This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Wednesday 27th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts. So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.
Reading: Matthew 26. 69-75
When he realises that he has fulfilled Jesus’ words by denying him, Peter does not only weep, but he weeps bitterly. What is it that makes his tears so sour? Why do the evangelists insist on that word bitterly, why does J.S. Bach make so much of it in both his great Passions?
It is, I suspect, the bitterness of self-disappointment.
Over the years, I have made something of a study of forgiveness (and yes, it is ironic that I am only now coming round to taking the subject of sin reasonably seriously…). The most common issue that comes up when you talk about forgiveness pastorally is that people say ‘the trouble is, I can’t forgive myself’.
Part of me always wants to say, ‘no you can’t, that’s just the way it is with forgiveness’. But the less analytical and more pastoral part of me understands. What I think people mean when they say that they can’t forgive themselves is that they have let themselves down and feel unworthy of self –respect, and therefore self-forgiveness. This, I think is a common enough experience. Not to be taken lightly. Rather to be taken as the salt in the wound of sin, the bitterness in Peter’s tears.
Some commentators have suggested that it is the bitterness in the tears that turns them into repentance. This is a helpful suggestion and takes us away for the concept of self-forgiveness – indeed it suggests that a Christian reading is very different to a humanistic or straightforwardly psychological reading. The psychologist says,’ let me help you forgive yourself’. The Christian pastor says, ‘nope, you are right, you can’t forgive yourself and realising that is the beginning of repentance – and guess what! – the beginning of repentance is also the end of forgiveness.’
It is when you realise that you can’t forgive yourself that you truly open yourself to God’s forgiveness.
As the aria, Ebarme dich in the Bach’s Matthew Passion has it: ‘Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly. Have mercy on me, my God.’
That aria is a six-minute crucifixion on the emotions. In it, I hear the suggestion not that Peter was a bad man but that he was a good man trying his hardest doing his best and discovering that his best was not good enough. He was a strong man at full stretch and then beyond his elastic limit.
Bitter tears come for a soul that knows that it can never spring back into shape again – things will never be the same. Bitter tears come with the recognition that the projects of self-sufficiency, self-justification, self-forgiveness, are all vain and ultimately useless. Bitter tears are those in the eyes of all who survey the wondrous cross and think to themselves – here is my hope, my only hope.
We have travelled a few steps with Peter these last few days. Seeing him rise and fall, excel and fail, be named the rock and now end up in a soggy mess of bitter tears, realising that his friend knew him better all along; his friend who is going to die alone. I said on Monday that loneliness is the consequence of sin – not only of the sinner but of those who sinned against. Grace and agape – these are the things that banish loneliness, and if we live in society based on inclusion and social justice – well that helps banish loneliness too.
So the bitterness in our tears is that we can’t forgive ourselves because we no longer like or trust ourselves. And yet that intuition, that recognition, is not a one-way ticket to hell. Rather it is the necessary condition that allows us to avail ourselves of the love and mercy of God. We seek God’s forgiveness not because we would rather like God to do something that we can perfectly well do ourselves – at least on a good day. We seek God’s forgiveness because its only God’s forgiveness that can deal with the issue we have: and the issue that we have is that we are sinners and that our tears are not only copious and salty, but bitter. To say that they (our tears) are full of regret is to understate it. The point is that they are full of truthful self-recognition – and, as we all know, Jesus in the fourth gospel says without equivocation that the truth will set you free. What he doesn’t say is that the truth is very nice and that encountering it will be a pleasant or positive experience.
This short series of Holy Week talks has the title ‘Living with Sin’ and I have been trying to make connections between what you might call a contemporary mind-set and the word ‘sin’ which on the whole doesn’t fit there. We looked a bit at the deadlies yesterday and saw that in some ways it is difficult for us to see just why or how they are deadly.
This evening want to offer you a different range of things that might just help you make some sort of sense of the idea that there are some habits of mind, or attitudes of heart, that have the capacity to keep turning us away from God. Before launching my list at you let me offer a few hints as to what I might be getting at.
First of all, the sorts of things that are on my list are things that have got the capacity to slip under the radar of self-awareness. I am not going to stand here and tell you that it is sinful to murder people or to steal from them. By the time there is a law against something it has lost, for most people, or at least most of the sorts of people who pop along to Cathedrals to hear talks about sin, much of its allure.
Nonetheless, you can be sure that the sin that best engages, I mean wastes, your time and energy is not something that causes you to tut-tut, though there are plenty of examples of people tut-tutting against the things that in their life that are most ashamed of. This is tactical tut-tutting, the sort that seeks to set up a smokescreen. People naively think that if they protest enough against something in others no one will ever suspect that this is, in fact, their own most troubling fault.
Of course it is not an iron rule – people who protest against things are not necessarily practising them, but there is often something going on like this when people become aggressive, or if they go on witch- hunt or start throwing blame around.
When it comes to the sins of our age we are all at them – to greater or lesser degrees. The sins, the thoughts of mind, the habits of the heart which are destructive in any culture tend to be participated in, more or less, by most of the people who inhabit that culture. Our sins are indeed the sins of wealthy consumerist, late modern people living in the north Atlantic countries
One final word before I share my little list. It must be clear now that the sins that really matter are not the ones that easily make themselves known, not those which are advertised and not those which are themselves illegal. The sins that matter are those which get under the radar, are insidious, common and sometimes even present themselves as virtues. Some of these are banal, others are things we might indeed feel proud of. It is worth remembering that Peter was in the end caught out in the very area where he felt he was strong – loyalty. ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’
It is clear that the things on my list are not intended to cause you to say tut-tut about others. More likely they will make you think that I have lost my senses. Maybe I have. You must make your own decision, but these are some of the more common ways in which we and others in our culture manage to distance ourselves from God and get in the way of grace. So here is my list of contemporary deadlies:
Niceness, busyness, grumbling, perfectionism, envy, and control-freakery.
