This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
—Apostle Paul in a letter to St Timothy (1Timothy 1:15)
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
—From a Christian (Eastern) Orthodox Pre-Communion Prayer
Prior to receiving communion, many Christians pray the pre-communion prayer, above, in which each pray-er claims to be “the chief of all sinners.” In other words, as I pray this prayer, I claim that “I am the number one sinner of all time.” That is saying a lot; it is quite a claim for one’s self.
Now, I can certainly say this prayer with a prideful heart and with false humility with the intent of garnering either praise from you for my remarkable piety (“Wow, you really are a very religious person!”), or to seek a compliment from you (“Awww, you really are a great person; don’t be so hard on yourself.”)
Presume for a moment, however, that I mean it sincerely, “I am the chief of all sinners.” Can that really be true? Let’s make a simple comparison. Consider the following dictators and the deaths attributed to them and their respective regimes:
- Mao Zedong (China): 31 million deaths
- Adolf Hitler (Nazi Germany): 19 million deaths
- Joseph Stalin (Russia): 9 million deaths
Does that seem an unfair comparison? Certainly I’m not that bad. Then how about an average mass murderer who might only kill tens of people. Am I really a worse sinner than that?
What about my friend who cheats on his taxes? Am I worse than that?
At some point, as I compare my sins to the sins of others, likely I can find a place to rank myself among them, which means that I’m not really the chief of sinners; maybe I’m just an average sinner, no better or worse than most people I know.
Here’s another story from the Bible, a story Jesus tells of two men: one a religious leader and the other a hated tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector, realizing how sinful he is, won’t even look upwards to Heaven; rather, he cries out to God for mercy. Nearby, the religious man thanks God that he is not as bad as those robbers and tax collectors because he does many good, religious things (praying, fasting, giving money, etc.). Which man does Jesus praise? The tax collector.
So, it strikes me that if I try to rank myself—I’m not as bad as Hitler but not as good as Mother Teresa—I am like the religious man in the story, above, the man that Jesus condemns.
Jesus wants me to be like the tax collector…so, in that light, what does it mean for me to say, “I’m the chief of all sinners”? It means just that: I’m the worst of the lot…I’m the worst sinner of all humankind, past, present, and future.
This doesn’t mean I’m a worse person than everyone else; no, we are all created equal and in the image of God. However, I am the worse sinner of all.
Yes, God forgives sins for those who repent of them. Not only does He forgive, but He removes our sins from us “as far as the East is from the West” (Psalm 103:12). So, for me to be the worst sinner must also mean I am the least repentant, which puts my eternal salvation in danger.
Here is another story. Many years ago (~AD250-350) there lived a man who gave away his fortune to live in the desert of Egypt to seek God. Today, we know him as St. Anthony. One day, after living in the desert for many years, Anthony was in prayer when he heard a voice:
“Anthony! You have still not achieved the worth of the leather tanner who lives in Alexandria.” The next morning Anthony got himself to Alexandria and went to the leather tanner pointed out to him and said: “Tell me of your deeds, because I came here from the desert for this reason.” The leather tanner was greatly surprised at the saint’s request and answered him humbly: “I do not know about me, whether I did anything good. For this reason I get up early from bed, and rather than leaving for work, I say to myself: all the inhabitants of this city, from the greatest to the least, will enter the Kingdom of God for their virtuous deeds, but I alone will go unto eternal tortures for my sins. And these words I repeat in my heart before I go to sleep.” Upon hearing this, Anthony answered: “Truly, my son, you, a skilled craftsman sitting quietly in his home, have gained the Kingdom of God; but I, although I have spent my whole life in the desert, yet I have not gained spiritual wisdom, I have not reached the level of consciousness that you express with your words.”
From this story, not only am I the chief of all sinners, but I should believe that all of you will enter the Kingdom of God and only I will not because of my poor repentance. Or, in the words of other saints over the centuries, “All will be saved, only I will be lost.”
In a previous blog I wrote of our contemplating the Beauty of God. So, for me to say, “All will be saved, only I will be lost” is not to engage in unhealthy, self condemnation; rather, it is the natural result of seeing my own wretchedness in the light of God’s perfect Beauty. It is me recognizing that I have nothing to commend in and of myself. Therefore, I cannot see your sins, I cannot judge you because I become so aware of my own sin. I am the worst of all sinners. I can’t justify my thoughts or my behavior by comparing myself to you or anyone else because there is no one worse than me.
Let me be as practical as I can. It doesn’t matter what is the color of your skin. It doesn’t matter who or what you call your god. It doesn’t matter whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you are Democrat, Republican, or something else. It doesn’t matter whether you are straight or one or more of the LGBTQ+ letters. It doesn’t matter whether you are in prison for a small crime or a heinous crime. It doesn’t matter your addiction of choice. It doesn’t matter how you treated your significant other or your kids or your friends today. It does’t matter what you are thinking of doing tomorrow. I am a worse sinner than you. I am THE worst sinner of all.
What do I do with this realization? How do I cope with this understanding of myself?
Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.—St. Paul the Apostle; 2Corinthians 7:10
St. Porphyrious tells me I can respond to this realization in one of two ways. First, I can let it drive me into despondency. I can beat myself up for every failure to live up to God’s standard. I can become so self-critical that I become useless; worse, joyless. This is unhealthy shame. It is “worldly sorrow” (2Corinthians 7:10) and is from Satan. The second, better response is from God. It drives me to prayer and to deeper, continual repentance and confession. I don’t wallow in my sinful act, nor do I relive it; rather, I confess it, repent of it, and move past it trusting in God’s forgiveness (which means I must forgive myself!). This is healthy shame; it brings humility. It is the “Godly sorrow” (2Corinthians 7:10) which brings me to repentance and gives me the joy of Jesus. It drives me onward and upward toward God and His beauty.
Returning to St. Paul the Apostle and his claim to be the chief of all sinners. In another letter he goes on to say:
I do not count myself as have attained Jesus’ perfection; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14).
This is the better way to which God exhorts us. By becoming our own harshest accusers, there is no more Satan can do to us. I accuse myself before God before Satan can. As the realization of me being the “chief of sinners” becomes part of who I am, as it was with St Paul and the leather tanner, above, I trust I will take on the humility of Christ. I trust I will begin to love and serve others who are my “betters.” I trust I will more readily cry out to God for His mercy, as did the tax collector and the leather tanner, which is the best prayer of all.
Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.–The ancient “Jesus Prayer”
From Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion:
[This is] the one perspective by which the Christian is allowed to think of universal salvation [that all will go to Heaven]: “all will be saved, only I will perish.” It flows from the inner spiritual experience of a [person] deeply conscious of [one’s] sinfulness and brought to repentance for [one’s] own sins and imperfection. Such repentance necessarily includes thoughts of eternal torments, not for others, but for oneself, as well as the hope for salvation, not for oneself, but for everyone else.
It is our transformation into Christlikeness and His humility through the power of Holy Spirit and the Church that gives witness to our faith.