I Timothy 1: 15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
Let’s all take a deep breath and repeat after me (actually after Paul), “I am the chief of sinners.” Which is true, at least as far as I am concerned, because I know no one else’s sin the way I know my own. On a clear day, mentally and spiritually, my sin, besetting and actual, looms before me like a telephone pole in my eye (Mt. 7:3-5), compared to the speck in yours. On more cloudy days with fuzzy, blurry spiritual vision, I tend to fixate on the specks in other people’s eyes first and foremost, and I get very, very afraid of them.
But its always been that way, ever since we grasped at the knowledge of good and evil. Through rebellion, we became very clear-eyed and conscious of evil in other people, and blind to our own. I still find that true: when I am most lax morally and spiritually, I am also most judgmental and angry at others. Eve told God, “The serpent tempted me, and I ate (Gen. 3).” Bad serpent. And Adam said, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate.” One sentence, two accusations. How economical. And efficient. But neither of them took responsibility for themselves. They fixated on the speck in each other’s eye, and overlooked the logs in their own.
Now what if we all began our moral discernment on any issue from that point of view, that we who are doing the discernment are the worst of sinners? And therefore, we want to discern the moral value of an action or a desire, not to control other people’s lives and choices (which we can’t) but in order to help and protect ourselves, “the chiefs of sinners,” the ones most likely to get into trouble? Or the ones already in moral/spiritual trouble?
We’d come to matters of moral discernment more like attendees at an AA meeting than like Carrie Nation charging into bars with an axe. It would put all of us at the foot of the cross, on the same level. It would also turn the focus from people to choices. Because so much moral and spiritual discernment is carried out on the level of “Are they in or are they out (of heaven, the kingdom of God, or the church)?” Or “Are they good people or bad people?” And “Does God love them, will God accept them or not?”
These become pointless questions, whatever the issue, when we remember that any one of us alone is the chief of sinners. “Are they in or out?” becomes “Why should I be in?” The answer: only by the grace of God, with no more claim to being in than the thief on the cross.
As for “Are they good people or bad?” a Christian response is, “As far as I know, being the chief of sinners, it shouldn’t surprise me if they are better people than me, and I will count them and treat them as such.” And as for whether or not God loves them (whoever they are), “God was merciful to me, the worst of sinners, so that Christ Jesus might demonstrate his infinite goodness through me, so that I might become an example to other sinners who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” So if God loves me (which he does, because of his goodness, not mine) he surely loves them.
Accepting that we are “the chief of sinners” also neutralizes another way of absolving ourselves from moral discernment, and from doing selective, surgical discernment on others, but not on ourselves, when we say, “At least I don’t do [insert favorite sin here] like you-know-who,” or when we say, “But they do you-know-what while they judge us for [insert whatever it is you want most to justify].” Not only does that amount to abandoning our responsibility for discernment, while making someone else “the chief of sinners,” it is a form of pride (the bad kind, not a sense of self-worth, the good kind). Pride is when we compare ourselves to each other. Humility is when we compare ourselves to Jesus. Comparing myself to him, I look like “the chief of sinners.”
No sin puts us out of God’s kingdom, God’s church, or God’s love. But by willfully persisting in sin (whatever sin it is) and refusing to discern and repent (like Adam and Eve blaming God and each other) we drive ourselves out of God’s kingdom, God’s church, and any reception of God’s love, because that’s what sin is: loving something more than God.
Once we accept that we (or I) are the chief of sinners, all that’s left then is to discern the values of behaviors and actions, knowing our propensity for sin, because we’re sinners. Unless I’m the only one. At least I’m the worst one. And how we respond pastorally, morally, missionally or ecclesiastically (that is, in church life) to sinful behaviors and actions will often have to be finessed on a case by case basis, depending less upon where we’re at than on where we’re headed, either toward repentance, restitution and reconciliation, or toward more rebellion, recklessness and the destruction of people and relationships. Just as Paul’s repentance, restoration and re-orientation of life gave life and hope to other (lesser) sinners, so might someone’s continued resistance and rebellion give despair or misdirection to other sinners.
But confessing ourselves “the worst of sinners” is no license to give up on moral and spiritual discernment. It is not to say, “We’re all sinners anyway; how can we judge anything? no one’s perfect, so anything goes.” The church, being a collection of sinners, must discern the value and the effect of actions and words upon the healing process of all the sinners in its embrace. And a lackadaisical approach to moral discernment would bring that healing process to a stop, and even reverse it. Confessing ourselves “the worst of sinners” is not an excuse for surrender, but a call to discernment, starting (and usually staying) with ourselves.
But being the chief of sinners, I cannot, and should not, do moral and spiritual discernment on my own.
If we can’t agree on this, that we are each the chief of sinners who must work first on the logs in our own eyes, then we lack the common language and the common starting point to do moral discernment together.