The final line of this song is haunting for those who are willing to accept the truth it expresses. How often do we judge the sinfulness of others while failing to open our eyes to our own faults? Whenever I hear stories such as the account of the horrible crimes committed by the serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, I cringe a bit. There is the deep sense of something gone terribly wrong that just seems to jump out at you. It causes one to wonder how a person could fall so fully into evil as to murder and abuse 27 people, while outwardly appearing to be a model citizen. But then again, the story is not really a new one, is it? When we look to the Gospel we can find these words spoken by Jesus,
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you frauds! You are like whitewashed tombs, beautiful to look at on the outside but inside full of filth and dead men’s bones. Thus you present to view a holy exterior while hypocrisy and evil fill you within. (Matthew 23: 27-28)
When I am honest with myself, I know that there are a multitude of my own sins that ought to make me cringe when I think of them, but too often I do not. In fact, many times it takes me years to even see their presence in my life at all. There is also little effort required in bringing to mind sins of which I am all too aware, but have chosen to hide beneath the floorboards where I hope no one will discover them.
As we begin this season of Lent we ought to listen to the words of Christ proclaimed in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus encourages his disciples to pray, fast and give alms to the poor, but to do so in secret. He is reminding us that God sees everything we do and so we ought to make the things we do in secret be ones that open us to God’s grace, rather than the ones which separate us from His love and make us hypocrites.
Lent is always a good time for confronting our sins in an effort to return to God. There are some simple, yet difficult actions we can take in order to do this. First, we can pray that God will help us to see our sins clearly. This is not a pleasant kind of prayer. I don’t know anyone who really enjoys seeing how we fail to live up to our call as Christians, but it is the first step in moving beyond our sins. Once we have recognized our sins, we ought to bring them out of hiding and into the light of day. For Catholics, this often means the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but it could simply mean sharing our faults with a trusted friend. The Letter of James exhorts us to, “declare your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may find healing” (James 5:16) It amazes me how much less power sin holds over us when it is brought out of the shadows. We can see examples from nature as well. The light of the sun is necessary for plants to grow, but also for the decomposition of animals that have died. Even more so does God’s light eliminate death while at the same time allowing new life to spring forth.
One of the ways that continually keeps me from confronting my own failures as a Christian is paying more attention to how other people are missing the mark, rather than keeping the focus on myself. It is very easy to spot sin in others or to compare myself to them saying things like, “I know I am a sinner, but at least I’m not as bad as that guy!” The reality is that most of the time I am as bad as “that guy”, if not worse. It is one of the many ways of simply avoiding the fact that I need healing as much as anyone does.
The other extreme is to see my shortcomings very clearly, but also so big and so terrible that doubt arises as to whether they could ever be truly forgiven. Despair is near the top when it comes to sins because it calls into question God’s very power to forgive. One need look no further than to the saints to know that sin is just a speck in comparison to the ocean of God’s power to heal us.
My hope is that each of us will allow God to bless us this Lent as He goes about His work of freeing us from sin. May we support one another with prayer and encouragement throughout the journey toward Easter.