You miserable, wretched sinners!
You will hear this during Lent. Some will be offended, as these words seem rude and unworthy of creatures created in God’s image. To retain these words would be to wrongly imply that human beings are supposed to grovel before God and debase themselves.
Others will be pleased, as these traditional words seem to capture the full spirit of repentance and our total need for God. To abandon them, they say, would be to trust too much in ourselves.
Which is correct?
As in many things, the words themselves matter. And when these words were chosen from the English lexicon in the 17th century, they meant something slightly different than they mean today. And that may be the key to understanding what our Lenten liturgies mean. I won’t digress too long into word study, but hang with me for two sentences…
Miserable and wretched today are often associated with words like “detestable” or “odious.”
Yet in the 17th century, they were more likely to be understood as meaning “helpless” or “poor” or “without aid.”
There is a bit of a difference there. When our liturgies tell us we are “wretched” sinners, they are reminding us that we need God’s intervention. We need to be saved. We can’t save ourselves, we are helpless without Christ.
So “you wretched sinner” means “you poor person who can’t save yourself.” To repent, then, is to admit that I can’t save myself. That I need Christ. That I need help.
We aren’t odious or detestable to God. He loves us. He made us. But we do need his help, and without it we can’t be saved. He loves us enough to show us that pretending otherwise doesn’t help. Repent (tell the truth).
But are we “sinners”?
Yes, we are. We are all sinners.
The problem with the word ‘sinners’ today is more of a 20th century problem. In the 20th century, many people were taught that there are the good people, and then there are the sinners. The good people are the ones who get saved, and then keep trying to be holy. They attend church. They raise a family. They don’t cuss or swear and the keep a steady job. These people are good people. Even today, you’ll hear people say, “He is a good Christian man.” Sometimes this is a way of saying, “He’s not a sinner like some other people I know.”
The sinners are the one’s who don’t attend church much, cuss a lot of swears, and drink, smoke, and chew.
This way of thinking of sin is terrible. It has nothing to do with the Bible or with the Christian faith, and it has hurt millions of people’s faith.
If this is what you’ve been taught, Lent can be a terrible time. You may be thinking of all those religious, good people and wishing you were one of them. Maybe this Lent I’ll finally break through and be as holy as that other person, and not such a sinner. Your Lent might be spent debasing yourself and groveling, or trying to find the right discipline that will make God smile upon you.
Or worse, you may be thinking that you are pretty good, and that Lent isn’t such a big deal for you as it would be if you were one of the truly bad sinners. Your Lent might be spent counting the days in which you didn’t sin, and rejoicing that there seemed to be only two or three “little” sins.
Well, sinning is a lot deeper than that. It is a disease at the core of every human, that affects everything we do, and that no one is immune from.
So we’re all sinners, and that’s actually good news. Because it means that we’re all in this together. There aren’t “good people” and “sinners.” There’s just people. We are a “fallen race” not a few fallen people. This is good news because it means that God hasn’t asked us to try to work harder to become one of the good people. He himself is actually saving us and healing us. We need this, we can’t heal ourselves (we’re wretched, remember?).
Admitting that we are sinners helps us to stop with all of the false masks and never ending resolutions and hiding from God.
So. You are wretched. You need God.
You are miserable. You can’t save or heal yourself.
You are a sinner. So is everyone else.
And God loves sinners. And he loves you.
So this Lent, embrace your wretchedness. Be honest about your misery. Own up to your sinfulness. Prepare the way of the lord, make straight paths in your heart. This is the day of salvation.