The True Sense of Sin

From “Saving Face,” The Fourth River (1935) 

Bravado — tolerance — patronage — these are the three subterfuges by which in all ages men have attempted to “save face”. They have adopted them in dealing with man and God alike. With such trumpery evasions of the realities of life as involve other men we are not concerned. But in the matter of religion it is fitting that we should attempt to consider the phenomenon further, if for no other reason that we may avoid the same self-deception in ourselves. For there can be no doubt about it — with all its joy and inspiration, true religion is a very humbling thing. In it we are bound to confess that God is all and we are nothing; that he is the Creator and we only the works of his hands; that without us the world would go on very much as usual, but without his ever-sustaining power it would crumble into nothingness in a moment. 

More than this — we are called upon to confess that even as regards the simple tasks which God has given us to perform, the lesser purposes for which he has called us into being, we have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep. Logically, as any treatise of ascetical theology will tell us, this sense of sin should come first in the Christian life; it is the stepping-stone from which our souls should begin their upward course. Actually — so much more complex is life than logic — this is very often not the case. The true sense of sin, and with it, true penitence and confession, the Gethsemane of the soul, is often a late development, even in the devoted Christian. But without it, and without the humiliation that it must bring to us, full and efficacious Christianity is impossible to man. 

Yet bravado, tolerance, and patience still characterize our approach toward God — before whom humility is the only appropriate attitude — as much as they did with Naaman. Each man alone can say how far this is true of his own soul; and whether it is by magnifying his own importance and activities, or by treating religion as a pious sentimentality retained only because of its old associations, or by making excuses for himself as one who deserves special treatment on account of his superior worth or unusual difficulties, that he contrives to evade the issue. But it is clear for all to see how even in our public worship there are elements which, admirable and proper though they are in themselves, can all too easily be laid under contribution by those who wish to save face before God. 

Attendance at a solemn Eucharist, with all its dignity of ceremonial, its dramatic moments, its hymns of praise and adoration, is often in the case of the sub-religious man, no more than a bravado of display akin to Naaman’s chariots and horses; and the most sacred climax of the rite will for such people be all but meaningless. The humbling repetition of the phrase “miserable sinners” in the Litany, the piercing language of the confessions of sin, can be extenuated, and thereby robbed of their sting, if we think of them (as sometimes we are urged to do) as no more than old-fashioned modes of expression, which ring false to the joyous and energetic character of Christianity as it has at last come to be understood today, but may still be retained for old times’ sake as pious survivals from less enlightened days.  

And which of us does not sometimes adopt the attitude of patronage toward God, as who should say, “It will be a real advertisement for Christianity, a striking fact to give the infidel pause, if one so intelligent and worldly wise as I am is still seen among the ranks of worshippers? Have we advanced so very far from Naaman after all? Do we not still deceive ourselves, even though God be not deceived thereby? 

Kenneth Kirk (1896-1954) was one of the most influential Anglican moral theologians of the twentieth century. He served as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and was Bishop of Oxford from 1937 until his death. This excerpt from a book of his early sermons has been slightly adapted for modern readers. 

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