How it's helpful to think of yourself as a sinner - Vince Brackett
We had some technical difficulties this week. Sorry for the poor audio quality!
How it’s helpful to think of yourself as a sinner
::So I am a neat and orderly person:: - I mean that literally (like I love organization, and I feel better about a mess if it’s in piles, and, well, take a ::look at my desktop:: on this computer — isn’t that beautiful? I know where everything is organized on my computer, and that just fills me with joy).
::But when I say I am a neat and orderly person:: I also mean that on a much deeper level. Like I need my life and my emotions to be orderly and neat.
I take a careful and meticulous approach to everything in my life —
- emotional health? I have therapy and my men’s group and these three friends and my wife who always know what’s going on with me…
- physical health? I play b-ball once a week and walk instead of drive when I can…
- financial health? I have an app for that and I know where every dollar we spend goes…
- work life balance? I follow strict rules and use all sorts of hacks and tricks and apps to maximize my productivity and creativity when I’m working and to maximize my presence with family/friends when I’m not working.
All of this is part of what makes me me, and I honestly like this about me.
But here’s a problem: ::sometimes life presents messes that can’t be corralled and ordered and made neat.::
I don’t do well with future unknowns. I want data and analysis to feel safe about the future. I don’t do well when too many things are coming at me at once, and I don’t have time to do the sorting and organization that makes me feel in control. I get flustered and annoyed and short with people.
And here’s the worst part that I feel some shame about admitting: I don’t always do well with the inevitable messes of other people’s lives. Because orderliness and neatness is so tied to my sense of self, to me feeling like I’m living my life the way I ought to, my reaction to other people’s messes can, I’ve learned the hard way, can actually come across condescending.
I remember one time in particular a friend telling me they experienced me this way.
Ugh, I hated that. I got angry hearing it. I wanted to defend myself. I felt resentful because I was just trying to help by passing on things I’ve learned that help me keep the messes of my life in order, and if someone can’t see that then what am I supposed to do?
Later that day, I remember I couldn’t shake my anger at hearing that I came off condescending, so I went for a walk. And on my walk, creeping in to replace the anger I started to feel some shame. Like: what if they’re right? And I could feel myself oscillating back and forth: anger — shame — anger — shame. It sucked.
And then a surprising thing happened.
I felt like God joined me on my walk, and I started to feel compassion for myself. Of all things, I felt like my childhood sort of flashed before my eyes, and everything kind of came together in my head:
I thought of how, as a child, I didn’t always get the attention I longed for.
My older brother struggled with drug and alcohol addiction beginning in his teenage years, when I was about 9 or 10, and his volatility and violence started to absorb all of the attention my mom and dad had to give me and my three siblings.
And then my mom, the person in my life who had given me the most attention for my first 10 years, was diagnosed with cancer when I was 13, and died two years later.
With my childhood ruled by the chaos of my older brother and by scarcity in attention to go around (especially after my mom died and there was only one parent now), the strategy I resorted to was: trying to be neat and tidy and orderly in all things. I’ll be the anti-my-brother. I’ll be perfect. I’ll be the “good” son. And that contrast will get me the attention I’m longing for.
But, of course, it never did. And it makes sense that it didn’t. In trying to be the opposite of my brother, I took up as little space as possible. My actions screamed “low-maintenance,“ “his needs aren’t that serious,” “he’s good and doesn’t require attention,” and that, right there, is the source of all my resentment. Because I did want attention. I wanted my needs to matter to my parents as much as my brother’s, or I wanted at least to be acknowledged for all I was doing to help the family by being low-maintenance.
And so on my walk that day, feeling like God was walking with me, I felt compassion for that kid inside me who has this love-hate relationship with being orderly and neat. And who, as a result, is just a ball of mixed-motives.
In this situation where I was told I came off condescending, was I well intentioned? Yes. But was I also superior and moralizing also? Yes. Did I want to help this person with their mess? Yes. But, Did I, just as I have done since I was a little boy also want to point out my lack of mess to try to receive some attention and praise? Yes.
