I fall into sin so easily. And it really feels like I fall into it.
I say something that, after it’s said, I wonder, “Why did I say that?” It was not premeditated. I did not plan on it. It just came out. I fell into it.
I listen to a story about an acquaintance who is wife abuser, not even recognizing until later the subtle attitude of “I’m glad I’m not that bad” that was embedded in the lack of any concern for the abuser. I did not mean to feel that way. It was an innate reaction, a knee-jerk response. It just happened. I fell into it.
When I say that “I fall into sin,” I am not denying personal responsibility or the role of choice. I am simply saying that it feels like I fall into sin, because much of the time, it happens so fast and without any apparent thought, that I wonder, “Where did that come from?”
Hard as I try to avoid sin, every day I must approach God to ask for forgiveness. But what does that really mean? Is asking forgiveness essentially a promise that I’ll do better tomorrow? When I ask for forgiveness, am I acknowledging that I have broken a rule, and am making an implicit promise that I have every intention of not breaking that rule again?
I have committed the same sins repeatedly for six decades. And, as difficult as it is to say it, I will continue to commit them. Imagine going to God in prayer and saying, “God, forgive me for that sin today. I will probably do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.” What would it take for you to actually say that right to Jesus’ face, the one who died for you? Would you feel defiant? “I sinned today and I’m going to do it again tomorrow. In fact, secretly, I’m planning on it.” Would you feel disrespectful? Would you feel like, given the extent of his sacrifice, maybe you ought to put a little more shoulder into avoiding sin? Or, would you prefer to hide your sin to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit failure… again?
After a few decades of that, it is very tempting to give up on the whole idea of forgiveness, except…
…forgiveness is not about being sorry for a sin and promising, even implicitly, to stop it.
Forgiveness is an acknowledgment that I am absolutely, totally, and in all other ways helpless in my sin. As Charles Wesley put it: “[Jesus] emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.” A helpless race. Helpless.
It does not seem that I am truly helpless, though. I can do things right. I can behave correctly. I can treat others well. I can think of other people. I can pray. But I can also sin. And when I do, it feels like I fall into it, like I have no control over it, like I am helpless. This has been a difficult attribute to come to terms with principally because I have been living for decades with the wrong concept of forgiveness. Previously, when I sinned, I would ask for forgiveness, implicitly promising to be better tomorrow as if I could be, as if it was within my power to be better. That concept is deceptively believable, because to some extent, I do have the power to modify my behavior and attitudes. Yet, every day, I sin. It’s like there is a well, deep down inside, that continues to puke sewage to the surface at irregular intervals and in unpredictable volumes. When this happens, I wonder, “Where is this coming from?” The depths of the well are not open to a complete inspection and I cannot clean out the well or destroy it.
Every day, I find that I am helpless. The fact is that I am a sinner and will die a sinner. I am a sinner today and will be a sinner tomorrow. The sin I commit today will likely be repeated tomorrow or the next day. In the unlikely event that I defeat one sin, I can be sure to fall down somewhere else. Incredibly, Jesus knows all this when I come to him. When I ask forgiveness, he does not expect an “I promise to do better tomorrow.” He knows my frame. He knows my weakness. He knows I am helpless. He understands that fact better than I do. Well before I was even born, he knew that I would be helpless, so helpless that coming to my aid would require a supreme sacrifice. And he made that sacrifice. For me.
The prayer, Soul of Christ,1 is one that I pray frequently. It was written almost a thousand years ago by an author who has remained anonymous. English translations vary because the original Latin is difficult to translate. The version that I have memorized contains the following line:
O, good Jesus. Listen to me. Hide me in your wounds.
For a long time, I did not know what this meant, but reflecting on my helplessness has helped. Being helpless, I am vulnerable to attacks by an enemy who means only harm. I am also helplessly vulnerable to the enemy within, my own seemingly unlimited propensity to spew the most awful words, attitudes, and actions imaginable. The Soul of Christ prayer acknowledges this diabolical duo, Defend me from the evil foe.
Hide me. Hide me in your wounds. What a great paradox! My sins caused the very wounds that have become my refuge and place of safety. What grace is this? How can it be that I have gained an interest in the Savior’s blood, considering that I am the one who caused His pain, the one who pursued Him to His death?2
That I hide in his wounds is an acknowledgment of the price he so willingly paid for me. To pretend that I can handle my own sin minimizes what Jesus did. It denies the sacrifice that he had to make. It denies what Jesus already knows: I am a helpless sinner. He fully expects that, when I come to him every night in prayer, I will come to him with a history of having sinned during the day. Every day. Day after day. He never tires of my coming to him as a helpless sinner. When I ask forgiveness, I am affirming Jesus’ decision to suffer shame and agony and death for me. Asking forgiveness is not about making a promise of better performance. It is about being thankful to the Lamb of God in whose wounds I hide.
“Be grateful for your sins. They are carriers of grace.”3
1 Soul of Christ
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inspire me.
Water flowing from the heart of Christ, wash me.
Suffering of Christ, console me.
O good Jesus, listen to me.
Hide me in your wounds.
Do not allow me to separate from you.
Defend me from the evil foe.
At the hour of my death, call me;
and tell me to come to you,
so that I may praise you with all your saints
forever and ever.
2 Derived from the hymn by Charles Wesley, And Can It Be.
3 Anthony de Mello