Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Lenten Meditation

The other day I was cleaning up my office and found—in a stack of papers—the 2010 Ash Wednesday bulletin from my church. Since Ash Wednesday was only days away, I decided that instead of tossing it (which is what I’d typically do with a year-old church bulletin), I’d leave it on my desk to look through on Ash Wednesday.

And so there it was this morning. I sat down and read through it as a kind of morning devotion: Psalm 51, the extended responsive confession, the prayers. And I found myself pausing over certain key phrases, phrases that jarred me because of a conversation I’d had earlier in the morning, when someone I love had been beating themselves up about their personal failings.

I won’t repeat exactly what I said in response, but it involved the importance of recognizing one’s positive qualities and not exaggerating the negatives. It was a short exchange, but I kept thinking about it on the way to work. I was thinking about the difference between acknowledging honestly when you’ve done something wrong and making the commitment to do better, on the one hand, and defining yourself in terms of your failings, on the other. You can look at your bad choices and say, “I shouldn’t have done that; I’m better than that,” and then commit to doing better in the future. Or you can look at your bad choices and say, “That’s who I am. I’m a miserable failure of a human being.” The former gives you a good name to live up to, inspiring you to reach for the resources that will help you to grow into your best self. The latter imposes a kind of roadblock: You define yourself in terms of your worst moments: it’s who you are. And if it’s who you are, then you don’t have the resources to do better.

These were the thoughts going through my head as I read through last year’s Ash Wednesday bulletin. And my attention was caught by verse 5 of Psalm 51: “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” I read and reread the extended prayer of responsive confession, a litany of our offenses “in thought, word, and deed,” our failures to love God and neighbor. And more: “…our self-indulgent appetites…our neglect of human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty…our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us…our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us…”

And I imagined those words becoming a kind of self-flagellation, a litany of verbal self-abuse.

It occurred to me that for many people, that is exactly what these words mean, and that is exactly what the season of Lent is about: beating yourself up for being such a miserable sinner. I recall all the times I’ve witnessed Christians repeat the words, “I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.” Sometimes it is just rote words, repeated without meaning. But sometimes it is something more terrible. They are lashing themselves with the words, as if being in bondage to sin were the same thing as being nothing but a sinner—as if the cage were the only thing, as opposed to being what was keeping the dove from taking wing.

But in Psalm 51 the confession of wickedness is preceded by an assurance of God’s compassion and mercy; and the fifth verse, which seems to define the sinner in terms of their sin, is immediately followed, in verse 6, by the following: “Indeed, you delight in truth deep within me, and would have me know wisdom deep within.”

And then the psalm moves forward into the beautiful words so often repeated (sometimes sung) in Christian liturgies:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
  and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
  and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
The Psalm is about cleansing. And for something to be cleansed, there must be more to it than the dirt which is washed away. While Christians insist that we cannot cleanse ourselves, that we need the grace of God, this does not mean that there is nothing beneath the dirt. The words of Psalm 51 insist that sin and wickedness do not have a definitive hold on us. In its own way, at least for me, the psalm evokes the Genesis assurance that deep within we bear the “image of God,” and that despite our failings this is what we most essentially are. In our innermost being there is something precious, something that touches upon the divine—something into which divine truth and wisdom can flow, to cleanse us from the inside out.

The purpose of confession, of recognizing the scope of our failings, is not to justify self-loathing but to inspire the self-transcendence that comes when we open ourselves to that essential connection linking us to the divine. The narrow self that does not love enough, that neglects human suffering, that is indifferent to injustices, that wastes and pollutes the world—this self exists only to the extent that we cling to our sins, only to the extent that we say to ourselves, “This is my essence.” When we do that, how can we perceive cleansing as anything other than self-destruction? By conceiving ourselves too narrowly, by telling a story about ourselves that makes no room for the image of God, Lenten confession is reduced to beating oneself up. And so we are forced to choose between denying our sins (hiding behind self-righteous justifications) and hating who we are.

