Learning to Be a Sinner: a Primer Requiring Only a Few Hours

Peter Bouteneff’s How to Be a Sinner took only about four hours to read, and it offered so much gentle clarity on point after point that I could not have put into words for myself. Many of the book’s insights I have learned in the past several years at an intuitive level because I have been blessed with such wise and loving Christian shepherds in my church and because the prayers and hymns of the Orthodox church are so full of this wisdom.

However, even though I have learned so much of this in several other ways, my tendency to slip into all of the wrong attitudes and feelings about my own sinfulness remains strong. Most of the time, I fail to pay any serious attention to my sinfulness. On the other hand, when I do pay any attention, I so easily default into an unconscious attitude where I feel like I need to beg for God’s forgiveness.

While being clear about his own Orthodox Christian approach to his topics, Bouteneff does not assume any particular church background or tradition, and almost all of his advice is applicable for anyone. He also offers an account that is nuanced as he mentions repeatedly that your own history with hurt and abuse will be a critical factor regarding what kind of spiritual help you will need. He is not offering one-size-fits-all advice, and regularly points out that something he suggests might not apply in this or that circumstance.

His writing is clear and orderly with language that is profound and appealing without being flowery or complex. (While his writing is entirely unassuming, watch for his quiet use of beautiful phrases like “the tumultuous tranquility of monasteries.”) With a complex topic covering a lot of ground in a brief number of words, this book would be foolish to summarize. However, these two passages captured a lot at the heart of Bouteneff’s message:

Imperfection and sin, as a total condition, are the doors to mercy. Orthodox Christians are not the only ones who recognize this. The 13th-century mystic poet Rumi writes, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Eight hundred years later, Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen would sing, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

…The 20th-century Russian-French theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote that God willingly becomes powerless in front of human freedom, “a beggar of love waiting at the soul’s door without ever daring to force it.” Therefore I must become complicit with God’s mercy and love.

This is what it means to learn how to be a sinner: to “become complicit with God’s mercy and love.” This means two things:

  1. How to more and more clearly recognize our own sinfulness by being in the presence of beauty and holiness, listening to what wise and loving people can tell us about ourselves, and practicing steady and unsentimental consideration of ourselves as we truly act toward others.
  2. How to more and more fully receive God’s overwhelming and ever-present love for us and desire to help and bless us. A sinner, in this sense, is someone who recognizes their profound need for God and is eager to receive God’s love.

On this topic of learning to receive God’s love, Bouteneff includes deep yet clear reflection on the point that God is the ground of being for each one of us, such that we know God both as the pure goodness and beauty at the very core of who we are (immanence) as well as the highest good beyond all that exists or is created (transcendence). For example, Bouteneff cites Saint Ephrem the Syrian: “Enter into yourself, dwell within your heart, for God is there.”

With all of this, Bouteneff never slides into abstractions, however. His book remains constantly practical. For example, he offers this daily prayer as simple tool to use in asking God for help in learning how to be a sinner:

“O Lord, in your time and as you will, open to me the mystery of my innermost self, created in your Holy Image. Teach me too about the tendencies in me that distort that self. May my self-reflection be neither vain nor perfunctory. May it orient me all the more to your glory.”

As I noted, Bouteneff consistently mentions that there will be exceptions to his various pieces of advice that he offers, especially in lives damaged by more serious kinds of abuse and emotional manipulation. In all of this, Bouteneff consistently recommends modern medicine and psychology as helpful tools for all of us in our struggles toward health and wholeness. He unpacks ancient Christian wisdom and shows how it is in line with the best of contemporary counseling practices as well as the wisdom of 12 step programs for addicts. In this, he engages with another favorite Orthodox writer of mine, Father Meletios Webber (author of Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God as well as Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps).

I will end with a few sample passages that stood out to me as incentives that I hope will encourage you to find and read this book for yourself. First, is a passage on learning to love ourselves, God and our neighbors: 

In the 20th century, in a sermon on the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, St Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zicha preached:

“When a person loves only himself, he loves neither God nor his fellow-men. He does not even love the person that is in himself; he loves only his thoughts about himself, his illusions about himself. Were he to love the person in himself, he would love God’s image in him, and would quickly become a lover of God and man, for he would be seeking man and God in other people, as objects of his love.”

Second are some passages about setting ourselves beneath others:

Being able to view our faults, passions, misdirected thoughts and deeds unclouds our perception, not just of ourselves, but of everything. …To the extent we are also true to reality, we have a clearer relationship with ourselves, others, and God. And we are then positioned to work to correct our lives.

…St Seraphim of Sarov says, “We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.”

…Staretz Sophrony (Sakharov) …used to say that when anyone sought his spiritual counsel or confession, he would in his heart locate himself beneath that person in his spiritual stature. His counsel to others was therefore imbued with genuine humility, which in turn creates clarity of perception. It also leads to saying less, rather than more, another habit the ascetics recommend as a matter of course.

