Loving the sinner (in me)


And I… will stumble and fall
I’m still learning to love
Just starting to crawl
– Lyrics from “Say Something”

Almost exactly 8 years ago today, I made some life-shattering realisations.

1. I thought I knew God, but I really didn’t know Him at all.
2. I was unhappy.
3. I did not know who I was.
4. I could not love myself. I desperately wanted to be able to, but I did not know how to.

There was nothing on the surface of my life that would reveal this, except to the most discerning and piercing eyes. I was a “good Catholic” – practising, well-read about the faith, and even regularly sharing about Christ with non-believing friends. I was newly married to a loving husband, living in a new marital home and pursuing a doctorate. Yet I was increasingly unhappy without realising it. I was not alive and I did not know it. Then God burst my bubble and I knew that life would never be the same again.

But this post is not about that conversion 8 years ago. It’s about where I am 8 years hence. Because you see, for the past 12 months, God has been undoing me. After 7 years of what felt like rapid spiritual growth and increasing piety, this past 1 year was nothing about what I did with God’s grace and everything about sitting on the sidelines and watching God undo the hard work that I had put in during those 7 years.

8 years ago, my life changed direction. My goals changed, what I worked hard for changed, my priorities changed. But what remained the same were the scripts in my life, my habits, my presuppositions, my insecurities, my compulsions. What remained the same was my fear of failure, my fear of disappointing God, my fear of being unloved, my drivenness to succeed, my need to be right and in control. What remained the same was my inability to believe that I am worthy of love as I am and my inability to love myself. So although God became the center of my life and I pursued him doggedly, you could say I was attempting to pour new wine into old wineskin. I was trying to build a grand new house on the shaky foundation of my old self, and I did so with my whole heart. And God let me do it. Until last year.

Then, God slowly started stripping away all the things I had built up over the years: My consistently deepening, lengthening and more regular prayer life. The public, quantifiable work I can point to in His vineyard when I needed something to assure me that I am a good disciple. The sense of assurance that I am advancing in the spiritual life. All this and more was swept aside and dismantled by his holy and gentle hands.

Yet God was very kind, for He started this season of stripping away by giving me a week filled with tangible experiences of his affection and love during which he had told me that if I wished to continue this walk with him, I must let him touch me at a deeper place than before. He is going after what I have become accustomed to as the foundation of my identity – the patterns of thinking and behaving that make up the “me” I and the world know. What nature and nurture had created up to this point, he – the Divine Craftsman – is going to re-create at the very foundation.

Throughout the past 12 months, I had felt disoriented, then bereft, then – as I eased into this season of being undone – peace. I can’t think of anything I did in my spiritual life this past year of which I can be proud of, but I had my eyes opened as never before. I began to recognise how much of the “progress” I had made in these years was driven by my old self, and how I had attempted to become accomplished in the spiritual life to feed my need to be of worth. As these truths were revealed, I could see that I was indeed  helpless to help myself. For the harder I try, the tighter the old patterns of thinking and acting are wound around me. The only thing I can do is do nothing – except hold on to Christ with my heart. I watched myself being stripped of all the trappings of spiritual strength and I saw clearer than before where my standing more accurately was – far more a beginner than I had thought, and far more unconditionally loved than I ever imagined.

Then, about a week ago, I realised I no longer flinched when I journaled about my sins. The old pangs of disgust and self-rejection that rose instinctively when I thought of my failings were not there. “Have I stopped hating sin?” I wondered. The answer came gently and immediately – “No, you have learned to love the sinner.” I paused from writing to let that astounding revelation sink into my heart. Wonder and awe washed over me as I listened to my heart burst out in Mary’s Song. “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour… The Almighty has done great things for me, holy is His Name…” God has worked a miracle – He has indeed cast the mighty from their thrones, and in so doing he has raised up the lowly.

I don’t think I have ever truly hated sin, because that can only happen when I love the sinner. And it has taken me this long to learn – haltingly – to love the sinner in me.

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