As a Church whose popularity and place at the cultural table have weakened, we are generally afraid to talk about sin nowadays.
It does bring up a genuine problem. Never before has a human culture been so isolated. Technology has allowed us to live Alone, Together in a society whose baseline assumption is that you don’t talk about religion and politics. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to develop lasting relationships with people who think differently. So we avoid sin topics, lest we lose our audience. Essentially, we can place accompaniment above repentance. We can delay and delay until we think that talking about sin is an optional pathway to God.
While concerns about prudence and the timing of preaching sin are 100% legitimate, we have to remind ourselves that there is nothing optional about repentance. Conviction of one’s sin and metanoia are the only pathway to a Savior whose first ministerial words were, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” In fact, the Church’s whole mission could be stated as: bringing sinners to a conviction of their sin, repenting of their ways and calling upon Jesus for conversion and a renewed life.
For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”… So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17)
Michelangelo was born a vain, prideful man who had an uncontrollable temper, lustful relationships with men, and thought of nothing but his own attempt at perfection. He battled idols his whole life. But perhaps his greatest quality, which leaps out of every piece of his art, was his wrestle. He could see Heaven, but often tasted the iron bars of Hell – even to the point of despair.
I live to sin / for the soul that living dies, / my life being no more mine, / but to wickedness enslaved.
I want to want, O Lord, what I don’t want: / Between the flame and this icy heart a veil descends / that extinguishes the fire.
Someone helped Michelangelo see the reality of his sin (this was not the norm of his era, either). Now, he was certainly unbalanced: there were many times in his life when he didn’t have it all figured out and he didn’t quite know how to have faith, how to love himself, or how to live as a child of a loving God. But, his knowledge of his sinfulness, of his fundamental unrighteousness and need for God, kept him humbly seeking the narrow way. Later in his life, through a renewal movement in the Church called the Spirituali, he would have a few relationships that helped him encounter God and know the redemptive Love that was the other side of the coin of his sin.
O flesh, O blood, O holy wood that caused Your agony, / My sins are justified through You, / the sin in which I’m born, my father too. / You are the highest good; Your boundless mercy / lifts me from the mire, so close to death, from God so far.
I’ve reached the end of my life’s journey, / in a fragile boat swept along on stormy seas / to the port where all debark. I bear / a log of every deed, both foul and fair. / So long I’ve clung to fantasies, / made of my art an idol and a king. / But now I’ve come to know my error, / sad emptiness of Man’s desire. / Glad thoughts of love, what good are they / when my death approaches twice? / Of one I’m certain, the other looms. / My soul, no longer soothed to sculpt or paint, / now turns to that love divine / whose arms, stretched out upon the Cross, / open wide for my embrace.
The same guy wrote all those poems (there are a bunch more like them). And it is halting to see (for modern eyes) that it wasn’t a passive, lovey-dovey accompaniment that kept him on a road to breakthrough conversion, it was a call to repentance embedded deep within him. It was a knowledge of the reality of sin.
Grappling with our sinfulness (our fundamental, itching sore of lust for having life on our own terms) is brutal and messy, but it is necessary. It doesn’t need to appear this dramatic, but knowledge of sin is the beginning of repentance; repentance is the beginning of conversion; conversion is the beginning of salvation. There are countless other examples (in fact, this is every saint’s story).
But we don’t like to talk about sin. Some might object and say that we need to stick to talking about the love of God. Yes we do. But, there is no dichotomy between talking about sin and the love of God. We need to make sure we talk about sin in loving ways, of course. But, sin is at the very center of the Gospel, which is the Word of God, Who is Love. The healing, enriching, enlivening repentance from sin is the very work of the God of Love.
In fact, is not one of the tasks of the Church, in an age that has lost a consciousness of sin, to remind us of the reality of our need for repentance. We all have to pray about what part we are to play in this mission. But, surely, if we are disciples of Jesus, it is a mission that is ours.