::A prayer from the Bible:: came to my mind and it just started playing on loop in my brain.
All flesh is like grass And all its glory like the flower of grass The grass withers, And the flower falls, But the word of the Lord endures forever. (1 Peter 1; quoting Isaiah 40)
To be human is to be mixed-motives. Because all humanity, all flesh, is like grass, is like a flower — our glory, our best, our goodness: it blooms for a season, and then withers and falls — it is not unchanging, it does not last forever, it comes at times, but it is always passing and fading.
But this is nothing to be buried by, or to run from, or to fear reprisal over. Because the word of the Lord endures forever. I am not left merely to my own mixed-motive devices. And no one else is either. We have the help of a God of love and goodness and healing.
And so in that moment while I was walking and praying both the shame and the anger and drive to defend myself just lifted. My body unclenched, my emotions relaxed, my soul felt brought back to peace. And, beyond just the impact on that day, this experience has formed me in a lasting way as one who can more readily accept and love myself, mixed-motives and all.
A helpful take on sin
::So the religious phrase for an experience like this is: “I’m a sinner”.::
I wonder if our title for today “How it’s helpful to think of yourself as a sinner” feels intriguing to some of us, because we’re no doubt all familiar with unhelpful takes on sin:
- We’re a sinner because we’ve not sincerely prayed some prayer some religious person says we have to pray in order to go to heaven
- We’re a sinner because we fail to meet a checklist for good or moral behavior
- We’re a sinner because we have desires and thoughts that we shouldn’t share in polite company, and God burns in judgment toward those desires and thoughts of ours, so we better suppress them at all costs.
But my “I’m a sinner” experiences, like this one I had on that walk as one example, have never hit me in any of these ways at all.
And, despite the fact that so many people I know have had passages from the Bible used in communicating these unhelpful messages about sin, I have found that the witness of the Biblical writers themselves seems to line up more with what I’ve experienced.
Maybe the most vivid picture of this in the whole Bible is St. Paul, the writer of the letters that make up much of the Bible’s New Testament. ::This is from his letter to his friend Timothy:::
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
How would you describe the tone and emotion behind Paul’s words describing his “I’m a sinner” experience?
This isn’t debilitating shame from having not met a checklist for good behavior.
This isn’t fear of reprisal from a punitive God.
He doesn’t sound like he’s being cruel to himself.
He just sounds like he is honest with himself. There’s a sense of freedom and hope you can feel in his words.
Jesus brings us to “I am a sinner” in a way that leaves us feeling healing and gratitude and a compassion toward ourselves.
And that is just remarkably helpful — it is peace-bringing to our internal lives, and it can birth in people incredible action and commitment (as in the case of Paul).
From “big idea” to “living it out”
::So, I want to bring this down:: from the “big ideas” level to a “living this out” level. Are there models or actions steps that can help with this?
There are actually. I mean, no model is perfect or works every time, but models can be helpful, because life is confusing and demanding, and some structure can sort of put the cookies on the bottom shelf, right?
To me, ::two models I’ve encountered:: stand head and shoulders above the rest in the way they’ve invited me into the helpfulness of thinking of myself as a sinner:
- AA (12-Step Programs)
- The Enneagram
In my opinion, most models coming out of the religious world that try to get people to consider their sinfulness and then try to grow are, unfortunately, not helpful. They are often entirely focused on will-power, but they call will-power “faith” and so people end up feeling horrible about themselves because they believe they have such little “faith”.
But these two models are different. They are like works of art to me. They brilliantly balance structure with heart and an understanding of how imperfect and non-linear human life actually is.
I myself, and so many people I know, have, through these models, connected powerfully with God, and experienced positive and lasting life change as a result.
::I spoke on 12-Step Programs last year.::
At their heart 12-Step Programs are about finding the power in admitting that you need help in life that you can’t give yourself. The first two steps are: “we admitted to ourselves our lives had become unmanageable and we needed a power higher than ourselves to restore us to sanity.”
