Pastors do this thing sometimes that bugs me. It’s an understandable mistake. I get why they do it and, to be honest, I’m not completely sure how I’d avoid doing something similar if I found myself in the same situation. But it’s still annoying.
And also, I think, harmful.
It happens when they’re preaching about sin. That means — given the nature of Christianity and of the human condition — it happens a lot. The pastor is there in the pulpit talking about sin, about our sinful nature, about our enslavement by sin, our need to confess our sins, our need to resist the temptation to sin, our need to forgive the sins of others, about what it means to be born into sin and into a sinful world. All that stuff. The pastor recognizes that it’s important to acknowledge that we are all sinners — meaning that even the pastor, too, is a sinner.
And this is where the trouble comes. Because the pastor knows that none of this talk is meaningful unless they make it tangible, concrete, and specific. And if you are going to be concrete and specific when discussing the sins and the sinful nature of the congregation, then you’re also going to need to be concrete and specific when discussing your own sin. And now you’ve preached yourself into a corner.
The problem is not usually that the pastor doesn’t have any examples of their own sins. They’re human, just like the rest of us, so they’ve got plenty of vivid, awful, shameful examples that would perfectly illustrate this point. But they’re also pastors. They’re meant to provide spiritual leadership, and they’re worried that if they share anything that’s a bit too vivid, awful, or shameful, they’ll wind up causing their congregation to turn away from them in disgust — never again fully trusting them and never listening to anything they say in quite the same way. (I think we all share that worry — the general human condition of fearing that if we were ever fully and truly known we could never be fully or truly loved. But it’s particularly acute for pastors, given their job.)
That’s a real concern. It’s a practical, necessary concern, not just a matter of personal pride or ego (even though personal pride and ego may play a part). If they try to illustrate this point by confessing to some personal sin that strikes their congregation as too lurid or too distasteful, they risk undermining everything else they have to say and reducing their capacity to serve the congregation they’re called to serve.
And that brings us to the thing that bugs me. At this point in the sermon, pastors often balk and attempt to do the impossible — to provide an example of a “sin” that is not actually shameful or hurtful or distasteful. They’ll bring up some minor matter of akrasia, some petty foible or embarrassment. They’ll confess to once saying a dirty word when they accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer, to being impatient in traffic, to slothfully neglecting their usual regimen at the gym. Their personal illustration, being something trivial, trivializes the entire sermon.
This is bad. It’s bad for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s a form of dishonesty. And, as we already noted, it can easily become a matter of ego and pride — a humblebrag posing as a confession. But it also harms the congregation — making anyone there who knows themselves to be capable of far worse things (i.e., everyone) fear that they may therefore be exceptionally wicked. And it does this while simultaneously demonstrating to them that this church is a place where anything worse than the trivialities the pastor just mentioned must be kept hidden, unaddressed, unconfessed. Real sin becomes inadmissible and is therefore unadmitted. And therefore, also, it remains unchanged and unrepented from.
This makes church more like one of those old ads for Bally’s Total Fitness in which implausibly fit and good-looking people, glistening with happy sweat, smile as they perform elaborately choreographed feats of cardio. The message of such ads always seemed to be that this was a gym for people who do not need a gym. If you don’t already look perfect then you don’t belong here.
It also teaches a false and misleading idea of what “sin” even means. The pastor’s trivial illustration attempts to provide the idea of some acceptable sin — some behavior that for some reason requires grace despite not being actually disgraceful. They don’t want to confess to any sin that actually harms anyone else or themselves and thereby wind up reinforcing the idea that “sin” is some arbitrary category that exists outside of harm to others or to oneself. It reinforces the idea that “sin” is a matter of transgression against some capricious and inscrutable list of rules — an idea that the Bible repeatedly rejects, rebuts and mocks:
The commandments — “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet” and any other commandment — are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.*
Perhaps it’s best for pastors preaching about sin just to avoid getting into personal specifics entirely. That’s what the Apostle Paul does a few chapters ahead of the passage above, in Romans 7, writing “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Very relatable, but also notably short on specifics.
Tony Campolo takes a similar route with a joke he often uses when he’s a guest preacher. “If you knew the sin in my life,” he says, “you would never allow me to set foot in this building.”
“But don’t get cocky,” he adds. “If I knew the sin in your life, I would never have agreed to come here.”
The Book of Common Prayer provides a lovely approach to specific-yet-also-non-specific confession:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
That pretty much covers it. I like that prayer very much. I think it’s an accurate and unfailingly apt description of — and prescription for –our condition as humans and our condition as sinners (which is redundant). It’s an excellent one-size-fits-all prayer of confession. I recommend it.
But I still suspect that those pastors’ initial impulse is correct. If we’re to talk about sin in a way that’s fully honest and fully meaningful, it helps to provide concrete, tangible, specific and personal examples. Instead of side-stepping that by confessing to some trivial not-even-really-a-sin, confession of some real and personal examples could be an important and even transformational moment for both the pastor and their congregation. The words for what I mean by that are still taking shape, so let me leave off here, for now. But we’ll get back to this.
In the meantime, though, pastors, please stop telling us about that time you said a bad word when you stubbed your toe or that time you yelled at the driver who cut you off and totally deserved it. That’s not illustrating your point, it’s undermining it.
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* Romans 13:9-10, in the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV actually has one more semicolon there after “covet.” I can’t say precisely why, but I don’t like it. I may be wrong — semicolons have always eluded me. But that bit of punctuation seems uninspired.