But Lent isn’t about letting go of false self-righteousness in order to hate ourselves more perfectly. It’s about reaching for a third alternative. When the psalmist says, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a troubled and broken heart, O God, you will not despise,” there is an assurance here: Honestly facing our failings does not require that we hate ourselves. Why should we despise what God does not despise? It is possible to fully confront our most heart-breaking offenses in all their troubling reality, because they are not the end of the story.

If these offenses defined us, then being heart-broken about them wouldn’t be possible at all. It is because we are more than our sins, even our direst sins, that we can weep over them. To let our grief over offenses rise to the level of self-hatred is therefore to reach the wrong conclusion. That we can grieve over what we have done means that we are more than that, that we are greater than that. That we can grieve over our offenses means that self-hatred is misplaced, because there is in us that which rises above our worst acts.

In grieving over our offenses, we give voice to that within us which is of God. But in hating ourselves for our offenses, we blind ourselves to that within us which is of God. Lent is about the former, not about the latter. And because it is about the former, it does not end with grief and confession. It only begins there. Lent is a journey of self-transformation whose starting point is honesty over how we have fallen short. But we must say, “I am better than this.” And for Christians this acknowledgment is deeply rooted in our understanding of ourselves as beloved children of God.

Even if our sin is intolerable to God, we are not. If our sin is intolerable to God, it is because we are better than that. Divine forgiveness is nothing more and nothing less than God’s unblinking attention to that which is greater than our sin—greater precisely because it was born in an outpouring of divine love.

Lenten repentance, if it is to reflect this spirit of grace--if it is to be the window to divine grace that it is supposed to be--must be a recognition that we are better than our sin, and that this is what makes our sin so heartbreaking. And to perceive our sin in that way--to see it as God sees it--is to forgive ourselves as God forgives us.


  1. thank you for putting into such clear words Eric. I hope the one you love has seen this and is feeling better/

  2. Eric,

    That “we cannot cleanse ourselves of sin by our own will alone and that we need God’s grace for that”, is I think a truism, and that therefore those who see some special relevance in it are actually misunderstanding what it says. After all we can’t raise our little finger by our own will alone but need God’s grace for that too. “Grace” simply means the goodness in God’s will and purpose in creation.

    In this context there may be a misunderstanding about what “humility” means. Humility is not to realize that one is a disgusting and undeserving worm completely dependent on God’s handouts. Humility is to realize that one is God’s beloved child and therefore that one need neither fear nor resist evil or suffering. And that for the same reason, while all shall be well in the end, that there are no handouts. I can’t imagine anything less humble than to think that one is chosen or predestined or at the receiving end of free gifts from God, or anything like that.

    You write: “If these offenses defined us, then being heart-broken about them wouldn’t be possible at all.

    Yes, that’s very clear. It is important to realize the nature of the moral dimension of our being. Even when we fail being good ourselves, we value goodness implicitly and unconditionally and irresistibly, particularly when such goodness is self-transcending. Especially in this I think we recognize that we are indeed made in the image of God.

  3. My co-author, John Kronen, sent me the following quotation from St. Augustine, which complements the message of this post nicely: "Certainly, no blemish in a thing ought to be blamed unless we are praising the thing as a whole, for the whole point of blaming the blemish is that it mars the perfection of something we would like to see praised."

  4. Thank you for this post, Eric. It was timely and needed. God truly does direct us to the right place at the right time. I do hope your loved one is feeling better about herself. We all have failings.

  5. Anonymous,

    I'm glad the post was meaningful for you. Blessings!

  6. This is a nice message - thanks. My girlfriend sent me this link today. I like how you've established that the message is mercy rather than judgement. It makes me think of how we relate to our own shortcomings so often - the "double whammy" of the natural consequences of our original misguided actions, followed by the much more devastating self-judgement that we do. I can't imagine that this is what God had in mind for us, which you have stated very well.

    BTW, I'm a blogger too, though much more sporadic. You can check mine out at and I'd love to share ideas if you're willing.



    1. Thanks, Greg. I'll check out your blog in the near future.