Of course the most well-known and critically important usages of this are for overcoming alcohol and substance abuse, but it goes well beyond that as well: approaching life in a 12-Step way has prompted me to admit that I am addicted to being right, and that I am powerless to manage the resentment that breeds in me, and I regularly need a higher power to restore myself to sanity.
If you are interested in hearing more, you can listen to the “12 Step Lifestyle” talk on our podcast from last year, March 2018. It’s one of my favorite talks I’ve ever gotten to write.
The second model I’d highly recommend leaning into is ::the Enneagram::, which identifies each person with one of nine types.
Many people have heard the Enneagram discussed in the same category as personality type indicators like the Meyers-Briggs inventory or the DISC test or things like that, ~but the power in the Enneagram is not in typing or categorizing other people, it’s when it’s used as a personal growth tool~
The Enneagram’s key insight on personal growth is: Your greatest strength and greatest weakness are two sides of the same coin. Your gift and your sin are the same thing.
So for example, the Enneagram has taught me that I am a perfectionist. My strength is that I am neat and orderly and meticulous and I can see all the gaps, and I can hold together big ideas with minute details and keep everything consistent, and I am a good teacher, and I can be an inspiring reformer.
But the insidious thing about these qualities in me is that it’s easy for me to feel like I’m always talking about being “right” or being “good” or doing life “right”, and so sometimes I’m a pharisee: I condescend others for their inconsistencies and messes, and I enforce meritocracies, and I don’t lift a finger to help, because I secretly want people to “get what they deserve” ~so I can get what I think I deserve~. That’s the sin side of my coin. Again, I am addicted to being right. I can be a brilliant teacher and reformer, but I can also be a cruel and exacting pharisee.
This two sides of the same coin insight is how the Enneagram proves so helpful for personal growth. It requires us to grow in compassion for ourselves. We don’t throw off or avoid the ugly parts of our realities, because they are linked to the beautiful parts, so we must learn to incorporate those parts into our understanding of ourselves. We must learn to love our sinfulness.
For me, growing in compassion for myself means learning to laugh at myself and make friends with my imperfections, so I can find God in all of life and not feel so self-serious all the time and not treat others in such an exacting way all the time.
And for each of the nine types that the Enneagram outlines there is a story like this of growing in compassion for yourself and that fueling personal growth.
::If this sparks some interest for you,::
- For personal study, there are lots of good books on the Enneagram but my favorite is “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” by Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert.
- And, if you’d appreciate a group experience, I run Enneagram groups here throughout the year, and I’d love to have you a part of the next one. (We’ve done some online, so that makes it easy to attend!) You can indicate your interest later in the service.
::Ok, to pray for us this morning,:: I wonder if I can take us to this idea from the Enneagram that our greatest gift and our sin are two sides of the same coin — that, in that way, to identify as “a sinner” can be something that, like St. Paul, makes us feel gratitude and healing and compassion toward ourselves.
That “I am a sinner” can be a self-identification that isn’t about shame or repression of our feelings or self-doubt, but rather is about new levels of inner maturity, that can inspire incredible action and commitment. Paul’s experience of this birthed an incredible message in him that he carried with him and made the focus of the rest of his life. (I was once violent, but now I am about the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.)
And my experience as I try to continue down my own journey in this way has felt that way. The more I have embraced “I am a sinner” the more I have felt a message birthed in me that inspires me into action and commitment in my life — it’s not a message that is flattering to my ego. It is about coming to the end of myself, embracing my mixed-motives. But, unsurprisingly, my experience is that helping lead a church and being people’s pastor and counselor from the “I am a sinner” approach is so much more connecting and helpful to people than when I’m unthinkingly operating out of my ego and my need to be right, and I’m condescending and moralizing people. Of course it is!
And this is not just true for a pastor like me. I think sacrificing our egos and embracing “I am a sinner” is the way to birthing a message in any of us that inspires us into action and commitment in our lives — that brings us more connection, more meaning, more of what we hope for out of our work and our relationships and our whole lives.
Dying to our egos is hard but it is so worth it!
I would love to pray for us along those lines… stand with me…