Placing ourselves beneath everyone, whatever their deeds, demeanor, or status in life is of course a challenge. But it is feasible. It does not entail allowing ourselves to get walked over, treated unfairly, or cheated. Just because I’m a worse sinner than my plumber doesn’t mean he gets to overcharge me, or install leaky pipes. Being “lower” than my employees does not mitigate their accountability to me. Putting myself spiritually beneath my boss does not entail that I surrender my prerogative to being treated and compensated fairly. It does mean, though, that I am able to say that my plumber, employees, and boss will be in heaven ahead of me.

…Dorotheos of Gaza sums the matter up perfectly: “Seeking to know oneself and to put oneself below everyone else and praying to God about everything: this is the road to humility, but humility itself is something divine and incomprehensible.”

Seeing myself as a sinner:

The whole person that I am is indeed a sinner. My innermost, God-given beauty only barely shines through, distorted as I am by my enslavement to passions, to my will, and my need for gratification. Only in giving myself over to God can I hope to attain my freedom. Only then will my inner self shine. Only then will I be fully alive to the Glory of God. Then, too, I will know this “self” that I must care for diligently, with love and appropriate discipline.

Finally, a few passages on learning to desire the salvation of all:

Whether God saves everyone or not, we can hope that he does. But more than that, God’s universal salvation or “apokatastasis” may in some way be predicated on my personal “apokatastasis,” my internal complicity with universal divine mercy. As Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18.18). We might therefore consider adopting a practice of mercy, of “loosing,” opening our hearts to God’s salvation of everyone.

…Technically speaking, God doesn’t need our agreement to save someone, or for that matter to do anything he pleases. But he awaits our assent nonetheless. He won’t even save me without my saying “yes” to it. So let me say “yes” to God’s saving everyone and anyone. And then let me say “yes” to God’s saving even myself.

Book cover. See a purchase option here.

You might also enjoy this wonderful podcast: “Luminous” with Peter Bouteneff.

4 thoughts on “Learning to Be a Sinner: a Primer Requiring Only a Few Hours

  1. Hi Jesse.

    I’m just finishing up this book. It’s a wonderful read overall. I’m happy to share it with others too.

    That said, I think the way he attempts to keep ‘shame’ in a proper sense operative was, in the end, not helpful for me. He recognizes how destructive ‘shame’ is but wants to keep the term by expunging the improper readings of it and recovering it as expressive of a proper view of oneself before God. I don’t think this is helpful because I don’t think the term can be rescued that way, but I appreciate his recognizing how destructive ‘shame’ as a concept is. I personally do not embrace ‘shame’ as a way to talk to myself about myself before God. For me it represents in its entirety a mode of misrelation.

    I was also confused about what appears to be some back-and-forth regarding the ‘person’ we are before God. You quote a good example of this from him:

    “The whole person that I am is indeed a sinner. My innermost, God-given beauty only barely shines through, distorted as I am by my enslavement to passions, to my will, and my need for gratification. Only in giving myself over to God can I hope to attain my freedom. Only then will my inner self shine.”

    It seems a mistake to me to say our whole person is a sinner, since surely that “whole” person includes the true self, what he immediately describes as one’s “innermost, God-given beauty” and one’s “inner self.” Sin arises from distorted enslavement to passions, but this seems to be just the point – that enslavement is not “who” we are, not our innermost person.

    I think these are just quibbles over the best way to express things. Elsewhere he clearly affirms our essential goodness and beauty which are our innermost truth and reality, even if our wills are presently enslaved to passions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom, thanks for the reply. I had the same question as you about the “whole person” including “the true self” and I’m glad you mentioned that. I think you’re right that this language surrounding our personhood would be more helpful if clarified and tightened up.

      Regarding shame, I’m more open to the possibility of a healthy form of it. Fr. Stephen Freeman writes a lot on this specific topic in ways that I found helpful. He has a whole book manuscript just finished up as a first draft from what I recall.

      https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/?s=shame

      Still, I’d agree with you as a default position because the category is so badly abused. The best starting place is most likely just to say that shame needs to be removed from our mode of engagement with our sinful self. I’d agree with that as a part of step one for most everyone at any rate. But Fr. Stephen does helpfully nuance even that (for myself at any rate).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. There are any number of other words that can express what a ‘healthy shame’ concept might be aimed at expressing but without running the risk of conjuring up the unhealthy connotations. I mean, if one wants to say our sin-awareness includes knowing how ‘culpable’ or ‘vulnerable’ we are, or perhaps saying that we remain “sinful” and that being aware of this fact means being open to recognizing on an emotional level our predilection to sin, and our actual guilt of actual choices – that covers it. But I can’t find a healthy way to ‘shame myself’ (“Shame on you, Tom. You should be ashamed”) for any of this. I’ll try to take a look at Fr Freeman’s doc there. He and I had a long and wonderful phone conversation about a year ago.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Rowan Williams and Peter Bouteneff on Schmemann, Bulgakov and Much More | Jesus and the Ancient Paths

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