Americans are in the midst of an identity crisis being played out personally and politically. Until not so long ago, our personal identities, like our political ones, appeared quite stable — at least officially. We agreed, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that we are born into some identities, we achieve others, and others are thrust upon us. But not any longer. There is now no birth identity we can’t undo, no identity we can’t achieve, and no identity we can’t refuse to have thrust upon us. Identity is now what rights were just yesterday and freedom the day before that.
For Christians there is a special irony in all this. It was, after all, the God of Scripture who created Man “in His image and likeness,” free to choose a life centered in God or in the Self. How can a Christian deny the freedom that God allows? Man is existentially free to be the god the Serpent promised he could be, a god with the power to create whatever he can imagine, whose word is law, and whose ideas of perfection govern the kingdoms of this world. In comparison with this freedom, isn’t it a small thing to grant a person the right to choose her gender, his sexual orientation, her race, or any other mark of identity formerly assumed to be God-given or “natural”?
Of course, these choices will — like all choices — come with consequences. As the Spanish proverb goes, “Take whatever you want; now pay for it.” If, after so many thousands of years of human choosing, and after facing the consequences flowing from our choices, we are still uncertain whether to choose God or Self, it is hard to imagine an argument that would dissuade a person enamored with the Self or distrustful of God from choosing Self over God. For the Christian, it is enough to pray that God’s will be done and His Kingdom come.
This is not to say that Christians seeking to center their lives in God have not received guidance about the choices they should make and, specifically, about what identities they should accept as children of God and what identities they should choose as disciples of Christ. There is, in fact, one core identity that, as Christians, we cannot avoid ascribing to every human, starting with ourselves: that of sinner. We all fly under the banner of sin. No other identity, man or woman, Jew or Greek, slave or free, so perfectly and empirically suits us and counts in the eyes of God who sent His Son into the world to save sinners.
According to Matthew, the first word out of the Baptist’s mouth was “Repent!” “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). Likewise, according to Mark, after Herod threw the Baptist into prison, Christ picked up his mantle, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, saying, Repent!
When Jesus’ accusers ask His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus overhears their question and answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:11-13). Significantly, Christ associated with those who identified as sinners and is at odds with those who identified as “scribes and Pharisees.” What does this tell us? Perhaps that we should know “how to be a sinner,” the title of Peter Bouteneff’s new book published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
The “scribes and Pharisees” are the bad guys of the Gospels. None of us, whether believer or not, would identify with them. They are judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical legalists, not at all like the I’m-okay-you’re-okay Americans we aspire to be. Really? Then why as Christians does it often not occur to us to embrace our sin identity and place it at the top of the list of our identifiers: father, mother, steelworker, plumber, teacher, black, Hispanic, feminist, care-giver, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, conservative, gay, Republican, etc.?
From the Christian perspective, these identities are at best a distraction, assuring us that we’re okay; and at worst a trap, separating us from one another and making us the pawns of haters and demagogues. Tying us ever more closely to the world, these identities make us and not the Creator the author and finisher of ourselves, causing us to judge others and preventing us from discovering our true selves in the language of repentance. Often these secular identities lead us ever deeper into the labyrinth of the Self where the Minotaur awaits. In other words, these identities place us squarely in the camp of the “scribes and Pharisees” who see themselves as good and are, consequently, deaf to Jesus’ message of repentance. We need Michelangelo’s prayer: Lord, take me away from myself and bring me closer to You.
To his credit, Bouteneff doesn’t waste time lamenting, as others have done, the absence of “sin” from the American lexicon. He recognizes that the term is largely misunderstood by those for whom it conjures up a list of Thou-Shalt Not’s. He carefully notes the pitfalls of the sin identity, the dangers of identifying with our sins, obsessing over them, or sliding into shame, depression, and self-pity: all the red flags a modern therapist would be sure to point out. He also understands that many Christians appear ambivalent or hesitant about surrendering to this identity, thinking perhaps that it was somehow shed with baptism, or conversion, or the taking of Holy Communion. There is no warrant in Holy Scripture or Tradition for this hesitancy to identify as a sinner, but still, it isn’t the sort of thing one wants to brag or parade about. Let’s face it, it’s utterly at odds with our culture of self-promotion.
The sinner identity only makes sense in relation to God and His revelation of Himself through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. Without these, although our guilt persists and may even increase, we become blind to the true source of our guilt and deaf to the message of repentance. As Nietzsche pointed out, without God all things are now possible — all things, that is, except repentance, forgiveness, and expiation.
We live in a culture that studiously ignores and boldly ridicules the possibility of a God-centered life. With our poet Whitman, we tirelessly celebrate the Self. Our entertainments, educational philosophies, personal and professional goals, post-Freudian therapies, and secular rituals celebrate the Self-centered life and assume the absence of God. This culture is now so deeply ingrained in most of us — and especially in our young — that it presents a special challenge to those who have grown up in it and have been immersed in a narrative of reality that says nothing about God and the faith of their fathers and mothers.
