A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone who felt horrible about forgetting a commitment. She felt her accidental negligence caused unnecessary stress for a good friend. And it probably did.
She felt bad (understandably) and kicked herself (metaphorically) for her mistake. She couldn’t shake the pain of disappointing a close friend. The oversight overwhelmed her thoughts and dreams. She couldn’t find a faucet to turn off the fountain of self-condemnation.
I suggested that her pain was triggered by an unrealistic expectation of her own perfection; that this one omission was possibly not an anomaly; and that she probably makes dozens (maybe hundreds) more mistakes every week. Her problem was a false, high opinion of her perfection.
I’m always good for a pick-me-up when you need it most.
I suggested that she make a list of every sin (and mistake) she had committed in the last week. A month would be better. I partly proposed a list to shake her self-punishing perfectionism, but mostly to help her recognize God’s unshakeable love of her in her imperfection.
That same day—literally a few hours later—someone sent me an email that condemned the “horrific practice” of listing our sins, claiming sin-lists are evils that rob us of freedom in Christ.
Who’s right? At the risk of making a mistake (that I could add to my own list later); I am.
But it’s complicated
The “Don’t make a list” email argued that: a) making a list of wrongs gives power to sin, b) love keeps no record of wrong, c) it’s Christ’s blood that forgives not your confession, and d) it’s better to think positively than negatively.
I suspect the writer was remembering pulpit bullies who berate congregations about their sins, bludgeoning them into submission with highly selective verses. These browbeaters seem unaware of the distinction between conviction and condemnation.
Pulpit bullies are making a big blunder, but so are the anti-list people. It’s just a different error.
Perhaps the best argument against sin-lists is that they are so depressing. C. S. Lewis responds,
Does [making a sin-list] sound very gloomy? Does Christianity encourage morbid introspection? The alternative is much more morbid. Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others.
(They’re probably thinking incessantly of writers who suggest making lists of our sins.)
Yes, I too know people who are obsessed with their sinful self-obsession and anxious over their persistent anxiety. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t helpful. But there are very good reasons to make a list:
- Thinking of our own ill behaviors distracts us from thinking ill thoughts of other people.
- Remembering our faults nurtures humility (the world needs more humility, IMHO).
- Admitting our own harshness (or indifference) kills the bitterness we feel toward others when they insult us. It’s hard to hold onto bitterness while remembering our own faults.
- Making a list softens us. It inclines our hearts to openly accept criticism from others; we can say, “Hey, if you think that’s bad, you should see my entire sin-list!”
- Sin lists give us greater freedom in Christ. They remind us that his gift of love is free.
The best reason to list our wrongs is that our culture hates the practice. Let’s mistrust modern culture’s spiritual answers the same way that we mistrust modern culture’s processed foods.
Here’s what I do
Counterintuitively, sin-lists reduce morbid obsession over our sins. When I change the oil in my car, I think very little about engine oil. When I forget to change it, I think about oil far too much.
My normal prayer time follows the old acronym, ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication/prayer for friends). Confession is already a small part of my daily practice.
Periodically I make confession a bigger part. I write a list (usually on paper but sometimes just in my head) following these guidelines:
- I choose simple language to describe my act: “I sent a nasty email to a friend.”
- I describe my behavior not my identity, “I acted harshly,” not, “I’m a nasty person” (although, come to think of it…).
- I delete defensive qualifications like, “It was a long day, and he probably deserved it.”
- I remove sensational embellishments: “I was so horrible, and this will ruin his self-esteem forever, and I hope he doesn’t drive off a bridge, and the sky is falling.”
- If I begin to beat myself up, I add to the list: “I tried to pay for my own sins.”
- I confess the list to God and ask for forgiveness.
And then I throw the list away.
The oddest gift of all
I like to give good gifts to God: money, time, skills, praise, etc. But those gifts aren’t the best gift I can give. The first step into the presence of God is not my holiness but my helplessness.
So is the second step.
The best gift I can give God is my list. When I give God my strengths, a little part of me stands taller. When I give God my weaknesses—my sin-list—a little part of me sits down.
For you do not delight in sacrifice, and you are not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you do not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
I wanted to show you my own sin-list, but cyber-space isn’t big enough. Besides, I gave it away.