10-191-16 - Self-Appraisal

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is the prayer of the tax-collector in Jesus’ parable. It forms the heart of what is known as the Jesus Prayer, practiced by hesychasts striving to pray without ceasing. (Should I make you google it? Naah – I’ll tell you: hesychasm is the “prayer of the heart,” a spiritual discipline that seeks to make prayer constant, internalized on the breath and undergirding daily activity. It is what Franny was attempting in J.D. Salinger’s classic Franny and Zooey, a favorite of mine.)

The fuller Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a [miserable] sinner.” It is short and clearly evokes the distinction between us and Christ. To some it smacks of low self-esteem, guilt and shame, and all those icky feelings that have made Christianity so unappealing to so many. What happened to “You are so precious?” Is Jesus really commending self-degradation?

Jesus is commending self-appraisal. This is a prayer from the gut at a moment of self-realization. It represents one stage of repentance, well-described by another theological term: compunction. Compunction is so often accompanied by its buddy, “dread,” that I think of them in tandem, a sort of cabaret act of the soul – “And now, let’s welcome to our spotlight, ‘Compunction and Dread!’”

Compunction is that sick feeling we get when we realize we’ve hurt someone, or something we’ve done or said has been exposed, or we feel inwardly convicted. It is not fun – which is why dread comes swimming up close behind it, bringing the fear of consequences to the surface. At such moments we are most keenly aware of our need for mercy.

That is the heart of repentance, or – look out, here comes another theological term – “metanoia, ” meaning, turning. We turn from patterns and behaviors and thinking that lead to pain and separation from God, ourselves, and others. We turn toward the source of mercy, grace and truth. Some ancient baptismal liturgies embodied this, as the candidates faced west while renouncing their past and turned toward the east in affirming Christ as Lord.

Repentance does not mean labeling ourselves unworthy or usurping God’s role as judge. It is truth-telling, house-cleaning, pointing out places of pain or self-reliance, inviting the Holy Physician to heal what is diseased in our spirits. Because we are able to call ourselves sinners, we can also call ourselves beloved, saints of God. There’s another great duo, “Sinners and Saints.” Simul justus et peccator, Luther said, “At once justified and sinner.”

In prayer today, ask the Spirit to show you where you feel ashamed, guilty or scared. Sometimes these are irrational, not tied to any real areas of sin in us; sometimes they’re legit and we need to own them. There is something bracing and energizing about facing ourselves and inviting God into the shadow places. If that sense of compunction comes up – ask God to lift it, to fill you with love and grace.

“Sinner” is not the last word on who we are. It’s just a step along the way to transparency.
God has the last word, and it is “beloved.”

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