I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s met people who’ve been damaged by low self-esteem. Sometimes we don’t need a lot of help to see ourselves was worthless and bad, and sometimes, regrettably, the church hasn’t always helped that. On Ash Wednesday, of all days, it’s not unreasonable for the language we use to lead us to see little value in ourselves. When my own Reformed tradition uses sixteenth century words like depravity without setting them in context in the twenty-first century, then it’s easy to see why some folk’s self-esteem is a dented.
The language that the church uses at this time of year concentrates very heavily upon the fact we are deliberate sinners; we are in need of repentance; it is a time of penitence, purification, self-examination; we are weak; we should be ashamed; even that we are dust. You can see why it’s easy to get the impression that we are totally bad people. Medieval theologians have done a good job of convincing many of us that we are intrinsically bad, that we sin perpetually, and we should always seek God’s forgiveness for our evil ways.
In Anglicanism, clergy say daily offices that require them to confess their sins twice every day. If one confesses ones sins in the evening, and then again in the morning, some might find themselves wondering what they are doing that is really so bad that they need to confess twice every day? Are we really such awful people? I struggle to believe that we are so bad. Of course, some people do some pretty horrible things sometimes, but I find it hard to believe that ordinary people in ordinary times are so bad so much so often.
The opposite of this, that we all intrinsically good, has much to be said for it at first impression. We are, after all, made in the image of God, and God is good. Much of what we do is good. Someone called Matthew Fox has written a book on what he calls ‘original blessing’. His idea is that our lives should be based upon the fact that God loves us, and that we are good. From God we have an original blessing, not original sin.
This is a very attractive idea in many ways. It would definitely be much better is base things upon love, not upon sin. The problem is that we know that not everything we do is always good. We may not be evil sinners all the time, but equally we not always perfect, and can never be perfect this side of paradise. God is perfect, but we are not. We may be made in God’s image, but we are not genetic clones of God. We know that we are not perfect, we know our own imperfections all too well.
I think that the answer may lie in a story I remembered hearing in an Oxford lecture room, with an elegant fireplace and latticed windows, where an Orthodox priest lectured on early Christian thought. He spoke about the nature of humanity, as ever with an anecdote, a witticism, an aside. That day he said that we are all like a man who has a raincoat. The coat has two pockets, and in each pocket there is a piece of paper. On one piece of paper is written ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return’. On the other is written ‘You have made them a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour’. If either one piece of paper is lost, then the man is lost. If he holds both, then he lives. And so, we are neither rubbish nor perfect, but both dust and angel.
Our Bible readings today remind us of the danger of hypocrisy that can lie in outward symbolism. The Biblical writers clearly condemn hypocrisy. I don’t think that they mean to convey the idea that all outward symbolism is hypocrisy, but rather that those who have only an outward appearance, and not an inward reality, are in danger of being hypocrites. It’s something that we all fall victim to at times, but the danger is if that replaces reality. The boundary is probably around the question of whether we do in private what we do in public, and how much self-sacrifice are we prepared to make for God.
Lent, this Lent and every Lent, is the time of the Church year when we have opportunity for an honest and open examination of ourselves before God. Our purpose is not to judge ourselves as rubbish. Equally, we are not in the business of saying that we are perfect. We know that we make mistakes and sometimes succumb to hypocrisy. Here we have a gift from God of a period of time for examining ourselves, so that we can assess ourselves and see how we can improve ourselves, to be more like God, whom we know through Jesus. Mahatma Ghandi said that, ‘there would be many more Christians if more Christians were more like their Christ.’
There is a danger. If concentrate too much upon our sin or our hypocrisy we can become obsessed by our own unworthiness, and we are back to thinking about our being rubbish. The purpose of reflecting upon our sins is so that we can overcome them, not so that we can turn ourselves into rubbish. When we look at the dust of our life, we are so doing, so that we can defeat it, and be increasingly like those who are a little less than angels. From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return, from dust you shall be raised.
Often people talk of giving things up during Lent, or perhaps, the more positive spin of taking something up. Either way, it’s perhaps not the most helpful way to begin a humble experience. If we are successful then we feel proud, which not the right frame of mind for humble heart-searching and self-improvement. And if we fail, then we feel guilty, which means that we can’t lift ourselves from the metaphorical gutter, and can’t try to be a little bit nearer the angels.
There’s a hymn that we’ll sing later, and the last verse sums up some of this for me:
Glory to God, who now to us has given
best of his gifts, the call to share his strife!
Glory to God, who bids us fight for heaven
here in the dust and joy of human life!