Loving the Inner Person

These two quotes, from How to Be a Sinner, are worth reflecting on.

One is from St. John of Kronstadt:

Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.

Then there’s this, from St Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zicha, about a person’s inner essence:

When a person loves only himself, he loves neither God nor his fellow-humans. He does not even love the person that is in himself; he loves only his thoughts about himself, his illusions about himself. Were he to love the person in himself, he would love God’s image in him, and would quickly become a lover of God and man, for he would be seeking man and God in other people, as objects of his love.

The conviction of both these saints is that the inner core of the human being is good. That stands in sharp contrast from a teaching of “total depravity.” It also may contrast with some of our impressions about ourselves—that we are completely broken, all lost; or perhaps about other people: that someone can be “pure evil.”

It is an important insight that takes some people decades to uncover, and comes quite naturally and quickly for others: At my core, in my innermost self, I am good. I am made in God’s image. Yes, the image is distorted. The mirror is dirty, maybe even bent. But it’s there, as it always has been. The path of self-scrutiny, the way of surrender to God’s love, is a way towards the recovery of a beauty in you that has never been completely lost. You can access it in yourself, and certainly in other people.

Make that your baseline. When it comes to considering another person, even someone quite horrible, think of St. John of Kronstadt: don’t confuse that inner, God-like image, with the dirt on the picture. When it comes to considering yourself, think of St. Nicholas of Zhicha. Don’t confuse your “self-image,” your thoughts about yourself, with your actual self. Seek out and love the “person-inside-yourself,” “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4). Then you’ll know what you’re seeking to recover, that light, the Jesus told us to “let shine before others” (Mt 5:16).

Benefits of the Sinner Identity

I’m told that my book, How to Be a Sinner, is appearing sometime in February.

What’s it about? It starts with the observation that a lot of what we read and pray in the context of the Church has us calling ourselves “sinners.” Somehow, I think we can’t let that go unexamined. Like many things we repeat in prayer, it would be easier to just let it pass. But I think there’s something to this language that needs examining.

In academese, we sometimes say that this or that concept “needs to be problematized.” Meaning that we have to pick it apart a bit, see what could be problematic in it, in order to strengthen our understanding of it.

That’s what I’m doing with the “sinner identity.” Because in fact there are all kinds of ways to misunderstand it or misuse it.

  • One way would be to equate it with self-hatred. That’s a special pitfall for people who actually do hate themselves, or have been demeaned during their lives.
  • Another would be to believe that the fact that “I am a sinner” means that sin defines Or that “I am my sin.” That evil or wrong is at the core of my being.
  • And another way misuse the “sinner” language would be to ignore it, saying it in a pro forma way, or believe that it pertains to other people – many of them flagrant sinners – and not so much to me.

The strange, counterintuitive reality, though, is that an increasing awareness of myself as a broken being can be unbelievably liberating. Dorotheos of Gaza is truly on to something when he says, “How much joy, how much peace of soul would a person not have wherever he went… if he was one who habitually accused himself…that person would have complete freedom from care.”

As I come clean with my inner flaws I become more and more free from the need to lie to myself or justify myself. I’m less obsessed with what others think of me. I’m generally more realistic about who I am vis-à-vis other people and God. And — here’s one of the biggest advantages — it makes me a less judgmental person.

In the book I go on for pages outlining the unbelievable benefits of owning up to the sinner identity. It’s weird. But there it is. And as the book goes along it becomes clearer to me (and hopefully to you) why this is so.

Some of it has to do with a simple reality check: the more I’m in concert with the actual reality of myself, the more I am liable to see the world as it is. It also has to do with compassion: the more I truly see my faults, the less likely I am to judge others and the more I can empathize with them. Secular commentators have been observing this more and more in recent years: humility is a good thing. Even guilt and shame, rightly deployed, can summon us to be better people. (See Simon Hedlin’s 2015 essay in the Boston Globe: “Feel Guilty: You’ll Help Society” — linked from this fine blog entry.)

But ultimately, the healing character of my “sinner identity” has to do with a fundamental truth about the God before whom we all stand unworthy and condemned: he is limitlessly loving, merciful, and forgiving. That changes everything.

There’s more to say. But this is a beginning.

Presenting your genuine self




What does it mean to be your genuine self, when you pray?

God can save the sinners we are. But not the saints we pretend to be. —Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Metropolitan Anthony makes this point often in his excellent books Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer. He recalls this rather funny phenomenon, where prayer becomes a kind of self-presentation. Often when we address ourselves to God we unconsciously adopt a persona. For many of us, it’s a pious one. Suddenly I’m standing before God as this meek creature, asking forgiveness for my faults. My brow is furrowed, my hand is on my chest. I present others before God too, friends and enemies alike, in a spirit of innocent love. All of that is good:  asking for forgiveness, lovingly lifting others to God’s care. But what if I’m only doing that in a pro forma kind of way?

Perhaps even that isn’t such a bad thing. As the expression goes, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” In other words, sometimes it’s good to go through the motions in order to train ourselves, on the way towards making those same motions expressive of a deeper reality. So maybe I can recite prayers in a rote way, and whether I’ve actually meant a word of it or not, it will still have been worth my putting myself into that posture of prayer, and mouthed the words, as a kind of training towards a deeper experience of the prayers.

That can work, but it’s risky. The problem is that we are liable to get stuck in the “Fake it” stage. Because praying and actually meaning it is scary. Genuinely asking forgiveness for sins, and genuinely praying for others, especially the “trouble” people in our lives, will probably mean that we need to alter our lives. Work on not sinning. Work on loving the people we pray for. Effectively, changing our inner lives. It’s much easier to fake it.

One of the ways we fake it is by becoming someone else while we pray. Before we’ve even uttered a word in prayer, when we put ourselves before God, we might ask, who is this “self” I’m presenting to God? Is it me, or is it a façade of some sort? The façade, the persona, can safely pray in an earnest way, and then leave the prayer-mode and return unchanged.

It’s much more challenging, but so much more fruitful, to use prayer as a moment to get in touch with my genuine self, in its untidiness, and present that before God. Knowing that God has seen this kind of thing before; knowing too that God loves this very same genuine self, in all its beauty, mediocrity, failing and striving. He will save that broken self. But he’ll want to wait for me to offer it to him first. That’s what I think this lovely quote means.

So if you do devote a specific time to prayer—whether in Church or at some other dedicated time—when you do so, consider beginning it something like this: Stand/sit there briefly in silence. Hear the silence. And before saying anything, take a moment to become mindful of who you are at that moment, and who it is you’re praying to.

It’s time well spent: it might change everything.