William Sloane Coffin, a few years before his death, wrote a wonderful book titled, Letters to a Young Doubter. At the beginning of the correspondence he asks his young friend a probing question, “Who tells you who you are?” As Chaplain at Yale for a number of years, he knew full well the power of higher education to tell students who they are.
There are powerful forces in our culture that impact and shape who we think we are. The Christian answer that I was given as a young person is that we are all sinners. Certainly that is true. I know that I am flawed and fail regularly to live up to the best ideals of humanity, or even my own best ideals. All of us are a mass of contradictions. But is that the first and foremost thing about us?
This is not what compassionate parents teach their children. Not at first. We tell them how special they are, how much they are loved and cared for, and what possibilities they have.
I find it interesting in Paul’s letter to the Romans that before Paul expounds on the human problem, he identifies his readers as those who are loved by God, who belong to Jesus Christ, and who are, by divine call, saints (1:6–7). Most of us tend to think that a saint is someone particularly holy, set apart from the rest of us, someone who has achieved something very special. But in Paul’s view, we are all saints.
One aspect to faith involves saying “yes” to our sainthood. Faith is our acceptance of God’s unconditional acceptance. We are first the daughters and sons of God before we are sinners. Toxic religion turns that around. Unhealthy religion teaches that we are first unworthy, under God’s wrath, and must be saved from our sin. Healthy religion says that we are first secure in God’s love, that we are saints already, called to live as God’s beloved children daily.
Once we accept that we are accepted and experience being loved by the One who sustains all existence, we then find the sacred space and inner courage to face the tensions and contradictions that our sin creates. When we know we are loved by the Divine Lover, we find the confidence and inner strength to confront our false self (our little ego-driven self with its propensity to grasp, grab, and cling to that which we think will bring ego satisfaction). Knowing that we are valued and have worth for simply being alive, we no longer feel the need to deny or repress our dark side. Our freedom to name our demons is the first step in overcoming them.
In the movie, The Stand (a classic tale of the conflict between good and evil based on Stephen King’s book), an African-American woman known as Mother Abigail functions as the Christ figure. One of her inner disciples is a deaf mute. He is a man of great compassion and integrity, but he doesn’t believe in God.
In one scene, Mother Abigail is talking about the role that this young man will play in accomplishing God’s will. His friend speaks up, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Not the least bit surprised or shaken, Mother Abigail turns gently and communicates directly to the young deaf man, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.”
It’s true. In spite of all our mishaps and foibles, all the ways we become entrapped and addicted that diminishes our lives and relationships, God still believes in us. If enough of us really believed that, our world could be transformed. We are first and foremost saints, before we are sinners.