If I were to stand in Harvard Square and conduct a survey on the subject of “sin” – asking people, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sin’”? – I would hear quite a variety of answers, from apathy and indifference to strong-held convictions. To hear the word, “sin,” a good many people would probably roll their eyes and talk about the things that you’re not supposed to do or say (things which one is perhaps prone to do or say). Some people would immediately talk about guilt, real or imagined. Some might say that the concept of sin is too over laden with psychological baggage, or with radio preachers’ histrionic rhetoric, or with naïve or impossible standards. Even among Christians there is quite a diversity of opinion on the notion of “sin”: sins of commission and omission, what they are, why they matter, how they get done and how they get undone, that is, forgiven. For a Christian, one’s convictions about “sin” is informed by their interpretation of the Scriptures. (Virtually every page of the Bible has some reference to sin, in one form or another.) In the early 1970s, the great psychologist and clinician Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin,” acknowledging that this notion of sin is as old-fashioned sounding as it is pervasive.
There is a qualifying adjective for sin in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 19. The psalmist prays, “Keep your servant from presumptuous sins” , also translated, “keep your servant from being insolent.” The word insolent comes from the Latin, īnsolentem, meaning “arrogant,” which is an unwarranted pride or self-importance; a haughtiness. This “presumptuous” qualifier brings some clarity to this subject of sin: arrogance, unwarranted pride or self-importance, haughtiness, a “presumptuous sin.” Now I’ll mention here, as an aside, that the great Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, said that “all sermons are autobiographical.” For the sake of full disclosure, I want you to know that I can speak with some expertise about “presumptuous sins.”
A presumptuous sin is to presume that your “take” on things is the way things are. Period. What you see, what you hear, what you sense, what you conclude, what you understand, what and how you judge another person or situation or conversation or altercation has a kind of eternal veracity. It is correct and uncontestable and obvious. You might even presume you clearly know the motives in other people’s actions or comments: why it is they have done or not done, said or not said whatever it may be. It’s a kind of presumed omniscience about others. And when our subconscious sense of omniscience leads us to judge another person harshly, to condemn them, or belittle them, or to be quietly satisfied that we are not like them, we are in touch with a presumptuous sin.
I had conversation with someone not so long ago who had come to talk about their rage toward one of their colleagues. And they had had enough. What particularly grieved them was their disdain for the “exceptions” that were being made all the time for their colleague: what the colleague got away with and was excused for, where they were always “given slack.” This person speaking with me listed examples of the “exceptions” dispensed on a regular basis for their colleague. And this person sitting before me was incensed. I listened to them a long while, and with great compassion, more than they might have imagined. They invited my response. And I paused, and then found myself saying, “I think you presume that exceptions are not being made for you?” I told them that I wasn’t sure about this, but I said, “I suspect that what you presume about yourself is a sense of entitlement: what is explainable, or normal, or unnoticeable about yourself you cannot imagine being perceived differently in someone else’s eyes… including your own colleague.” I told them that the number of “exceptions” they angrily named being dispensed for their colleague, that number probably closely matched their own number of entitlements – what other people, including this colleague, might consider as exceptions made for this person speaking to me. Could that be so, I asked them? And they slowly nodded in silence.
This is the very thing Jesus had in mind when he tells the story about the Pharisee – the religious person on high moral ground – and the tax collector, an obviously inferior reprobate. It is this morally superior person who is caught praying the prayer, “I thank my God that I am not like these thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [him], this tax collector.” Jesus’ response is very sobering. It’s this self-righteous, morally “superior” person, not the inferior and reprobate soul whom Jesus says is missing the mark. Jesus ends up by predicting how the self-proclaimed mighty will fall, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Another presumptuous sin is to assume a kind of perpetual “stuckness” about another person. Let’s say you know something about this person’s past – something they did or said, or how they “typically” acted a day ago or week ago or year ago or twenty years ago – and you assume that this person cannot change and will not change, in part because you could not countenance it. You wouldn’t allow them to change if they wanted to. You freeze them. We have enormous power to condemn and imprison others by keeping them in the prison of their own past. Guarding that prison door. Keeping them locked up. Our forbidding someone to change is like locking them in a prison. The real tragedy is that both your prisoner and you, the prison guard, are in prison. Both of you are locked up. Jesus gives us clear command and clear power to set others free, and, in so doing, to set ourselves free. Jesus speaks of our power to bind up and to loose others: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus calls us to be liberators, not incarcerators.
