essence? THAT’S what I’m talking about in this blog.
The issue I have with the term “sinner” is it’s a definition. It’s a value statement. It’s a worth declaration. To NAME yourself or others a sinner or bad or anything else along those lines is to DECLARE you’re inherently unworthy, don’t belong, and are unloved. Do we all have the potential to choose badly? Yes. Do we each make mistakes? Yes! Does that define and name us? NO! Two of the primary images of God in the Bible are Parent and Bridegroom, while we are children and brides. Jesus repeatedly says things like: If your human parents do good things for you, how much BETTER and MORE from your Heavenly Parent?
This brings me to attachment and the core human needs of worth, belonging, and love. Parents and spouses are generally the most important and vital attachment figures in our lives. They are the people we need to name us worthy, belonging, and loved. When they communicate otherwise it is deeply damaging to our identities and beings. My point here is currently the term “sinner” tells people they are unworthy, don’t belong, and are unloved as they are. This is not only destructive, it’s NOT how God sees us OR how we’re to view one another. God’s single and unwavering disposition toward every person is LOVE. The one and only judgment of worth and name we can give a person is BELOVED.
I make those declarations based on experience, the wisdom of others, Scripture, and above all Jesus. To touch briefly on Scripture and Jesus I’ll note there are places where the Christ generically refers to coming not for the “righteous” but the “sinners”, but I actually think He was getting at what I am. In context, I read Jesus as saying the people who were full of themselves and thought they won points with God by DOING things “right” (the righteous) had it wrong, while the people who were hurting, beaten down, and humble (the sinners) were nearer God. Jesus’ point is one I repeat often: NO doing is required to be worthy, to belong, and be loved, you simply ARE by being alive.
The Christ showed this by eating with EVERY sort of person, which culturally was a declaration of worth, value, and belonging. Likewise, while St. Paul wrote half the New Testament and is where we get our theology of sinners from, I’d say that’s an easy to make misreading of what he’s trying to say. By saying ALL sin, Paul levels the playing field for ALL PEOPLE, so he can declare that through the Christ EVERYONE is IN when it comes to the Reign of Love (aka Kingdom of God), no doing required (aka NOT by our efforts, but via the love of God). The only question is will we trust this? Will we rest in it?
While SO much could be said on this, I’ll make two last quick notes. The 13 letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament are letters to actual and specific people. I say that because he regularly NAMES them. Near as I can tell, he NEVER names them “sinners”, instead he regularly calls them saints, favored, loved, children of God, and other positive/favorable terms (note, also does NOT pull punches when it comes to calling people out on there junk, but he begins by naming them positively). Along these lines, I find a famous story about Jesus also very helpful. One day the religious leaders catch a woman in adultery and take her before the Christ. Since their law says adulterers must be stoned and they know Jesus is merciful and lenient, they try to trap Him by asking the Christ what they should do. Jesus says, “Let he who is has not sinned cast the first stone.” One by one they all leave. Jesus turns to the woman and says: “Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one sir.” And Jesus tells her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8) It seems to me the Christ is affirming and empowering her by removing shame/stigma AND letting her know goodness is her True self, she can make the choice to do well.
I bring all this up because I think “sinner” is a shaming term and shame is a KILLER. It will suck your soul. Jesus, though, doesn’t shame us, but leads us to life. There is NO SHAME in Christ; instead, there is an overabundance of LOVE. (Romans 8)
I share and am passionate about all this because I’ve come to realize guilt, anger, shame, and/or ignoring do NOT lead to long term or lasting growth and change. I think it’s safe to say we all want to become kinder, more peaceful, more joyful, and more loving people. The path to transformation, the road to personal growth is love. Starting from the foundation of trusting we are worthy, belong, and loved exactly as we are, no doing required is absolutely essential to our health, wholeness, happiness, and growth. Love is the fertile soil from which beautiful things grow.
I teach yoga and love arm balances. I would NOT be able to do the pose below (Eka Pada Koundinyasana II), though, if I thought I sucked or believed I was weak. It’s only when I trust in my “goodness” that I’m able to attempt and get into poses like this. I’ve been working on handstands for YEARS and am okay at them. Really and truly on the days when my self-talk is positive, they go GREAT. YET, on the days when my inner monologue is negative, NOT so much. Negativity and expecting the worse of others and ourselves (naming ourselves as “sinners”) leads to MORE of how we define ourselves, NOT less. Conversely, positivity and believing the best of others and ourselves leads to more and more goodness.
I think Earl Nightingale was onto something when he said: “We become what we think about.” I’m lucky enough to be able to get together with amazing people all the time. A good number of them are Christians, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ll get into some conversation on sin, worth, identity, and the like. Time and again he/she will grow sad, look down, sigh, and essentially say: “I’m just a sinner and keep messing things up, so thank God for Jesus’ grace.” I used to also identify myself as a sinner, and I basically sucked at being a human for that period of time. I’m not saying I was evil or anything, but I was selfish and FAR, FAR less loving than God made me to be.
Four years ago I got a tattoo to remind me who I truly am: “BELOVED”. I believe the identity of each of us is BELOVED … NO doing required, we simply are. Resting in and growing from this Truth quite literally changes everything. Try it out!
Grace and peace,