What's Really Wrong With All of Us?
Is it possible to recover from, say, sin? And besides, what does that mean in today's world?
To say with St. Paul, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3:23) is to admit that all people have a problem. What is it?
Many of those whose emotional or psychological problems come to the attention of a therapist are people who believe all their problems are external.They believe they have been hurt or wounded or damaged or taken advantage of, bilked or cheated, unfairly hated or rejected by others. Their M.O., their personality disorder is typically to blame others for their own failures.
Gay and lesbian people can fall into this trap. In many cases, we really have been hurt by others who were homophobic, and therefore rejective, angry and even violent toward us. But we’ve been around long enough to know that internalized homophobia is a major problem. We have accepted, "bought into" the rejection and hatred of others and made it our own. We have become our own worst enemy by internalizing the fear, contempt and rejection of others until they became our fear, our self-contempt, our interior rejection. As we recover from the damage that we’ve allowed or accepted, we must first begin with the wounds which are most internal — even before we attempt to fend off the blows and assaults of others.
No one can do this inner work for us – simply fix what’s wrong with us from a lifetime of wounds and assaults, and then hand us back to ourselves all healed! We must do our own homework, make our own bandages, bind our own wounds, and chart our own path of recovery. People can help one another in this work, but it cannot be "outsourced"!
So, rather than reject the word of St. Paul above, we recognize in his voice another wounded individual who spoke out of his own deep interior experience. If we were to paraphrase this famous saying, it would be, "I have sinned, and I fall short of God’s glory."
Now, that’s somewhat better, but it may still be a bitter pill to swallow. Probably, the sticking point in our souls is that word "sin." I’ve recently begun to wonder what Christians would say if we did not have the word "sin" to describe that stuff that burdens us, hurts others, and holds everyone back from our full human/godly potential. What other words could we use to talk about the same reality, if we can’t use the "s" word?
In the biblical passage here, Paul provides the very paraphrase that might answer that. He does not speak of evil intent, iniquities, transgressions or debts. He does not warn, like Fred Phelps, of dire consequences. But he says it is "falling short" of God’s glory.
Well, of course, I try to argue back. I am finite. God is infinite. I am "only human," but God is God. How could I not fall short of God’s glory?
Let’s not split hairs. Paul is speaking out of his own spiritual turmoil and experience as someone who literally abandoned the religious faith of his young adulthood, and accepted an entirely different point of view about God, about Jesus of Nazareth, about himself and about all other human beings. Now he had to make room in his thinking for pagans, Gentiles, those "outside the law." (I’m not using the "s" word.) Paul went through a huge "paradigm shift," and as he wrestled with its implications, he put himself on the same plane as all the "outsiders" – Gentiles – to say that "all . . . fall short."
So, we "fall short" of God’s glory. Could that mean we fall short of God’s expectations for us? Or that we fall short of our own potential to participate in, and be a part of, God’s glory?
Good questions but, hey, who cares? A lot of Christians don’t ever ask such lofty and theoretical questions. Instead, they fall into the trap of criticizing one another, of pointing the finger at other people whom they are sure are in bigger trouble than themselves. (This is one thing at which televangelists have come to excel!) It is as if, in self-righteousness, they say "Well, yes, all of us have fallen short, but I have really only stepped off the curb, and quite unintentionally. YOU, on the other hand, HAVE FALLEN INTO HELL, andyou will NEVER be able to pull yourself out! Ha, ha, ha!"
If "all have fallen short"—however that is finally understood—in God’s eyes it doesn't matter to God what the distance is that each of us may have "fallen"—whether off a curb or off a cliff. And of course, to "fall" is only a metaphor. It does not matter whether our wounds are self-inflicted, or were caused by the injury of others, by self-neglect, internalized self-contempt, or whether we accidentally or stupidly have wandered off the right path.
Remember the story in Luke 15 about "the lost sheep"? Jesus also tells the story there of the lost coin. The coin cannot be blamed for rolling under something or out of reach. The story is about the joy of finding what was lost. So by implication we are to regard the story of the lost sheep, and even of the lost (prodigal) son with the same interpretive rule: It doesn’t matter whether the sheep inadvertently or willfully wandered off. It doesn’t help for the prodigal son to blame himself, and when he returns home, his well-rehearsed speech of contrition is almost ignored. And it doesn’t matter that the other brother is itching to blame him. What truly matters is that the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son are found!
So self-examination, contrition, sorrow for our fallen-ness and our failures, have some value, but not much, in God’s eyes. What is central is being found, coming home, recovering from those things which have wounded us or alienated us. All have fallen. All in some way have become lost. All are welcome when we come home. All of us are in recovery.
The true and helpful spiritual path, then, is not one which prods us to feel shame for our situation or our lostness. It is one that invites and beckons us to pick ourselves up out of the spiritual hole we’re in, or the spiritual curb we’ve stepped off of. It invites us to simply come home, to awaken, to begin again (be born again). It strengthens us to heal and grow and live again.
