Admit you are a sinner.
Believe that Jesus died for your sins.
Confess Jesus as Lord.
These are the “steps of salvation.” They are the “ABC’s” of becoming a Christian and finding forgiveness for sin in Jesus.
Those of us who grew up as Christians know this acronym, or something like it, very well. We’ve heard it a lot. Vacation Bible School. Little pamphlets (“tracts”) passed out at the most random of places. An altar call at camp.
As a seminary student I of course am behooved to point out how “simplistic,” and “pedestrian” such a jingle is. I must take great pain to affirm that it is “cheesy,” and “corny.” Far be it from me to let you think that my sophisticated, Greek-translating, Barth-reading self could ever approve of something so watered down. I mean, after all, such little formulae fail to mention the Trinity or the resurrection and leave way too much room for Neo-Platonism (a technical term all of us seminarians know *wink*wink).
It cuts the legs right out from under me.
You see– I keep finding, to my chagrin, that even after 20+ years of Christian faith, including an almost-complete seminary education, I can still barely get past step 1.
I’m still getting stuck on the whole ‘admitting that I’m a sinner,’ part.
I will do anything possible to avoid admitting weakness. Weakness scares me.
I’m good at feigning humility and playing the game of penitence, of course. We all are.
But I’m really much more self-righteous than that.
Though, I think I’m discovering that my self-righteousness is more than a heightened sense of self. I certainly have a heightened sense of self, but it comes secondarily. It is a defense mechanism.
I cannot admit imperfection, weakness, failure, or sin because I still cannot believe that I can be loved while being imperfect.
If I’m not perfect, I can’t be lovable. I’m not worth anything. I’m a waste of space and resources. I offer nothing.
And so, I can’t let anyone (myself included) see my imperfections. I even think I can hide them from God. Oh sure, I ask for forgiveness. I rattle off a list of things I’ve done wrong and say I’m sorry when I pray. I can play the self-deprecation game as well as anyone. But dare I actually let myself feel lowly? Weak? Broken? Undone?
I hide behind grades, between big words that show off how educated I am, behind blog posts that shoot down all the ideas that are worse than my brilliant ones, underneath workaholism that shows everyone how disciplined and accomplished and responsible I am.
I’m not just trying to prove these things to others. I’m trying to prove it to myself first of all. I’m trying to show myself I’m ‘good’ by getting a diploma, a GPA, or a logbook of work-hours. These things give me something tangible to hold on to that proves that I’m not the nothing that deep down I’m afraid I am.
Oh, and moral superiority. That’s the most nefarious. I’ll readily admit some of my faults to you, especially in really vague language: “Oh, uh… pride. lust. You know. Just normal sins and stuff.” But deep down I’m pretty sure I’m better than everyone else. I pride myself on not showing judgment when others confess their sins to me, but really I enjoy their sins immensely. It helps me remind myself why I’m ‘better’ than them. And it gets into my prayers. No, I’ll never say “Lord, I’m glad that I’m better than them.” I’m smarter than that. We all are. We usually hide behind thanking God that we’ve never had to live with the consequences or the shame of others. “I’m so thankful that I’m not in rehab.” “I’m so thankful I’m not a ‘welfare queen.'” “I’m so thankful that I’m not divorced.” “I’m so thankful I’ve never done something to put me in jail.” “I’m so thankful I’m not a teen mom.” “I’m so thankful I don’t struggle with same-sex attraction.” “I’m so thankful that I don’t work at McDonald’s and that I’m more responsible than that.” “I’m so thankful I’ve never failed a test.”
But sooner our later our imperfections and our fears and our failures and our shame will catch up to us.
We might fail at something. Our dreams might fail to come true. We might get ill. We might wake up and find ourselves doing something we never thought we would do.
And suddenly the rooster crows and we realize that we’re not all that we thought we were. We’re no better than Judas.
And then, even in a very contemporary moment we are somehow transported to the Garden. We stand naked and ashamed, no longer able to hide.
“But I thought I was better than this.”
But I’m straight-A student. Okay, okay, mostly A’s. But I can parse Hebrew verbs at least at a B+ level.
But I’m a good kid. A Christian kid. I was homeschooled for goodness’ sake. I voted Republican.
I’m almost a pastor.
I’m not supposed to be imperfect. Broken. Ashamed. That’s for other people. Other people who haven’t tried as hard as I have, people who haven’t read as many books as I have, who haven’t gone on as many spiritual retreats as I have.
Deep down in our souls we still cannot imagine that we could ever be loved, or worth anything, while imperfect. So we run to self-righteousness. We run to judge others (even if in the most subtle of ways). We run away from grace because although we’ll never say it, so many of our actions scream: “no grace could ever be sufficient for me.”
Yet, “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
I’m just as shameful and broken as anyone else. Anyone. Really, anyone.
“…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace”
Not moral perfection, not by being-not-one-of-‘those,’ not an Ivy League degree.
“…you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
In that love and grace and in the safe hands of the potter who makes me His handiwork I can say,
“Have mercy on me, a sinner”
…because I know that I am loved, I am accepted, I am given good work to do even as my broken and ashamed and imperfect, messy, self. That is so hard for me to accept. I would much rather scrap together the pieces of a ‘together’ life to prove to myself and to others that I’m ‘okay,’ that I’m not the scared, hurt, brokenhearted, ashamed little boy I am inside. My own masks are easier to wear than the nakedness of confession.
But in meekness is God’s power made evident. There is grace sufficient, yea even for me.
I’m guessing this will take until eternity. For as many years as I am on this earth, no matter how many degrees I earn or how many sermons I preach or how many people around me come to faith, I will still be struggle with the most rudimentary of lessons: Step 1, Lesson 1, Letter A.
(Image credit: Olivepress on Flickr).