Why I Call Myself A Sinner

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Here is the entirety of the prayer I use the most: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and comes from the Orthodox tradition. I’m not sure where I came across it, but I started using it in as a breath prayer years ago. Concentrating on my inhalation and exhalation, I repeat it for five minutes, while focusing my mind on God. 

First, let’s review what I love about this prayer: 

  1. You can’t mess it up. 
  2. It can take five seconds or 20 minutes… or however long you want. 
  3. All you need is breath and the willingness to feel fidgety. 
  4. It’s powerful. Its simplicity refocuses my mind on God’s power, not my own peak religious achievement, which for me is a very helpful spiritual discipline.

Now for the part I’m not a fan of. It’s that last word—sinner.

You would think I have no beef with the idea of our “sin natures,” given that I use the word in prayer every day and love Ash Wednesday and Lent, both of which focus heavily on repentance. 

But honestly, every time I say “sinner” aloud, I half consider dropping it. The word “sin” irks me.

Does that sound prideful? The age-old debate about sin in the church would have us believe that anyone who cringes at that word wants to get away with something. It’s as if those who dislike the word sin want a free pass on all manner of shenanigans.

However my problem with sin runs the opposite direction. I am a rule-follower, a get-to-bed-on-time girl, a person who has never been drunk, smoked a joint, or laid eyes on any other kind of drug. Being “good” doesn’t feel like a choice to me; it feels like gravity.

Honestly, this has not been an entirely Christ-centered mindset.

Much of my healing from toxic faith has focused on reshaping my relationship with “goodness.” It has meant realizing my scrupulous rule-following nature is more about control than about love. It has focused more on shame than flourishing. It has cast me in the role of savior instead of depending on God’s power to reshape me and other people.

In my old way of understanding “sin,” I’d tell myself that because I was a sinner, I needed to try harder to be good. But I knew no amount of effort would ever make me feel clean. It was an invitation into despair, not a release from bondage. It was all about my mistakes and efforts and power. For being so full of self-loathing, it was also strangely self-focused.

So no, I don’t love the word sinner. I don’t like my personal history with the word considering I spent decades convinced there was nothing of value in my body and soul because my sin nature precluded any spark of light. And I don’t like how often the church uses it to convince people there’s nothing in them worth saving.

But even if I find the word sin cringy, God is somehow redeeming it for me. Repeating this word I dislike several times a day, I’ve been forced to realize that saying it has begun to feel like a relief. 

Because even if I cringe, saying sinner still sums up my yearning. It reminds me that without Jesus, I’m helpless. It reminds me who powers every good thing that flows out of me. It reminds me, consistently, that I need help because I cannot feel clean on my own. Because the weight of sin is not just about me checking good-girl boxes but about the whole sorry sludge that darkens the world.

I’m learning that the word “sinner” does not need to be a cudgel. It can also be a relief. It can be used to remind myself that in this world of overwhelming brokenness, God does not expect me to move the globe a centimeter on my own power. It is a relief to confess my brokenness to Jesus and ask for mercy—both forgiveness for my own complicity and eyes to see the belovedness of every human person I meet. 

This Ash Wednesday, I will call myself a sinner not because I hate myself or need to grovel for being imperfect. Instead, I will call out in helpless acknowledgement of the human-built systems that oppress people every moment of the day. I will call out with deep yearning for eyes to see what I can do now, and now, and now, to acknowledge human dignity and worth. I will ask for Jesus to come in power and glory, cresting that tsunami of grief. I will ask that soon and very soon, He will make it a stream of living water for every person to drink their full.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego who is happily content with being an awkward Christian. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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