Why keep someone imprisoned to their past? It may have to do with maintaining our own self-image, of our being superior to this other soul, especially when they are in a low way, broken, screwed up, deceptive, injurious. Keeping someone frozen to their past may have to do with our own issues around envy or jealousy. We ourselves are better, and we shall always be better, superior, unthreatened, by binding another soul to their past, at some point when they were worse, or down, or broken. Keeping someone bound to their past may have to do with our own collusion. We may be (or may have become) far more like this “bad” person than we can let ourselves acknowledge. We become what we hate. We resemble what we reject in others, and we miss an extraordinary opportunity to see ourselves mirrored in the faces of those whom we most dislike if we keep them bound, distant, dissimilar from the per¬son whom we presume ourselves to be. (This is what psychologists call “projection.” We are prone to reject, to condemn in others what we can¬not accept or reconcile about ourselves.) Jesus talks about the deceptive dangers of seeing a “speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not noticing the log in your own eye. He says, how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me fix you,” “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? He calls such a person a “hypocrite.” The word “hypocrite,” from the Greek, hypocrites, an actor on stage, a pretender, which is a kind of presumptuous sin.
The elixir to presumptuous sin is not to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. Don’t go from being superior to being inferior in relationship to others. (Thinking yourself inferior would just be just another version of pride.) The answer is simply to recognize that we are connected to one another. That we are deeply related to one another. That we don’t just live around one another, interacting, impacting one another, or avoiding one another, but rather that we live in one another. We belong to one another. You may remember that St. Paul says that all of us individuals are like the various parts of one body: eyes, heart, hands, feet. We are very different from one another, different parts, but we do belong together; we are interdependent.
Saint Paul had to know about his presumptuous sins for which he felt imprisoned. In a very disarming, revealing way he writes in his Letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….” He calls himself “a slave to the law of sin,” and goes on to plead, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He receives his answer from God: through the power of Jesus Christ. How do you tap that power? Here’s two suggestions, how to find freedom from presumptuous sin:
Start with yourself. What do you find unacceptable about yourself: some trait, some quality, something in your background that was present or was absent? This break – this breakdown or breakup – in your glittering image is God’s point of breakthrough for you. God knows you, wants you, can use you, not because you are good but because you are you. You will see others, condemn others, love others the way you do this to yourself. We love others the way we love ourselves. Is there some presumptuous sin you’re in touch with in your own soul – how you regard yourself – that you need to let go, need to let out of prison, and simply be the person that God has uniquely formed? You may be your own worst enemy, and the freedom Jesus Christ offers us in forgiveness may need to begin with your own self.
Secondly, about other people (or kinds of people) whom you find especially unacceptable. A person who has a way of getting under your skin probably belongs there. Someone who causes you pain or grief may be an extraordinary agent for your own conversion, particularly the conversion of your harsh judgment into compassion. Compassion is to suffer with someone. Not to suffer just because of another person, but to suffer with another person. That’s compassion. If you don’t find compassion for another person, you probably don’t know enough about. them. If there is someone you find insufferable, pray for them. Ask Jesus to shed light on the features of this person for whom you feel irritation, or disappointment, or disdain. Regard their qualities you hate or despise the most or find the most repulsive. Try to examine what makes this person happy and what causes suffering in their daily life. Contemplate the person’s perceptions; try to see what patterns of thought and reason this person follows, because they’re not accidental. Ponder what might motivate this person’s hopes and actions. Have they been hurt by their own experience of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, hatred, or anger, violation? What are they facing with each new day? This is a prayer for the “enlightening of the eyes of your heart.” Pray for this troubling person, this enemy, until you feel the trickle of compassion rising in your heart like a well beginning to fill with fresh water and your anger or resentment or repulsion starting to drain away. And it will. It’s Jesus’ promise.
There’s a wonderful phrase that appears in the Letter to the Hebrews, where we read, “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The image of this “race that is set before us” is not the kind of race that is centered on an individual but on a larger body. We are the body, and we are running the race together. Have you ever watched the events in the Special Olympics? Of course, every participant wants to finish their event; however so many times what’s pictured is the participants falling or struggling, and the participants help one another finish the races. We’re in this together. We have enormous power to help one another, to unbind one another, to liberate – not incarcerate – one another. We need one another. And that realization would be a conversion of presumptuous sin into the gracious freedom Jesus promises us to both receive and give. This grace is within our reach.
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