OU ARE A SINNER. So is the person closest to you at this moment. And so am I. We are all poor sinners.
I am intentionally putting these things bluntly, because it’s not our natural inclination to be open about our sinfulness, is it? When a little kid does something wrong, for instance, he or she will go to extraordinary lengths to cover it up. While we mature in some ways, and our tactics certainly advance, that impulse to exonerate ourselves always stays with us. We consistently try to “put our best foot forward,” so we downplay our sins and faults.
This isn’t the way it works with God, though. We don’t advance in the spiritual life by putting our best foot forward. We advance in the spiritual life by putting our worst foot forward. It’s seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true.
There are a handful of Biblical characters whom I really admire in this regard. First, there is King David, one of my great heroes. King David is an extraordinary man—a warrior-king of great courage and strength and wisdom, and yet a big-time sinner, too. In one passage (2 Samuel 12), the prophet Nathan accuses David of several major sins, including murder. David’s response is music to my ears. He doesn’t get defensive, but simply says: “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Isn’t it refreshing to hear someone straightforwardly admit to their faults? What a great accomplishment it would be for so many of us in the modern world if we could just admit, like King David, that we have, in fact, “sinned against the Lord.” We live in a world that wants to deny sin. We say that, “Mistakes were made,” when what we really mean is, “I sinned.” We offer all kinds of excuses, but we avoid taking responsibility for our actions. King David’s confession is a great model for us.
So, too, is the sinful woman in the Gospel, who bathes Jesus’ feet in her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with oil. What she does is far from culturally acceptable, since this is in the context of a formal dinner. And yet she does it anyway, because she knows the enormity of her sin.
Pope Francis recently said something about this in a daily Mass homily. He said last month: “The problem is not that we are sinners: the problem is not repenting of sin, not being ashamed of what we have done” (Pope Francis, 5/17/13). We should be ashamed of our sins. A healthy dose of shame can lead us to true sorrow, and only when we’re truly sorry can we ever be forgiven.
All the great saints agree that true growth in the spiritual life always begins with a profound sense of our own sinfulness. God can forgive us, but we first need to recognize our faults. So, as we kneel before the altar at Mass, as we kneel before the Lord in the confessional, as we kneel beside our beds in prayer, let’s do so in humility. Recognizing our faults, and longing for God’s grace, let’s put our worst foot forward.