Imperfection and Sin Are the Doors to Mercy

Keith KettenringChristian Living, Motley Christian7 Comments

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.

Keith

7 Comments on “Imperfection and Sin Are the Doors to Mercy”

  1. The problem with ‘constantly crying out for God’s mercy’ is that it speaks of a soul who has not accepted that mercy, and thinks it is up to him to receive it, not to God to give it. I said the ‘Jesus prayer’ for some time, and then I realised, I was not being thankful for the mercy I have received! Because I know the Lord has heard my cry, so why then would I constantly be seeking for Him to forgive me? Yes, sure, when appropriate, but constantly? That is too much like beating myself for my brokeness. We are co-heirs to the throne of grace! Brothers with Christ Himself, is what Paul says in Galatians, so that we can even say Abba, Father; Daddy, Father. We have have a Father that not only reigns in heaven, but who has a kingdom right here on earth! I can speak to him, and He to me constantly, we need real healing and real heart to the Lord who intimately knows us, each of us. Might we be better to be thankful and show our gratefulness constantly for what God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are constantly doing in us as they do their work to conform our character to theirs?

    1. That’s a good thought, John. Though for me it’s different. In my brokenness, I tend to pretend to have a transactional relationship with God; one that says, “If I _______ (do, think, believe, say, “this thing” or the “right things”), THEN God will–or even MUST _______(do what I want).”
      I’m reading a brilliant Advent meditation called “Wait for the Light” and in one of the essays, it reminds us of the intense penitential nature of this period between these two Advents. Being on the right road, is not the same as arriving someplace. Yet in the mysterious sense, being on the right road IS fully connected to arriving at a destination.
      As I surrender and become a womb for what God is doing in me, growing in me, making me like Christ, I constantly bump off of the guardrails of pride. The first rail is arrogance that I’m a child of God; I’ve earned it thru my Evangelical rational belief and actions. Therefore I am elevated and redeemed, “Blessed beyond measure”. The second guardrail is also pride–or false humility–that says somehow I’m so sinful (I’m the BEST at sinning) that God can’t really redeem me on His own. So I MUST keep asking for forgiveness; again, I’ll earn it, and God must forgive. He does what I say. I become God and He becomes the servant.
      Both of these rails miss the mark. Both are ME deciding either that I AM good enough or that I AM NOT good enough. Neither recognizes that the Mercy of God and the Jesus Prayer for a gift FOR me to remind me that my sinful actions are not the disqualifier of grace. The only disqualifier if there is one is forgetting how much I needed and still need to be shaped and grafted into the Life of the Trinity.
      Nothing I do (or don’t do) makes God love me more or less. That’s not why I need forgiveness. I need forgiveness because inside me is an immature child with intense power over my outlook–steeped in the trauma I’ve experienced, some of it self-inflicted–and that Child needs to hear from his father that he’s still loved.
      And I can’t hear that unless I quiet my heart, get still, and ask for that mercy. It aligns me with the Mercy that’s constantly poured out on me. And as I become someone who accesses that, my relationship with God isn’t transactional anymore. It becomes completely one-sided. God does things for me, to me, and in me, so that His life in me reflects His glory back to Him. The Jesus Prayer for me is not forgetting mercy. It’s remembering it, and remembering that I never earned it.
      Sometimes I want to be God’s adult son, with power and authority and agency. Someone who bats ideas to His dad about decisions he want’s to make as he becomes a healthy adult. Like a high school senior.
      But more and more, I’m realizing I’m an infant. Utterly dependent. Utterly helpless. Always getting it “wrong”. Because my best understanding of God and the world around me is AT BEST really shitty. So I need to remember God’s mercy for me and I need to hear it again, over and over and over. Otherwise I’ll just keep kicking about it my own dirty diaper.
      Meconium is the best I have to offer God. And He takes it: says, “Good Job, little guy; get all that crap out. I’ll take it.” Then he cleans me up. Then I crap myself again. If I hold on to it. I get sick. If I let it go, I shit on him…again. Then He says it again, “Good job little guy… get all that crap out. I’ll take it.”

