How to Be a Sinner (Dr. Peter Bouteneff) is the most significant book I’ll read this year. The title intrigues me. The content stirs my soul to a better understanding and experience of knowing God as an “unworthy servant.”
For decades I’ve wrestled with the issue of sin in light of God’s love and mercy, forgiveness and acceptance. I know I sin. I’m freakin’ judgmental, uncaring, self-centered, and vain…and when I don’t act this way I think too highly of myself for being such a wonderful Christian. The worst of it is that I’m often blinded to my sinfulness by thinking I live on a higher spiritual plain than your average Christian.
Then I feel guilty and beat up on myself for being this way. Or, I try to convince myself that I’m not such a bad person, compared to someone else. Or, I try to live the illusion that because I’m “in Christ” I’m automatically a holy person. See how twisted this whole thing gets – frustration, guilt, delusion?
There is a better way to navigate this life and Dr. Bouteneff has written about this better way.
Part of being a Christian sinner is learning to identify as one. We need to honestly recognize our shortcomings, failures, and trespasses related to God’s standards.
Another aspect is to realize God’s mercy in the midst of being a sinner. St. Paul notes this reality when he writes:
I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason. (1 Timothy 1.15-16)
In the chapter entitled “Mercy, Forgiveness, and Divine Judgment,” Dr. Bouteneff informs us:
My condition of unworthiness brings me to my utter contingency upon God and his divine grace. The condition of “unworthiness” doesn’t mean “I’m not worth saving.” It means that I’m dependent on God’s mercy, which I did not earn.
Imperfection and sin, as a total condition, are the doors to mercy. Orthodox Christians are not the only ones who recognize this. The 13-century mystic poet Rumi writes, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Eight hundred years later, Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen would sing, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about the person who is “unafraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings.” Such a person, Merton continues, “can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.”
So, living as a Christian sinner – a Motley Christian – means realizing both realities: I’m a worthless sinner and in this condition I’m filled with God’s mercy.
A practical way to make this realities real in your life is by saying the prayer – “Lord, have mercy.” The longer version is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Constantly crying out for God’s mercy like this will eventually help you effectively navigate life as a Christian sinner. You’ll discover that your failures are “the place where the light enters you.”
Don’t simply feel guilty about your sin or try to convince yourself that you’re really not a sinner. There are better ways to deal with your sin, past and present.
God’s mercy is available to you right now. Ask for it. Experience it. Live it.