All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.—Romans 3: 23
How would you answer if someone asked, “What’s your favourite verse in the Bible?” Some of us might stammer and be embarrassed because we couldn’t come up with a single verse, favourite or otherwise. As for me, I probably would answer with the verse about sin that begins this reflection. Now I realise sin is a word we moderns hardly use anymore in polite conversation. It is an ancient word originally from the world of archery, and it meant simply falling short or missing the mark. With that in mind, I believe my chosen verse has great therapeutic value; it promotes a clear-eyed sense of self and also healthy relations with others.
On the personal level, Romans 3: 23 reminds us we are all in this together, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not just some of us, but all of us. Whenever we realise we have done something wrong, we should cut ourselves some slack. Of course we have sinned—always have, always will! The key thing is to use that realisation as a prompt to change direction, to turn again to what is right, to seek forgiveness, to open ourselves to receive God’s redeeming grace. Sin is part of our universal human condition, not just in the sense of our endlessly missing the mark but also as an ever-present “power hostile to human beings.” In the words of Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge, Sin (capitalised as the Power it surely is) holds all of humanity “helplessly in thrall.”
We are all by nature a mixed bag—a combination of a dark side and a light side, a better self and a shadow self. Accepting this truth helps us maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. Denying it, pretending otherwise, leads to unhealthy feelings of shame and guilt. If we cannot acknowledge ourselves as sinners, then we are likely to project that sinfulness onto others. Perfectionism can, and usually does, lead to intolerance and self-righteousness.
In the Old Testament book of Samuel we learn that David, the great shepherd king of Israel, is very much a sinner. The prophet Nathan tells David a poignant tale about a rich man killing a poor man’s beloved little lamb. Nathan tells the story to indict David for arranging the killing of Uriah the Hittite so David could take Uriah’s wife to be his own. The story cuts David to the heart. He confesses his sin, turns to the Lord, and is forgiven. By tradition it is this very same King David, the redeemed sinner, who composes some of the psalms. With David as their author, we can appreciate the full force of words such as these: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”
The New Testament tells the story of a woman who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears and dries them with her hair. The woman is identified only as a sinner, and thus the religious leaders condemn Jesus for allowing her to touch him. But it is precisely because the woman is a sinner that Jesus welcomes her. It is for her sake, and for the sake of all us sinners, that Jesus comes into the world. He says to the woman, and to all who repent and turn to him, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The truth of our mixed nature fills not just the pages of the Bible. In prose and poetry, painting and performance, we are portrayed as complex creatures continually falling and rising, sinning and being redeemed. An example comes to mind, each of which powerfully portrays our dual nature.
American actor Robert Duvall, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in an amazing film called The Apostle (1997). Duvall plays the title role of Sonny, a sinner of every sort—a cheating, lying, womanising southern preacher in the holiness or Pentecostal tradition. Yet, for all his faults, Sonny is a compassionate pastor. Indeed, his compassion is rooted in his own firsthand experience of being a sinner whose sins have been forgiven.
In a key scene, a local redneck troublemaker played by Billy Bob Thornton drives a bulldozer up to Sonny’s church and threatens to knock it down. When Sonny lays a Bible on the ground in front of the bulldozer, the Billy Bob Thornton character jumps down to confront Sonny. The troublemaker goes down on one knee, about to remove the Bible, when Sonny places his hands gently on his shoulder and challenges him to acknowledge why he’s really here. Tears begin streaming from the troublemaker’s eyes as he confesses his own sense of sinfulness and self-loathing. Sonny assures him that his own sins are a lot worse and that the Lord’s forgiveness is always there for those who turn to him in true repentance. It is a powerful scene of redemption—one sinner reaching out to another.
Robert Duvall later had this to say about the film: “Some religious people ask why I would make such a movie and emphasise that this evangelical preacher has weaknesses. And my answer is that we either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the Bible.” Duvall goes on to describe Sonny as an everyman figure who is “full of good and bad. … He’s a kind of percentage mixture at the beginning and at the end. There’s a certain percentage chance he will do good and a percentage chance he will again err. But he knows he has erred and that he needs confession and redemption.” Like all of us, we might say, Sonny is piebald, a mixture of darkness and light, a better self and a shadow self.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.