Recovery is the most powerful metaphor of our times. It is well said that Alcoholics Anonymous (and the 12-Step programs which have grown from it) was the most important spiritual movement of the 20th Century. The reason I find it an important metaphor is not only that the 12 Steps are a valuable spiritual tool for recovering from substance abuse or other addictions. It is because they are a valuable spiritual tool for recovering from spiritual abuse or spiritual addictions— whether they were self-inflicted abuses or the result of wounds and attacks by others, the unfortunate result of circumstances, or from inadvertently wandering off the good path of life. We all need to understand ourselves as falling short yet redeemed by God, as wanderers yet welcomed home, as full of internalized self-hatred, yet loved by God.
Perhaps you will find your self on this page. I will pray for you.
The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thee have been adapted for many other recovery programs ! they're not just for alcohol.
I have every respect for you, because I have felt your pain, too. The people who nurtured you, and then rejected you, had only the best intentions for your soul. They had an answer for everything, even your sexuality. But when all was said and done, they tried to kill you.
It is probably not very useful to worry about what twisted motives they may have for pushing their piety and fundamentalism with all their urgency and enthusiasm, and then harshly rejecting anybody who doesn't measure up (although Jesus has plenty to say about the very pious religious who bind burdens on other people's backs!). If you have been deeply hurt, your need is not to reject others in return but to recover from the damage that was done to you.
The Roman Catholic Church seems so monolithic, huge and dominant that it still has many convinced it is the only real Christian church. (Pope Benecict XVI said as much in a recent pronouncement.) We try to find a safe place within it where Mother Church won't notice us (or notice our sexuality), where she can't find us and hurt us. But honestly, Mother is very, very sick and we all come down with her symptoms.
As time goes by, I am more and more aware that is isn’t helpful to offer blunt advice to lapsed Catholics or ex-Catholics who can’t just break with their Mother Church. I am trying to understand more fully what it means to claim that we are “evangelical catholics” and to live that out more fully in our community life. Our quarrel, after all, as Lutheran Christians, is not with the catholic faith but with an all-powerful system that has hurt and driven away its own people—and continues to spin out hurtful teachings which are not part of the catholic faith but actually contrary to the Gospel.
Lapsed Catholics who know they can’t go back to the Roman Catholic Church or feel that they can’t go to any other church are alongside the rest of us who may individually have grown up in Lutheran or Protestant churches, but corporately can’t go home either. We all need recovery in several ways: individual recovery from the damage that we have endured, and the recovery of what is deeply valuable and spiritually true of the catholic faith. Most of all, we need to recover our unity in Christ and under his authority.
Our primary question is whether we can identify our loyalty to a life-stealing, life-destroying institution is in fact an addicition from which we cannot by ouselves pull away. It sounds harsh, at first, but we need God's help to separate ourselves from a "Mother" continues to abuse, manipulate and poison her own children.
As a cultural religious group, Lutherans have the reptuation of hyper-conventionality and conformity. But then some of us came out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, even transgender or queer, oh my! If I had a nickle for everytime someone who is LGBT said to me, "I was raised Lutheran" or "I used to be Lutheran" I could pay off all my own debts. A couple years ago, a guy who walked by our booth at Gay Pride in West Hollywood and said, "I still haven't gotten over what the Lutherans did to me in Minnesota."
Painful or not, we need to admit that our own church tradition and family has not only hurt us, and harbored bigotry, narrowness, homophobia, etc., but our churches have not been places of recovery to help us all walk the steps of recovery from all the abusive and addictive stuff that has crept in.
Recovering from Cults
I am very aware of the damage done to good people who have come under the heavy and controlling influence of religious cults. For years I drove by a pretty brick church in Los Angeles on the way to my office at the University of Southern California, before I realized it was the church from which Jim Jones and his cult departed on their way to the mass suicide in the jungles of South America.
Recovering from Addictions
A lot of things can become serious addictions: religion, alcohol and substances, sex, shopping. What's your problem?
Recovering from Homophobia
The wounds can be on the outside -- bruises, blood, broken bones or gunshots. We remember with deep sorrow what they did to Mathew Shepherd. But the deepest wounds are what they've done to us inside.
I have a given my own internalized homophobia a huge amount of psychic attention over the years. I wish I could write more, but as yet I am blocked for one simple reason: homophobia produces real wounds. People who suffer physical wounds are seldom expected to heal themselves. For pity sake, from the first time a little child cuts herself or himself, we all get used to someone else -- mother, teacher, friend, love -- putting on a bandage for us. Why is it that when we are wounded by the inordinate fear and hatred of society we're expected not to bleed, or at least to bandage our own wounds, to re-educate therapists about human sexuality, and to produce all the study materials for heterosexuals to help sensitize them. Did they ever think of doing their own homework on prejudice and bigotry?
A rhetorical question has no immediate answer. If I have recovered from homophobia, and that is largely true, it has taken a big big portion of my life to do so. I have benefited from society's progress in rolling back its own oppressive behaviors, and so I am less in fear of being physically attacked, humiliated, blackmailed, arrested, imprisoned or murdered than my older brothers and sisters who came of age one or two generations before I did.
And thanks to the courage of all those before me and contemporary with me who have come out, told their stories, offered their integrity, and moved on with their lives, I am less burdened with internalized homophobia than I once was.
Internalized homophobia, however, is not an addiction, exactly.