I know it’s only six, but it’s enough to be going on with. If you want to add a couple to the list please feel free.
I have put them order of increasing toxicity.
Niceness is the most benign on the list. I don’t mean here to malign good manners, politeness courtesy and the like. There is real virtue here: and Andre Compte-Sponville has it has the first on this list of 18 great virtues. He puts politeness first because it can be the first step to learning other virtues and I put it first because it can be the first part of the slippery slope.
But by niceness I mean the willingness to take short-cuts to popularity and influence. Niceness is the sin that squeezes truth into a form that will please the very person who should be distressed by what they hear. Niceness lacks moral courage and is without faith in the reconciling power of grace. When we are self-consciously and determinedly nice we are conflict and risk-averse. We prefer to be on good terms than to face a necessary truth. To prioritise being nice is a way of getting on in the world, but that’s all it is.
No 2 is busyness. I have said plenty about this this Lent and persuaded a number of people to try to give it up. See www.notbusy.co.uk The idea is not of course to give up on the attempt to make the best use of your time or to live vocationally or sacrificially. The idea is to remove yourself from the corrosive and toxic power of the’ busyness syndrome’ which mistakes activity for action and being wanted for being useful.
Third is grumbling. Benedict was onto this so we can hardly say that it is a new observation. A few years ago I tried to give up grumbling for Lent – and thence for life. It’s not easy. Impossible in fact- indeed it is impossible entirely to avoid any of these deadly habits – which is why we rely on God’s forgiving grace rather than God’s just reward. Grumbling, however, is a major issue in our culture where the critical faculties needed to be a good scientist, and the sense of entitlement needed to be a demanding consumer, come together to create a social milieu which is often a long way from the values of, say, the Sermon on the Mount. Someone once told me that her effort to give up grumbling nearly ruined her social life: what else is there to talk about than things that are not as they should be! Well, that’s the issue in a nutshell. If we rely on discontent to bond us we are a very long way from the kingdom of God.
Fourth comes perfectionism. This is perhaps the silliest of sins. I mean who is ever going to get anything perfect? And yet it is alive and well in us. We get hints of this in some of the rhetoric that knocks around places like this – ‘world class’, ‘continuous improvement’ and so on. These are the aspirations of those who have tasted success and want some more , want it all, perhaps, who want to be world-beaters, world-leaders, the best of the best, the most superlative. Perfectionism has its place – I mean, who wants a slap-dash dentist. But we all know that perfectionism means the striving for an unreasonable standard and letting that striving spoil things at the human level.
I have put envy fifth on my list. It is there propping up the 10 commandments in the form of covetousness and as we noted yesterday recognised by Jungian analysis and its derivatives. Envy is amazing in this capacity to shape our desires. Just think of the amount of time you have spent comparing yourself with the qualities, successes, attributes or material goods of others. Envy is necessary to the sort of political economy we have and for that reason perhaps gets a better press than it deserves.
(Come to think of it I don’t recall hearting many sermons against envy. If I heard an excellent one I’d probably be jealous of the gifts of the preacher and to compensate would grumble about its deficiencies. All sins are connected… )
It’s only when we get beyond envy that we can fully appreciate the way in which God loves and shines through others. If you are seeing a person though envious eyes you are not seeing what God sees. If our eyes were but more graceful (grace- filled) we would know less of envy.
Finally I come to control-freakery. This is the desire we have to be in charge, to sort things out, to determine things, to have our own way. This is connected to the idea of will-to-power and it lies behind a phenomenal amount of personal ambition, behaviour as well as banes of modern life such as managerialism.
The neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist has argued that the left hemisphere of the brain is our on-board manager, accountant, planner and analyst and that we would certainly be lost without it. But he has also argued that the left brain has a huge blind-spot, and that blind-spot lies in failing to appreciate the value of the right brain. Indeed the left brain – the manager – puts a lot of energy into trying to neutralise the visionary, creative, artistic, subtle, sensitive spiritual right hemisphere.
McGilchrist believes that we are at a decisive point in the history of our culture in terms of whether we let the control-freak tendency in human beings finally run the show, or whether we open ourselves to a more enlightened and spiritually open form of living. We need not over-dramatize this in order to recognise that the part of us which seeks to grab and grasp control is not the grace-open or grace-sensitive part. Control-freakery is animated by fear and anxiety, and the attitude which tends to denigrate the competencies of others and over-estimate the self.
Which takes us back to Peter territory – the territory that takes us on a journey to the cross – but not by a direct route. The journey to the cross for the sinful disciple is not the route of the Via Dolorosa. Rather it is the journey that comes to an abrupt end at cockcrow, and which continues not clear-sightedly, but as we feel our way forward tentatively, our eyes filled with bitter tears which know we cannot forgive ourselves. Tears that are the beginning of the repentance that proves that, after all, we do trust in Christ alone: for his redeeming, reconciling and renewing love; in a word, for his great accomplishment – his life-giving, sprit-breathing resurrection.
The resurrection alone can deal with our sins. They are never going not be eradicated for us, but if we are to live a radically new life it will be without them, and with and in the fellowship that is God’s will or all those whom he loves. Those whom he sees not as unworthy sinners, but as children who know that they cannot forgive themselves and so who turn to him in an act of repentance which is both the deepest desperation and the most sublime hope.