I used to think that I had to do everything right. In fact, I thought the goal was to get more and more things right until eventually everything was right. Nothing was wrong. Wrong was bad. Wrong was so bad, that it meant that it put my life in danger. Wrong meant that there was a god somewhere that was ready to punish me and send me to hell if I were to even slightly miss the mark.
I was a sinner that was in need of saving. I was unholy and needed to be holy.
As it turns out, trying to get everything right can be a pretty damaging way to live. I can only speak for myself, of course, but at a very basic level such insanity can make you feel as though you will never measure up. It goes beyond keeping you humble and ravishes your self esteem. Measuring up against a purportedly perfect life is not the kind of thing that gives most people hope, especially when failure means punishment of the never-ending variety.
It’s the classic double bind, really. “We can be be sure that we know Him if we keep his commands.” says the book of 1st John – His notoriously difficult to adhere to commands. In the same breath, we know that we are human. We are far from perfect and so we are far from certain that we know Him or He knows us. If I lie, do I know that I know Him? If I don’t feed the hungry, or give of my wealth, or if I shave my goatee what happens to our relationship? Do the terms of the fire insurance policy I purchased when I was seven automatically renew or do I have to go back to the agent year after year? The severity of the consequences almost require us to devout and turns wonder into crippling uncertainty.
Sainthood can be maddening.
In many ways, my own sainthood was very much maddening. The endless pursuit of the righteous left my body in shambles. Racing heart. Thoughts of impending doom. Tying my dog’s leash to my wrist so that when I inevitably died during his morning walk he wouldn’t be able to run away and, in turn, my wife wouldn’t have to be alone. While it’s a little simplified and likely dramatic to say this, the pursuit of holiness nearly killed me.
At that point, I did what any other self-respecting saint who was convinced there was more to life than guilt and fear of eternal damnation would have done: I became a sinner.
This process involved embracing a part of myself that had never been embraced. My inner sinner had often breached my holy defenses, only to be quelled by fervent prayer and spiritual warfare. Now, though, it was time to listen. My inner sinner, I learned, wasn’t trying to destroy me. My inner sinner was trying to help me see the world from a different perspective and open my eyes to a brand new reality.
It makes perfect sense for you to think that my inner sinner was out for my destruction. It only wanted to see me fail and experience the fleeting extacies that come with debauchery and evil. It’s what I thought might happen too boutIt certainly wasn’t my experience. Instead, the demands of my inner saint seemed to be the more unreasonable. My inner saint pushed me to do more, to pray more, to save more. My inner saint warned me that each person who wasn’t on the happy side of salvation would spend forever in hell. “It’s five minutes to the rapture,” I imagine my inner saint saying. “Do you know where your friends will spend eternity?” My inner saint, in warning me about the evils at the end of the world, actually did more to make me question the grace of God than to take comfort in it.
What was remarkable was the contrast I experienced. Where my inner saint pushed for more and better rule-following, my inner sinner tried to persuade me to slow down. When my inner saint condemned from afar, my inner sinner bid me go. My inner saint expected others to change their ways. My inner sinner enjoyed them just as they were.
My understanding had been that my warring factions would stop at nothing less than the destruction of the other. Were evil to establish a foothold, it would soon wipe out all that was good in my life. If I could hold out long enough, though, good had already won and evil would be wiped from the face of the earth. I just needed to be patient. What I had never known before, though, was that these forces can collaborate in my favor.
Here I am: an ever-changing mix of oppositional forces, part saint and part sinner. Both have become essential. Both have been the path to new life. My inner sinner would not necessarily admire the beauty of a sunset or see the value in creation, but my inner saint would scoff at the notion of sharing life with my grandfather over a glass of whiskey. Both would tragically miss out on something bigger than themselves.
If I am to do things right, I cannot be one without the other. I cannot get rid of one in favor of the other. By themselves, both are damaging; both can tear you down; both should be approached with caution. Together, though. When we consider the world through the eyes of the inner saint and the inner sinner, it reveals a beautiful, enlarged, sacred perspective. It is encompassing and welcoming.
It is good.