As long as a single person is lost, I am lost. To try to save myself by getting free from the mass of the damned (Augustine’s massa damnata), and becoming good by myself, is to be both damned and absurd—as well as antichrist. Christ descended into hell to show that He willed to be lost with the lost, in a certain sense emptied so that they might be filled and saved, in the realization that now their lostness was not theirs but His. Hence the way one begins to make sense out of life is taking upon oneself the lostness of everyone.
– Thomas Merton
I like to reclaim and revitalize words culture has messed up. Take “Christian”, for instance. Back in 2007 a Barna Research Group study revealed nearly 90% of Americans age 16-29 thought Christians were first and foremost “judgmental”. While our actions have certainly earned this title, I do my best to paint a more accurate picture for people: “Christ follower.” Being a Christ follower means the very first thing people should know us by is our love. It seems to me if we boiled Christianity down to a single noun and a solitary verb they’d be “Christ” and “love”.
Ironically, “love” is another word that’s gotten “dirty” so to speak. Based on the life and teachings of Christ, I define love as the giving of oneself for thriving and flourishing. Author and pastor Greg Boyd, and a good number of other people I look up to, similarly define it along the lines of “others oriented self-sacrificial giving of oneself.”
Speaking of Greg Boyd, I listen to his sermons every week as I find them quite helpful for following Christ and loving God, people, and creation. Something he mentions fairly frequently, though, rubs me wrong because of the way I think another word has gotten twisted in our culture (please note, ALL of this blog is just how I make sense of things to lead the most Christ-centered and loving life possible. I could totally be wrong and please feel free to ignore whatever doesn’t lead you to Christ and love). Greg talks about how exceedingly helpful it is for us to adopt Paul’s mentality from 1 Timothy 1.15: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” (New Revised Standard Version) He persuasively argues it’s incredibly valuable for each of us to consider ourselves the worst sinner, because this stops us from judging others and opens us up to receive the absolutely free and extravagant love of Christ.
The reason what Greg says clenches my jaw is because of the word “sinner”. You see, culture has taught me this word means I’m a worm, I suck, I’m worthless, I can’t do good, I’m a failure, I’m unlovable, and so on. “Sinner” has become a statement of value, belonging, and worth, all defining us negatively. It seems to me it’s become a naming that shames us, which to me is anti-Christ because there is NO SHAME in Christ Jesus. I hope we can agree shame is not a good thing. Romans 10.11 declares of Christ followers: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’” Adding to this Psalm 34.4-5 sings to our souls:
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
And delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
So your faces shall never be ashamed.
In Romans 8.1 Paul concludes: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I could go on, but will land this plane by pointing out while Paul frequently and regularly names us “saints”, I don’t read “sinner” as an identity he gives people, so much as a description. It’s not even something he or Jesus uses to describe or attribute to us all that often … but they do, so what does it mean about us? Again, I’ll pause to note I’m figuring out how to best put words to the sense in my soul, I could be wrong or misspeak, and my only goal is to help you by sharing what leads me closer to Christ and to love more.
An axiom I’ve found to be profoundly true is: You become what you think. I mention that because when I identified myself as a sinner, when I thought I sucked, was unlovable, and was born predisposed to doing ill, life wasn’t good and I didn’t care for others very well. I grew into the title I assumed.
That said, once I shifted my thinking to remembering: God is good, God makes beautiful things, I’m in the image of God, I am a child of God, I am beloved, I am loved beyond my comprehension and nothing I do or don’t do will ever change that, I am precious to God, and so on, giving myself for the thriving and flourishing of others became largely natural and easy! When I shifted from finding my identity in what I understood a “sinner” to be, to in Christ the craziest thing happened … I became more and more like Christ!
So, what is a “sinner”? In the original ancient Greek the New Testament was written in, the word was an archery term meaning “one who misses the mark.” In a true sense, “archer” was who the bowmen was, while missing the mark was something all of them sometimes did. It seems to me the same is true of us, we are all named “beloved”, “precious”, and “child” by God, while sinning is something each and every one of us sometimes does. Who of us hasn’t made a mistake, done someone wrong, done ourselves wrong, done the world wrong, made a mess of a relationship, and so on? Humans are fallible, we misstep. The key, I think, is to let our Creator name us, instead of our mistakes (or even triumphs), because our doings are fleeting and finite, while the love of God is everlasting and unending.
How does this apply to ending our blame and shame cycles though? Beats me! 😉 Let me start by saying, when other people do better than me at something, the quick and easy thing for me to do is go into a shame spiral, because “obviously” I suck compared to her or him. Likewise, when there’s trouble in a relationship, or someone does me wrong, the simplest thing is for me to put 100% of the blame on them, which removes me from responsibility and helps me feel better about myself. Shame and blame, their cycles are like the dark side of the Force, they’re easy, really tempting, and dark.
Circling back to how I think culture defines “sinner” as an identity and value statement, it seems to me blame and shame are similar. Blame is when I name someone else less worthy than me, while shame is when I declare I am less valuable than her/him. I think this means to be freed from these cycles, we have to break free from needing to compare and compete with each other to have value and love. As long as we’re trapped in these repetitive cycles, NONE of us thrive and experience the fullness of this glorious life, because we’re forever caught in the cycle of trying to be “bigger”, “better”, and/or more “beautiful” than others. Yet, when I stop finding my identity in my doings, in whether I hit or miss the mark, in how I compare to others, but in the absolutely free love and embrace of Christ (grace), life gets ridiculously rich!
With all of this in mind, I think Greg Boyd is correct in echoing Paul by saying it’s exceedingly helpful for me to see myself as the worst sinner. It seems to me having a humble attitude of viewing myself as missing the mark more than others, while simultaneously remembering that doesn’t define any of us because each and every one of us is declared infinitely loved, immensely valuable, and beautiful child by the Divine … period … full stop … end of story, frees me from the blame and shame cycles. This mentality enables me to love people as they are, love myself as I am, leads me to stop judging and measuring people for their mistakes because I name mine worse, and enables me to learn, grow, and transform from the ways I miss the mark from the solid and stable foundation of God’s wild and extravagant love. The only person’s “stuff” I can own and fix is my own, but only when I start by being safe and secure as I am, NOT defined by my doings, but by God just by being. I hope this helps and would love to hear what you think!
Grace and peace,