Ivan Aivazovsky, Storm on the North Sea (1865)
I think this idea, while very basic to our Christian faith, is something that we have to keep in the forefront of our minds in the present day. Our culture today loves the idea of personal transformation, of self-improvement, of remaking ourselves in the way that we desire. And while that notion is okay in regard to some things, it just doesn’t work in regard to sin. You can’t forgive yourself; you can’t be reconciled to God and others on your own. In the Gospel parable, the sinful son wants to return to his father’s house, but he needs the father’s forgiveness to actually do so. In fact, according to Christian theology, we would go even farther and say that even the desire to return is an initiative of God’s grace. Apart from him, we can truly do nothing (Jn 15:5); we are like the coin lost in a dusty corner, like the sheep that has gone astray. We need God to save us.
Thanks be to God that he has given us a Savior in Jesus. But remember why Jesus has come – to save sinners. And so if we want a relationship with Jesus, we first need to ask ourselves, “Am I a sinner? Do I need to be saved?” Of course, we know the answer is YES. But I wonder how much we actually think about our own sinfulness, not just in an abstract way but by actually recalling the sins of our lives? It’s clear that John Newton did that when he was composing hymns like “Amazing Grace.” It’s clear that Saint Paul spoke confidently to Timothy about the importance of conversion because he had personally experienced a conversion himself: though a “blasphemer and a persecutor,” he was mercifully treated. Paul encountered the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and was not just forgiven but transformed into an apostle, a witness to others of the mercy that he had received.
The Conversion of Saul (c. 1600) by Caravaggio
No one enjoys thinking of their own faults and flaws. So it's not easy to admit we are sinners and to think about our sins – to call to mind those particular moments in our lives, whether past or present, when we truly were lost and broken and in need of salvation. But doing so can be really important for us spiritually. It helps think of God’s mercy as not just an abstract idea but as a personal reality, something that has particular meaning for me and which I might be able to share with others. Recalling our sins and our experiences of forgiveness can also carry us through difficult or dry times, helping us remember God’s love even when we may not be feeling it at the moment. Perhaps most importantly, recalling our own sins can help us be compassionate and forgiving of the sins of others. God often seeks out those who were lost through the help of others, through the kindness and patience and support of sinners who themselves have come to know God’s healing mercy. Remember that the next time you are tempted to judge another for their sins – it may be that God is inviting you in that moment to be an instrument of his mercy for that person, whether through word, example, or prayer, if nothing else.
Friends, at the heart of the Christian story is the encounter with God’s “amazing grace”, his mercy made real and visible in the person of Jesus. We each have a story of conversion to tell, a story of how God has lifted us up out of our sinfulness, and God invites us to share that story – perhaps not by penning a hymn as John Newton did, or a letter as Saint Paul did, but in some other way unique to us. Spend some time in prayer this week to consider your own story of conversion and who the Lord might be inviting you to share it with, who in your life might desperately need to hear from you what Saint Paul shared with Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and of these I am the foremost.”