Recently, I had coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long while. I knew her from years ago, when we served together with our husbands in the same ministry. She had moved to Arizona to join an art colony, and her life has taken many different turns since. In the course of our conversation, she made an offhand statement that I think thousands of folks today might echo. It struck me forcibly: “When it comes to personal sin, I just don’t think in those categories anymore.”
I suspect she meant that in a culture like ours, naming something as sin sounds harsh and judgmental. The word is becoming taboo. Talking about our sin is like inviting our own internal Pharisee to jab us in the ribs and remind us of our deficiencies. So in the same way that we don’t walk down a dark alley where we might be mugged, we also don’t think or talk about sin.
But I’d like to make the case for why this is precisely the Kairos moment for embracing what my friend was trying to dismiss—one’s own personal sin. Especially for those of us in the pastoral community.
How People Change
Perhaps naming sin sounds strange coming from someone like me who has spent more than twenty years as a therapist in a major city. Therapists are supposed to make you feel better, not worse, right?
In counseling conversations, where I get to see up close how people change, I’ve also come to see my own heart more clearly. None of us gets to a better place without the deep cleansing work of acknowledging how we have failed. I am not just a woman in a fallen world, wounded by life and the jabs of people who’ve hurt me. I, too, have believed particular lies. I have caused others real pain. I am both wounded and someone who has wounded others.
I would argue that freedom begins with naming our sin—not just where we admit, “Yeah, I do some things that are wrong,” but where we have a deep awareness that at our very cores with our fists in the air that the background music of our souls plays a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
When my friend Connally Gilliam and I sat down to write a book together on the four acts of the gospel (Creation, the Fall, Redemption, Restoration) and how each of those gives fresh insight into the goodness of God, we realized again that we have experienced liberation only in proportion to our willingness to tell the truth about our own hearts. As we walked around the landscape of our lives in the light of the gospel, we realized that facing the fallenness of the world must include facing the fallenness that’s in us. There we meet God and discover grace that opens a door to what can be.
Being Willing to Name Sin as Sin
In our book, Connally talks about discovering her own racism in college as she lived with an African American woman named Maria. Connally had worked in multicultural ministries for years. But in the close quarters of a friendship, she found herself confronted with hidden ugly pieces of cultural arrogance—that quiet, snobbish assumption that you know better. And she was mortified. Mentally she knew better. But knowing better didn’t change things.
Maria and Connally shared the conviction that in the blood of Jesus, they could enter something approximating real sisterhood if they kept fighting their way forward, facing their wounds and sin. As they could each name their own pride and stubbornness and still hang together in friendship, and as they prayed through the impasses, their relationship changed shape. In the confession of sin, in struggling through it together, they began to be two women loved by God who could live together in the same space. The walls between them had begun to crumble.
None of us breaks through to something this remarkable apart from having the willingness to face the darkness in us and call it what it is: sin.
If I think of that raised fist in my own life, sin takes a different form. I came to Christ in a revival era, with the noise and excitement of the newly converted. Without knowing it, I wrapped my identity around the early success and sense of significance I found in ministry. That may sound strange, but can’t we transform almost anything into a ruler to measure our worth? Ministry, particularly in a revival era, brings lots of applause. And it’s almost Jesus.
Yes, it works wonderfully well until the crowds go home and the emotional highs get fewer and farther between. In that disappointment, I realized I had a contract going with God that he never signed. I was all-in as long as the adrenaline kept pumping, as long as I felt successful. But I was using faith like a commodity—my own little prosperity gospel. I was using God to become someone.
God had known all along I was taking his love and making it a means to my own end. I was feeding off the response of other people—not him. It took the crowds going home for me to see what lay beneath my disillusionment. Repentance meant a much deeper sense of turning to God and actually letting his love be enough. He was inviting me to take my place at a table already prepared—feeding me with himself. The crowds and the applause became more like background noise that was present sometimes but often not.
The “woman of the city” in Luke’s gospel, who brought her alabaster jar of perfume to Jesus and wept at his goodness is our hero. We have found our story in hers. Her sin is evident—too evident to hide. She doesn’t pretend to be more or less whole or broken or holy or sinful than she really is. What matters to her is what is real. She looks past the furrowed brows of scornful men straight into the eyes of Jesus, who sees her as she is and knows her sin—and loves her fully.
This is the longing of every human heart—yours and mine—to be known as we really are and still be loved.
Peace comes with the truth. The chunks of us that are chronically prone to dethrone God and put ourselves in his place are real and relentless. Apart from Jesus’ rescue, our sinful bent would shut us out from God’s presence forever. But Jesus is real and relentless too. That’s why looking this reality in the eye and naming it as such is simply flat-out freedom.
So yes, for the sake of the love of Jesus Christ, let’s talk about personal sin.
Paula Rinehart, LCSW, is a therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the author of Strong Women, Soft Hearts and Sex and the Soul of a Woman. This article is adapted from And Yet, Undaunted: Embraced by the Goodness of God in the Chaos of Life (coming out in October 2019), and written together with Connally Gilliam (Revelations of a Single Woman).