How to be a Good Sinner

Good people have a problem with sin. They are against it. The trouble is they are so busy trying to avoid sin they never take time to consider what it is and how it affects our lives. The more compassionate tend to minimize sin, knowing that God is all-merciful and all-forgiving, while the more rigorous, knowing that God is all-knowing and all-just, consign everyone, themselves possibly included, to hell. I personally think it is much better to try to be a good sinner.

A good sinner is one who recognizes the enormity of sin: who can look at a crucifix and say, I did that to you, but still you forgive me; who can admit that even their ‘best’ actions are not without an admixture of rather questionable motives; who knows that life consists in falling down and getting up again . . . simul peccator et iustus.

Let the last word be Phineas Fletcher’s, for I think he captured better than any the sense of the wound sin deals, the way it offends the infinite holiness of God, and the repentance wrung from the heart:

DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.


24 thoughts on “How to be a Good Sinner”

  1. Thank you for this new concept – Being a Good Sinner.
    I love it, because it describes how I feel. Living in weakness, but praying for strength and forgiveness for myself and for others.

    I could not contemplate being in such a judgemental position that I would consign anyone to hell. Through love, we want the best for everyone, sinner or not.

    And Jesus on the Cross demonstrated his forgiveness and mercy ‘in extremis’ when he said to the thief crucified beside him “You will be with me in Paradise”. If Jesus forgives, so must we.

    • I quite agree, but sadly, there are some people (not mainstream Christians) who seem to think God is more interested in sin than forgiveness, or rather, more interested in condemning people than redeeming them.

  2. I am praying the Lenten retreat from Loyola Press. It follows the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. This week is about sin and today the colloquy with Jesus on the Cross. A different tradition but reading your blog before I begin has been a good prelude. We can’t, in my opinion, appreciate the depth of God’s love without a realisation of what sin is and how great a gift forgiveness is. On the other hand, we can’t appreciate how abhorrent sin is unless we have first contemplated the extent of God’s love and generosity against which we sin.

  3. Phew! I’m not sure I fully understand ‘simul justis’, far less have a firm opinion on it! This is why iBenedictines is #4 – it forces us to think.

      • I had wandered via Wiki to the RC/Lutheran thing about concupiscence and I realised that I have not given a lot of thought about sin, in spite of having ploughed my way, in my callow youth, through Dorothy L Sayer’s translation of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ with that in mind. I do not remember being taught that wanting to sin was a sin, but that is the direction my mind wants to go.

  4. I have several copies of this moving poem. Set and printed by one of the great printers of Stanbrook Abbey Press .
    Perhaps veil press should print some Easter cards.

  5. For many years, I sang in an a cappella choir and the Orlando Gibbons, ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ was frequently included in concerts of early music.

    My favourite thought regarding sin is that God not only makes good our mistakes, he actually creates something new. This is powerful evidence that sin in already conquered and demonstrates the power of the Resurrection when we ‘buy’ into it.

    O Felix Culpa – O happy fault of Adam that won for us so great a Redeemer.

    Peace in turmoil.

    • John Donne, yes. I love the Orlando Gibbons’ setting of ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ — and those words from the Exsultet surely express everything we can and should say on the matter of sin and redemption?

  6. A word from Norfolk where the great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote :- ‘Sin is behovely’.
    ‘Behovely’ a lovely word that perhaps carries a special theological meaning, but conveys to me the sense that sin is necessary or even inevitable and, as a part of the human condition, can be our teacher or our torment. Julian’s words, quoted by TS Eliot in the Little Gidding section of Four Quartets are followed by, ‘and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. What blessed assurance.

    Thank you for the introduction to Phineas Fletcher. May I send John Donne, ‘Hymn to God the Father’ in exchange?
    Like Maria, I am back from an Ignatian retreat in which poetry has played a very big part.

  7. ‘A good sinner is one who recognizes the enormity of sin: who can look at a crucifix and say, I did that to you, but still you forgive me; who can admit that even their ‘best’ actions are not without an admixture of rather questionable motives; who knows that life consists in falling down and getting up again . . . simul peccator et iustus.’

    These words I will carry in my heart not only for the balance of Lent but for all of time forward. Not only my understanding of Lent is lately being turned on its head but now also my understanding of sin, the sinner and God’s infinite mercy. The face2face prayer encounter with Christ crucified suggested here renders me speechless. You have in a sense inflicted a wound to my heart in the recognition of my sin before God, and which gives meaning to St Benedict’s admonition to bear the ‘tears of compunction’. Or rather my own sin inflicts.
    Long time awaits the deepening of true understanding but my spiritual compass is evermore set to rights one might say. Ever grateful.

    Thankful for the moving words of Phineas Fletcher.

    If one could say to have a poem for Lent this one is mine this Lent:

    O, my black soul…
    Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack ;
    But who shall give thee that grace to begin ?
    O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
    And red with blushing, as thou art with sin ;
    Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
    That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

    John Donne
    Holy Sonnets IV

  8. One more aspect of sin which helps me is to realise that when I sin I don’t “hurt/offend God “in the way I used to understand this. If someone offends me, it is because my ego is bruised in some way. Love is not self seeking and God is perfect love. When I sin God is concerned not about what I do to him but about the harm I do to myself and to the rest of creation. Perfect love only deaires the happiness of the beloved. The Prodigal Fatther shows this. His concern is for his erring child, not for the insult to himself. If I really take this on board I will truly experience the perfect contrition I was taught about as a child but believed was beyond me.

  9. What a wonderful blog, followed by wonderful comments. Thank you everyone for helping along my path.
    Some part of me wants to wear black and cover my head with ashes…
    You give me much to think here!

  10. What a wonderful collection of shared thoughts. Thank you. This blog goes from strength to strength. Long may it continue, helping to build up all who participate.

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