Secret Faults and Presumptuous Sins – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Psalm 19:7-14

“…Cleanse me from my secret faults.
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense…”

In the early 1970s, the great psychiatrist and clinician Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? where he acknowledged that the notion of sin had fallen into disrepute because it had failed to help people to change.[i]

There is a qualifying adjective for sin in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 19, which has currency. The psalmist prays, “Cleanse me from my secret faults. Keep your servant from presumptuous sins,” also translated, “Keep your servant from being insolent.” The word insolent comes from the Latin insolentem, which is arrogance, or haughtiness, or unwarranted pride.[ii]  This “presumptuous sin” qualifier may bring some clarity to the subject of sin: arrogance, self-importance, haughtiness: a “presumptuous sin.” Here’s a disclaimer. 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 remember, how you judge another person or situation or conversation or altercation has a kind of invincible veracity. Your conclusion is correct, and uncontestable, and patently 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 likely in touch with a presumptu­ous sin.

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 is this self-righteous, morally “superior” person, not the inferior and reprobate, whom Jesus says is missing the mark. Jesus predicts how the self-proclaimed mighty will fall, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[iii]

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 would not allow them to change, even if they wanted to. You have frozen 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. 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 a clear command and power to set others free, and, in so doing, to set ourselves free. 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, 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 downtrodden, or broken. Keeping someone bound to their past may have to do with our own collusion. We may be far more like this “bad” person than we can let ourselves acknowledge. We are prone to reject and to condemn in others what we can­not accept or reconcile about ourselves. Jesus talks about the deceptive dangers of seeing a “speck in our neighbor’s eye, but not noticing the log in our own eye. He calls such a person a “hypocrite.”[iv]  The word “hypocrite,” from the Greek, is an actor on stage, a pretender: a hypocrite, 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.[v] We are very different from one another, but we do belong together; we are interdependent.

If you can relate in some way to “presumptuous sins,” here’s two suggestions, how to find freedom:

Jesus tells us to love our enemies.[vi] Some days you may be your own worst enemy. And that has to stop! You need to become your own best friend. There’s no one else like you, never has been, never will be. You are amazing, doesn’t God know. Be your own best friend. No one else knows you like you know you. Cooperate with God. Co-operate with God, who adores you. God knows you, wants you, can use you, not because you are good but because you are you. Inevitably we love others the way we love ourselves… or don’t. 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, here is my rule of thumb which I always remember… except when I forget. In our challenging relationships with other people, if we have no compassion for some other person or some certain people – no compassion at all – we probably do not know enough about them. Compassion is to suffer with someone. Not just to suffer because of another person, but to suffer with another person. That’s compassion. If you do not find any compassion for another person, you probably do not 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 whom you experience such irritation, or disappoint­ment, or disdain. This person has a history. Much of how they deport themselves in life is what they were taught, or how they survived, and to which they may have colluded.

I am not saying that how someone acts, no matter what they do or say is fine. Not at all. But I am saying that everyone is more than we know about them. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I’m quoting here the equal justice attorney Bryan Stevenson. He says, “If someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”[vii]

I’ll leave you some good news and some bad news. First the bad news. I’ve looked ahead to the Sunday morning liturgy we are planning for a week from today. There’s a confession of sin. We are not even going to take a poll, to find out how many of you here – if you were with us next Sunday – would find a confession of sin helpful. It’s already in the bulletin. That’s the bad news. We never get over this, certainly not the presumptuous sins. That’s my experience.

The good news is that Jesus Christ, our Savior, is well apprised of “the human condition.” The Greek word for Savior has the energy of a lifeguard saving a drowning victim. Being saved by Jesus, again and again and again, which will transform our lives from the inside out, and make a world of difference.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B; Third Sunday of Lent

[i] Karl Augustus Menninger (1893-1990) was a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and a member of the Menninger family of psychiatrists who founded the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.

[ii] Psalm 19:13.

[iii] Luke 18:10‑14.

[iv] Matthew 7:1‑5. We also read in Matthew 6:22-33, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Luke 6:41-42.

[v] Romans 12:3-8.

[vi] Matthew 5:42-48.

[vii] Just Mercy; A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (2015); pp. 289-290.

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  1. The Rev. Robert L.Sherwood on March 8, 2024 at 22:21

    Brother Curtiss,

    This spoke to me very powerfully. We have a neighbor who is a trial. My wife says he’s a chauvinist who has no respect for women. He has walked into women’s meetings at the association where we live and ordered his wife to get home and prepare dinner for him. To make things worse he is an ardent supporter of Donald Trump. That is not the way to my wife’s heart. She said: “I don’t see how you can be so patient with him and listen to his nonsense, although you do let him know when you disagree with him.” She then told me, “I wish I could be as patient as you are but I just can’t”. I told her, “Well pray about it and keep trying”. I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself by then.

    A bit later I chanced to read your sermonette on secret faults and presumptuous sins, and came face-to-face with the realization that I had some baggage too that needed to be dealt with, so I wasn’t much better than my next door neighbor. I will be sure to include a prayer asking God to make those secret faults and presumptuous sins clear to me and help me to deal with them. Thank you for your timely message.

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