      –A fellow traveler

  2. Our Lord is indeed loving and gracious. His mercy truly does endure forever. His compassion with us, His forgiveness, and His desire that we become more like Him each day is indeed overwhelming. Thank you Lord Jesus! Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus…

  3. Crying out for God’s mercy has been prescribed by the Church for dozens of centuries. There must be good reason. In fact, there are many reasons. John, you make the mistaken assumption that the reason people use this prayer is because they have not accepted his mercy, trust themselves to receive it, and/or fail to trust God to give it. This may be true of some. But, this is a distortion of the genuine article. There are a couple issues involved: 1) the meaning of mercy (it’s more than forgiveness) and 2) our frailty, making God’s mercy a real necessity. We constantly ask for His mercy since He’s the only one who can give it and since we are “poor and needy,” frail and weak. In other words, we cry out for mercy because we know how frail we are (and how desperately we need it) AND how merciful God is (and how dependent we are on Him). I advocate using the Jesus Prayer since doing so draws our heart to God and communion with Him among other reasons.
    This does not mean we are not grateful for all God gives us and is to us. In fact, it increases our thankfulness as we begin to experience His mercy all around having aligned ourselves with His mercy.
    Additionally, the prayer invokes an awareness of our participation in the life of the Trinity. We cannot properly function apart from this participation.
    The main point of this post was to remind us that God’s mercy is found in the midst of our imperfections, failures and sin. For that, we all can thank God.
    There is so much more to say/write about this prayer. I think I’ll do another blog post in The UnCommon Journey applied to the Way of the Warrior experience I’m exploring.
    John, I appreciate your comments. You have caused me to pause and reflect more deeply on this prayer. That’s a good thing!! Keith

    1. Keith, I’d love more conversation about the meaning of Mercy. I have always grown up thinking of “mercy” as indistinguishable from a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. I’m only now beginning to hear the broader, deeper, different definition. Would love to know more and practice more.

      Thanks!

  4. Simply following what others have done for centuries does not validate its usefulness, nor its place in the lives of sinners, and/or the redeemed.
    For me, there is much more participation in God’s loving grace through thankfulness and gratitude… I will not be so bold as to tell you that you are mistaken, I do not believe that there is but one technique, if you will, in which one might experience oneness with our triune God.
    Quite frankly, I do not believe that anyone, including me, has it correct; we are all broken, and have been since the garden of eden, assuming one is a literalist. (I am)
    We are saved through God’s grace brothers, Paul says we have been adopted, now even seen as brothers of Christ(!) co-heirs to the throne of God! We are called to live in joy, counting each challenge an opportunity to grow more and more like our brother, Jesus, as He works in and through us, through the Holy Spirit! Conforming our characters to His.
    If this is not something to be eternally thankful for, then there is nothing that is. I am constantly overwhelmed by what our gracious Lord and Saviour is doing in my life, and the lives of those that I am blessed to humbly minister. ( and quite frankly, are ministered by)
    If I tend to live in seeking mercy for sin, it all too easily turns into living in the past, and for me, that is a trigger for addictive, or life controlling behaviour.

    1. Hi John. I do not desire to defend anyone or myself. I am trying to say (and not doing a good job of it) that we can learn from those who know God more deeply than any of us modern Christians. As I get acquainted with the lives of saintly men and women, I realize my own shortcomings, weaknesses, and sin. They are shining lights into my darkness as they reflect the One True Light. I am not who I need (or want) to be in Christ. Only in what the Trinity provides and in what I participate in is there any hope. I cannot speak for others, only out of my own experience of God. I need God’s mercy for I am not thankful for all things, constantly sin, do not love God with my whole being, and so much more. I cannot be something just by thinking about it or believing it. Bless you, brother, as you journey with God and seek Him in all you do. I am thankful for you. Keith

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