My Greatest Sin, Part 2: Restored to Our Truest Selves

Chords that were broken will vibrate once more. Fanny J. Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing”

Yesterday, I confessed my greatest sin. It is a failure to love and be myself. Put in more theological terms, it is the failure to love the Imago Dei in me and to accept the flaws in me. Such a failure leads to most sin, most forms of narcissism, and the inability to love God even with our full selves.

But the truth of course is that there is a lot in us that is unlovable. There is a lot that needs improvement. And there are broken places that need restoration. There are “thorns in the flesh” that won’t go away.

Now at this point, we have two choices we can make. We can either scorn the scars, or we can be at peace with them. If we scorn the scars, they will have more power over us. We will live in paralyzing guilt, unending shame, or the darkness of repression. If we are at peace with the scars, they suddenly lose their power over us. Now here’s the good news: When we are at peace with even our thorns in the flesh, they become the power by which we act, speak and love in the world. As Henri Nouwen has reminded us, it is our wounds that heal others.

Some will respond, “Well, you should be truthful about your weaknesses, but you shouldn’t love them. You should improve them.” That’s not what St. Paul says. He writes of his thorn, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” (II Cor. 12:6).

It is this Christ who “dwells in me” that is Paul’s hope for even his broken places, and ours. Some have taught the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as if the Spirit comes and overwhelms our “me-ness” so that “I” no longer exist and Christ more and more takes over “me.” But that’s actually not what happens to us when the Spirit gives life to us. Paul says that Christ comes to dwell in ME. According to Freud, there are two parts of the human psyche: the ego and the id. The id is our instinctual self. In theological terms, it is our sinful self. Our brokenness. Our proclivities and addictions. The ego is our organized, ordered self. In theological terms, it is the image of God in us. Together, the id and the ego make up “me.”

It is this “me” which has become marred by sin, tainted by lack of self-love, paralyzed by guilt and shame. It is this “me” which now feels ashamed in the garden and wants to cover itself. The id has overwhelmed the ego so that I am controlled by my appetites, my desires and my self-hate. The image of God has become diminished or lost in this “me.” I now treat others with judgment, impatience, greed and jealousy. This “me” becomes violent, degrades others with lust and dysfunctional sexual acts, and does not know how to love.

But Paul says that this “me” is not hopeless. It is the perfect human being, the one who walked on earth as the human God intended, this Jesus that can come and join — not overwhelm, but join — his Superego to my ego and id so that BOTH are transformed more and more into the image of Christ and “restored to the glory you intended for us” (Book of Common Prayer). It is for this reason that Paul writes that it is “not I [id], but Christ [super-ego], who lives in me [id and ego restored].” It is THIS dialectic and this paradox that is our hope and the reality that begins to shape our existence.

Once I see that it is “me” God is restoring and that is God’s image in “me” that is becoming a reality, I quit trying to become someone else. God is not restoring my grandfather, my mother, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa in me. I am not asked to be some other character. I am not even asked to be Jesus. I am asked to let Jesus take root in me so that I am the human being God intended me to be. I start living in the truth of who I am becoming and not in the falsehoods of a self that is not really me.

It is this “me,” ego and id, strengths and flaws, roses and thorns, that God is returning to its original glory. Once we claim this truth about our lives, we no longer live in the expectation of defeat and victory. We begin to escape the dramas of guilt and shame. The narrative changes. The end of the story is different, and the plot takes on a different direction as the character begins to change to fit the ending.

What does this mean for me in every day terms? It means that I am a lot more forgiving of myself. It means that I am more at peace with my broken places as the instruments of my influence and the vehicle of God’s power through me. It means that I change my self-talk. I am not a defeated sinner who must defeat himself, but a sinner made in the image of God in the process of becoming more and more myself. That’s right. When the Super-Ego of Christ joins up with my Id and Ego, I become more and more the “me” that the Creator intended.

This also changes the way that I see people. I see people, not for their wrong decisions or wrong religion, but as people in the process of the human journey of becoming the people God intended them to be. I trust that God’s image is present even in people that I don’t agree with or people that I don’t like, and therefore I open myself to the possibility of receiving truth even from them. I join the “guy outside the window” as a fellow pilgrim in the world and as one who is involved in the human quest to become our full selves. Even in the church, if we live in this way, we don’t adopt standards of who is in and who is out, but we view each person in the process of becoming their truest self as the image of Christ forms in them.

Harvey Cox tells the story of a church in Boston that was conducting a minister search and asked its candidate this decisive question: “Look out the window. See that man walking down the street. Who is he?” Candidates either would say “a sinner” or “a child of God.” The church only hired the minister who said “child of God.” Of course, both are true in a sense, but one is more true and more fundamentally true of the man than the other. And the way the candidate would accept this man, and the way the candidate would welcome him, and what the candidate would hope for him, would all depend on how he sees this man. I want a minister that sees me for what I am becoming, not for who I am.

If you see humanity as a sea of hopeless sinners, you will see them as nothing more than potential targets of your proselytism and a victim of manipulative religious schemes to keep them dependent on you or your religion. If you see humanity as in the process of being restored to their original glory, you will then announce that this IS happening for them now, that is a real possibility, and they must begin living in this hope now.

I believe this is core to the gospel of Jesus as I understand it, and it has to be central to the way we speak the good news in this time. I think our culture would be most interested in good news that helps people become their truest and best selves. Now that would get a hearing. But no one is interested in a gospel that constantly tells people how bad they are. In fact, that’s pretty much the definition of insanity to stay around for a constant whipping like that. Most people know of their own darkness. They want to know how to live in the light.

When Jesus met people, he did two things. He first helped them deal with the truth of their lives. He told them they were tax collectors, whores, religious hypocrites, and serial lovers (“You have five husbands.”). But he never left it there. He said to them, “Your name is Simon, but I call you Peter.” He casts out their demons, restored them to their “right mind,” and called them to fully live again with the dignity of their true selves.

That’s the journey of Christian spiritual formation: to become our truest selves. It all begins with being at home with “me.” It takes hope that one day we will know ourselves “even as we are fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12). The church father Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Today, be at home with yourself. Then start living in ways that live out the reality of your best self. Don’t engage in behaviors that are opposite of the life you want. If you want love, don’t settle for a one night stand. If you want more abundance, don’t act out of scarcity. If you want to be more loving, do something unselfish today. If you want to be more giving, don’t be greedy today. Start doing something today — even the smallest of acts — that is in keeping with person you are becoming, and not in keeping with the person you were. And when you begin to do this — when you begin to live out the reality of the person you are becoming again, and not the reality of the person you once despised in yourself — then you will be fully alive.

Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of Romans 6:12-14 puts it this way:

That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.

One Response to “My Greatest Sin, Part 2: Restored to Our Truest Selves”
  1. Debbie says:

    Thank you for sharing your vulnerabilities with us. I appreciate so much the person you are and who you are “becoming” in Christ. I look forward to talking with you soon about the forum that you wrote to me about. We’re off for a week’s vacation tomorrow!

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