Once, in a confessional, I told a priest that I considered myself the worst sinner I had ever known — not really for the bad things I had done, rather more so for the thoughts I have conjured and encouraged in my head.
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” he said. His smile quickly disappeared; his face turned stern and serious. “You need to not think that way. That’s pride, thinking you’re the ‘best’ at anything or the ‘most’ of anything. And pride is a bigger sin than most of the stuff in your head.
“Besides, if everyone knew all the things we think every day, we might all be in jail.”
That priest was acknowledging that he also can carry the label of “sinner.” The people I admire most, they’re sinners. Pope Francis famously once described himself by saying “I am a sinner.” Family, friends, people I pass on the street, the greatest saints of past, present and future — all are sinners.
I am well aware of my every thought, too many of which surely offend God. So I routinely say “The Jesus Prayer.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I’ve discerned that many of my persistent sins have less to do with action than about the notions that foster such behavior. Remember that Jesus warned we commit adultery in our heart just by looking at another man or woman with lust. Remember that Jesus cautioned that as we judge others, so will we be judged ourselves.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states that sin ” is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … (and) wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. … Sin is an offense against God. … It is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil.”
Talk about the sin of pride: how often I have unwittingly tried to act like a god by judging other people. Frankly, prejudging — forming an attitude based only on superficial triggers — can be just as sinfully toxic to our souls. I have realized that about myself. Even now, I catch myself looking at a person and noticing specific things somewhat unconsciously. I see race and age. I observe appearance and subtly register whether the person is well-dressed or unkempt, thin or overweight, able-bodied or physically handicapped.
I want to believe none of those observations influence what I say or how I act or even what I subtly presume about the person, because I am fully aware that God created each of us with the same love. That said, despite any progress I’ve made, I’d be foolish to assume I’m always successful.
Case in point: tattoos. There was a time that I rarely saw a man and almost never a woman with a visible tattoo. When I did see a tattoo, I didn’t really think less of a person, but I did make the assumption that they had been in the military or belonged to a motorcycle group or, well, something different. I figure CEOs or students or stay-at-home moms or schoolteachers or almost anyone else wouldn’t have a tattoo. I’m not proud of that, but it was a truth.
Now, the truth is so different. Tattoos are everywhere and might appear on anyone. I’ve learned not to make any assumptions. I have learned not to judge people for any reason at all, not to treat one person with any less respect than another because in doing so, I am directly offending God.
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.” He didn’t say you did it for someone like Him or someone whom He loves. He said if you serve another human being, then you directly serve Jesus Himself.
Still, I stumble. I am a sinner. But I have acknowledged my sins. I have resolved to try not to offend God again. As a result, every time I walk out of the confessional I am a forgiven sinner, an absolved sinner.
That is a label I joyfully embrace.
(This piece originally appeared as the “Man of the House” column in The St. Louis Review.)