Making a List of Our Sins

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.

deep sorrow

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.

The alternative

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.

Sam

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What do YOU think?

22 thoughts on “Making a List of Our Sins

    • Hi Rosie,

      Thanks for sharing. I took some time on that line. I was thinking of why I do it, and I realized that beating myself up actually fed my perfectionism: I may not have been perfect (so I did X), but I could at least “be perfect” by paying for my imperfection.

      (Though, of course, I can’t.)

      In the end, we have to let God pay for it all. Which takes immense humility. Which is exactly what God loves.

      Thanks,

      Sam

    • Hi Shandee,

      GREAT to hear from you.

      God still shocks me. He loves the humble. And, in the end, when we’re honest, we all will be humble.

      And then we’ll find out how much God loves us. In our imperfections.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  1. Brother, the more I read your stuff the more it echoes my own thoughts. Just this week had a pastor asked me why I teach others that when they apologize to take the next step and name it. Often we talk about forgiveness as “well it’s forgiven but it is probably going to take time to heal. You probably will be a while before you two sit down and have breakfast together”

    C>S. Lewis quote points to why that is. When we consider that the first thing Christ did when he rose was fix Peter breakfast. We realize that forgiveness means exactly what C.S. says. I no longer look at that person based on the hurt they caused or the wrong they did, because I see my own. Instead I see them as they are “the apple of God’s eye. Someone God is passionately in love with. So why in the world would I not want to have breakfast with someone God is passionately in love with. C.S. Lewis Quote really brings that to focus.

    WOW! Thanks for that quote! I needed that

  2. When reflecting and repenting of our individual sins, I am reminded of what Jerry Bridges wrote in his book; The Discipline of Grace in the chapter How Good is Good Enough? – Mark 10:18
    “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” p.19. Our comprehening the significance of our individaul sins drives us to God’s grace.

  3. It’s kinda funny that I’m reading this and as I woke up this morning my heart was heavy with mistakes and actions committed… They seemed to “weigh” me down. There is no “formula” to rid ourselves of these feelings. For me it changes daily. Sometimes it is just a simple nudge in my heart, saying, “let it go” other times it is just changing what I’m doing, because the more I try the worse it gets. Kinda like dead works. Trying to perfect ourselves is like a leopard changing his spots. I know the ladies out there can change their hair color, as well as men. That is wonderful. But those dang roots do grow out. But trying to stampout all of the little hairs from going back to their original color would drive us nuts!!! We are changed and it does not yet appear, but when we see Him, and that can be daily, by the hour or by the minute…. we shall be like Him. Lean on Him as someone encouraged me to do. We ALL have these struggles, so be encouraged when these things arise. It’s what He IS doing in ALL of us. The result is a closer, deeper, intimate, relationship with Him. Dang folks we are still learning how much He LIVES and LOVES IN us!!!! AHHHHHH, GRACE!

    • Hi Gregory,

      I completely love your last line, “AHHHHHH, GRACE!”

      But the essence of grace is not just God’s love, but it’s God’s love of the completely undeserving. It seems counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways to experience God’s grace is to also remember our unworthiness. It is this humility that nurtures the nuclear explosion of God’s love in our hearts; not our works but remembering our un-works; yet God loves us anyway.

      This does not mean beating ourselves up with our sins. When we beat ourselves up, it is actually a kind of works. We are trying to pay for our sins. It is humbling and freeing to let God pay for our sins. That’s why it was so hard for Peter to let Jesus wash his feet. It was humiliating to let one so perfect do such a menial act for us.

      Yet in that foot washing, we are made clean.

      Maybe another way to think of our sin-lists is that we are reminded that Jesus himself stooped to wash our feet, that he laid down his life for his brothers. Us.

      When I think of his doing that, my heart is filled with a humble, confident love, from him and for him.

      Thanks,

      • Sam Been awhile since I’ve been here… and reading your comment seems to me a big open door that I walked into.

  4. Just watched your video on chronic sins – just what I needed to hear, by the way – and what you’re saying here really lines up with what you say there. We are free from the slavery of this sinful world and the enemy’s dominion over us, but God uses our battles with sin to teach us. Imagine how unbearable Christians would be if they were sinless but not yet regenerated. “He who is forgiven much loves much.” We are all forgiven much, but we don’t all realize it much 🙂

  5. Hey Sam! I just quoted you on my FB wall. Such a good point- todays spiritual guidings are just like the processed foods! We must not rock the base and foundation- the Bible.

    • Admitting our faults does not deny care for ourselves. I admit I’m overeating and I try to stop; I admit I haven’t exercised and I make a change.

      More than self-love, we need God’s love. And God’s love is found when he pursues us even before we search for him. Admitting our faults is our expression of grateful love back at God.

      Tim Keller talks about true repentance when he says, “Legalistic repentance is destructive. Paul talks about gospel repentance “that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” which is contrasted with “worldly sorrow [that] brings death” (2 Cor 7: 10). In moralistic religion our only hope is to live a life good enough to require God to bless us. Every instance of repentance in this view of things is traumatic and unnatural— because it serves only to (we think) win back God’s favor through our misery. Without a firm grasp of our free justification, we will admit wrongdoing only under great duress, only as a last resort. We will focus on the behavior itself and be blind to the attitudes and self-centeredness behind it. We will also take as little blame as possible, reciting all the mitigating circumstances to ourselves and others. When we do try to repent in this legalistic frame of mind—since we can never be sure if we have been abject enough to merit God’s favor— we can never experience the release and relief of resting in Jesus’ forgiveness.

      Keller, Timothy (2014-11-04). Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (p. 210). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.