Our Unbearable Sins
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service General Confession contains this phraseology about our sins. “The remembrance of them is grievous unto us. The burden of them is intolerable.” Such wording might seem alien to post-modern ears, an era characterized by R.C. Sproul as “God is not so mad and man is not so bad.” Some in the 21st century church have come to believe that “God grades on a curve” or have simply trusted in their own pass-fail grading system constructed to feel better, in which most of us get a pass.
But the truth is our broken past, when dismissed or explained away, can lead to several compensating outcomes, all of which tend to either minimize our wrongs or reduce us to try to handle them ourselves. Why do we do this? The short answer is that for those of us in recovery, we instinctively know that the impact of our sexual sins on ourselves and others has been devastating. Like it or not, we often find our memories burdensome. Our pasts demand more than passivity. They demand a response. Whether our marriages survived or not, the wreckage has been real and serious, which leads to the question, “What do we do about our past?”
Because the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage registers both in our bodies and in our brains, denial might be the first refuge we try, because the effects of sin might be too painful to contemplate. Denial can dull the pain temporarily. It is often easier to “run through the thistles.” “I’m moving on,” we tell ourselves. But are we? Not likely with years of accumulated baggage piling up. So rather than face a difficult recovery process, we often minimize, explain away the consequences, compare our wrongs with others, or attempt to wish the past away. But it doesn’t go away.
I had a powerful revelation in recovery when I realized that “my wrongs had to go somewhere.” The entire Hebrew sacrificial system and the cross of Jesus Christ shout this message loud and clear. Sin needs a remedy, not an explanation or defense. The “scapegoat” being driven out into the wilderness ( Leviticus 16) is a vivid picture. Sin must change its geography or it remains “intolerable.” The geographical change for sin is the “there” of Calvary, the cross of Christ. Reading on in Holy Communion, Thomas Cranmer (author of the first two English Books of Common Prayer) emphasizes this point: “..who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” “There,” at the cross, we find the divinely appointed geography of relief from our intolerable burden. The Apostle Paul asserts dramatically that Jesus so took on, totally identified with us and bore our sins that he “became sin for us.” 2 Corinthians 5:21.
A second false solution to our wrongs is to try to bear them ourselves. We can undertake this exercise in futility in a variety of ways, like trying to “do better next time” or “never speak of it again.” (Frodo Baggins) Or we try to berate ourselves thinking that if we feel bad enough, we will experience the real hurt of our wrongs. But trying to fix ourselves hardly makes up for the lasting wrongs done to others, the betrayal, the PTSD, the fear and mistrust introduced into our relationships. Self-will can also lead to recurring shame and another downward spiral, binding us to the cycle of addiction once again. Self help and self fix both fail in the presence of real sin.
Our third misguided attempt at relief is to send away our wrongs to others by blaming them for the cause of our troubles. The AA big book describes resentment as “the number one killer of alcoholics. Sexaholics too. Why? Because as someone has said, resentment is like “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Recovery never offers us the luxury of confessing other people’s sins. We must focus on our own wrongs to find relief. We focus on our own perfection and other people’s happiness, rather than other people’s perfection and our own happiness. Blaming others simply digs us a deeper hole of misery and self-preoccupation. The temporary relief of resentment always gives way to a spiritual dead end.
What are we to do? The first thing is to discover that there is a God-given reason why we feel an intolerable burden. That reason is: we were never meant to bear our own sins. God has provided a different pathway to freedom. It is why Jesus came. He is the sin bearer, not us. To be truly free, we must let him bear away our sins or perish under their weight. He is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:29.
C.S. Lewis writes “I once knew a regular churchgoer who never repeated the words, ‘the burden of them (i.e. his sins) is intolerable’,’ because he did not feel that they were intolerable. But he was not understanding the words…. [I]t might be clearer if we said ‘unbearable’, because that still has two meanings: you say ‘I cannot bear it,’ when you mean it gives you great pain, but you also say ‘That bridge will not bear that truck’ not meaning ‘That bridge will feel pain,’ but ‘If that truck goes on to it, it will break and not be a bridge any longer, but a mass of rubble.’ I wonder if that is what the Prayer Book means; that, whether we feel miserable or not, and however we feel, there is on each of us a load which, if nothing is done about it, will in fact break us, will send us from this world to whatever happens afterwards, not as souls but as broken souls.” God in the Dock
Evangelical Christians talk a lot about the “substitutionary atonement.,” and well we should. But God’s action in Jesus is more than an abstract theological truth. It is a personal and psychological necessity. We cannot bear the weight of our own sins. Only Jesus can do that. So we have a choice. Either we will continue with our coping mechanisms leading to futility and paralysis, or we will let him have our sins, our past, our wrongs, (all of it) and let him bear them away for us. Then and only then can we be free to exert ourselves to “clear away the wreckage of our past,” make proper amends to those we have hurt and live the new life.
As we work our way through Advent into Christmas, let us contemplate this truth. Only the Sin-Bearer can bear the unbearable. If we let Him do his work, then we can undertake the work we were meant to do, namely to give ourselves unashamedly to further our own recovery and begin to love others unconditionally in the power of the Spirit.
We wish you a blessed Nativity and beyond.
In the Lust Bearer,
Executive Director, Living Without Lust