The Worst of Sinners
It's not me... is it?
“Lord, You are the Holy of Holies: I am the worst of sinners.” So writes Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ. Surely he’s exaggerating, though. Right? Surely there are worse sinners than old Tom here.
Curiously, St. Paul levels the same charge against himself: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
We find this same theme in the writings of every spiritual master. Not only do they call themselves the worst of sinners, but they urge us to adopt the same view of ourselves. And while this may offend our pride, it’s far more offensive to our reason.
First of all, how can everyone be the worst of sinners? It makes no sense. And while I’m no angel, surely I’m not as bad as (say) Ted Bundy, or Adolf Hitler, or Judas Iscariot. That’s just common sense. Isn’t it?
Well, let’s put it this way:
A few years ago, I decided to take a swim in the Merrimack River. Even on a good day, it’s not exactly the Withywindle, but folks do it all the time.
Anyway, on this particular occasion, I jumped off a dock and into the water. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was like human waste. And as I swam back to shore, I started to notice the dead fish bobbing on the surface
A few days later, I found out from my cousin that the city had flushed raw sewage into the river earlier that day and hadn’t thought to warn us.
Now, I imagine there are rivers dirtier than the Merrimack. We’ve all seen those videos of corpses and dirty diapers floating down the Ganges. Yet I’ve never seen it myself. Its pollution is, to me, purely an abstraction. I can’t hope to verify. But (unfortunately) I can tell you from experience just how filthy the Merrimack can be.
The Ganges might be a hundred times nastier, but its theoretical nastiness could never be as disgusting as my experience of the Merrimack.
Now, someday, I might get on a plane and see the Ganges for myself. I could even go for a swim, just as I swam in the Merrimack. But I will never be able to muck around in another man’s soul. I’m limited to just one: my own. And so, while Hitler may be worse than me in theory, I’ll never know for sure. Not on this side of the vale, anyway.
Maybe this is also why Scripture is so insistent on not judging others:
Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another? (James 4:11-12)
Who art thou? Who are you to judge another person? And who am I?
I’ll tell you. I’m the worst sinner I know—that I really know.