How do we exercise appropriate self-care without becoming self-obsessed? How do we distinguish shame from guilt and use each to humble ourselves before God and our neighbor without losing awareness of our inherent nobility and dignity as children of the Heavenly King? Answering questions like these, Bouteneff treads this minefield carefully, yet boldly, knowing what a great prize lies on the other side. “Coming to understand yourself as a sinner,” he writes, “heals you because it lets you acknowledge a truth about yourself. It bolsters your consciousness of goodness, beauty, and God. It breaks the logjams that separate you from your true self, from your fellow humans, from God, and from the created world. It is the beginning of your inner acceptance of God’s all encompassing and unconditional love. It sets you free” (p. 152). Or, in the words of his former colleague at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Father John Behr, “To plumb the depths of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love” (The Mystery of Christ. p.144).
We as Christians believe that God has not only given us a new and deeper understanding of who He is, but in the person of His Son Jesus Christ He has also given us Himself and the possibility to choose and live a God-centered rather than a Self-centered life. This choice, as Bouteneff explains, entails both “a process and a gift.” The gift — most American Christians get that, but a process — what’s that about? To explain, Bouteneff reverts, as the Church Fathers often did, to an analogy. Humans possess, in the words of the old hymn, a “sin-sick soul,” sin that acts both as a force through the world, the flesh, and the devil, and as a condition. Christ comes as the Physician and is Himself the medicine. But He will not heal against the will of the patient, nor does His healing remove the on-going free will of the patient. We must choose Him daily, take His medicine regularly, follow His salvific instructions, carry His Cross with Simon of Cyrene, and die with Him so that we may be raised to Life with Him in His Kingdom. The key to His Kingdom is repentance, and only the person with a profound and enduring awareness of his failure to “hit the mark” (which is hamartia, sin) and put on the identity of Christ possesses the broken and contrite heart of repentance. But with genuine repentance comes the reward: life in the Kingdom both now and in the world to come.
There is in all of us, as in Michelangelo’s “captives,” a divine and holy image striving to burst forth and shine with the glory of God. This image, we must all acknowledge, is marred and disfigured by our disbelief, delusions, pride, and disordered loves. It is only by adopting a sin identity, properly understood and acted upon, that we can engage the process and receive the gift that releases the captive and draws us near to God.
How To Be A Sinner speaks in both theoretical and practical terms about this process, how to engage it constructively, how to avoid the pitfalls of the sin identity, how to know when our feet are on the right path. This is the perfect book for presbyters preaching repentance and hearing confessions, for therapists and counselors seeking a Christian understanding of the human psyche and its brokenness, and for Christians of every tradition seeking a true repentance and life in Christ. This book helps us to see ourselves as God sees us, lovingly and unsparingly as sinners, so that we may have confidence in His forgiveness and the outcome of our compunction and grief will be, as it is for the Saints, joy and peace.
When we as Christians consider the question of identity, should we not ask: when God looks upon us, what does He see? Were it not for the Incarnation, this might seem an impertinent question; but the Gospels give us marvelous insight into the question of our identity and how God sees us. Consider Matthew’s account of the healing of the paralytic:
Behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.’ And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, ‘This Man blasphemes!’ But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ — then He said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ And he arose and departed to his house (Matthew 9: 2-7).
In this story, everyone present sees the man as a paralytic, but Jesus, seeing the man as a sinner, anticipates with obvious pleasure the songs this man’s soul will sing once his burden of sin is lifted and he is forgiven. The other, the physical healing thing — oh, that, appears as almost an afterthought. Likewise, it is impossible to imagine that the Lord, who “sees into the heart” and not as man sees (1 Samuel 16:7), really pays any attention to the multiple identities we so cherish except inasmuch as they humble us and help us to see our need for forgiveness.
Bouteneff writes about the benefits of knowing ourselves as sinners and finding ourselves in the language of repentance. How we identify our selves and others is, for Christians, of fundamental concern. Failure to make the correct identification leads to confusion and blocks any possibility for self knowledge, social harmony, and peace. The Christian, without exception, identifies as a sinner. All other identities pale by comparison. And he identifies others as beloved children of God, however different their beliefs or objectionable their behavior. Only by understanding how to be a sinner and acting from these assumptions can we hope for personal sanity and a sane society.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
David Hicks is retired and lives on a ranch in Montana after having spent most of his life heading K-12 independent schools as well as being a Rhodes scholar and teaching for a period at the Naval War College. He has also written and translated several books including Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, The Emperor’s Handbook (a translation of Marcus Aurelius with his brother Scot), and three translations from Plutarch’s Lives for use with students (also with his brother Scot). The most recent of these, The Tyrant: Julius Caesar, was just published by CiRCE Institute. David continues to write and to serve on several school and seminary boards.