Human pride can be a funny thing. We routinely make ourselves out to be better than we truly are by whitewashing our sins and character flaws. Of course the realization that things like pride and self-righteousness are also sinful leads to some bizarre kinds of prideful behavior. In communities where humility is stressed, you will find people who are visibly proud of their humility. In the Church, where we hear pride-crushing statements like “the last will be first” and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”, our pride often tries to subsume these statements in an effort to preserve itself. As a result, it’s not uncommon for Christians to actually brag about being last in various respects and to make expressions of what wretched sinners they are into a mark of superiority. This, of course, is a false humility rather than the genuine article.
So what then do we make of the long tradition of Christians taking Paul’s own label of “chief of sinners” and self-applying it? It seems strange that those of us who have lead relatively tame lives by worldly standards would take on the label of a man who systematically hunted down and killed Christians. Is it arrogance and false humility to to describe our own mundane sins as being worse than even the worst mass murderers?
It certainly can be, and it often is. One of the most frequent mistakes you will see in modern churches is the equalizing of all sins–as though God’s justice has absolutely no sense of proportion. Now, it’s true that anyone who keeps the entire law except for one point is guilty of all. However, this is an academic point. While there was one and only one Man who kept the entire law, there was never a man who kept the entire law except for one tiny point. Adam might have erred in listening to his wife instead of God, but it wasn’t long before he was hiding from God, lying to Him, and blaming Him for his own misdeeds. Cain might have become jealous, but it was not long before that jealousy turned to murder. Sin’s nature is to completely corrupt and destroy–it does not know half-measures or how to leave any parts of our lives untouched.
It is also true that even sins that are small in our own eyes are damnable in God’s. As Christ taught us, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘you fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22). But we must not forget that Christ also told Chorazin and Bethsaida that it would be more bearable at the final judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for them and that it would be more tolerable for Sodom than for Capernaum (Matthew 11:21-24). We therefore cannot conclude from Matthew that all sins are equally bad and will receive equal punishment from God. And so we cannot conclude that we’re all in a first-place tie for the coveted title of “Chief of Sinners.” These attempts at equalization have more to do with the Enlightenment’s idealization of equality than with anything God taught us in Scripture.
All that said, however, there is an entirely legitimate sense in which we can call ourselves the chief of sinners: there should never be a single person whose sins we understand so well as our own. By the aid of the Holy Spirit, in our rare moments of honesty, we can recognize our own depths of depravity to an extent that we simply cannot perceive in an another. This is the sense we find in Augustine’s famous story about stealing pears. As a youth, Augustine and a group of friends stole a large amount of inferior pears from a neighbor’s property when they had plenty of better fruit of their own. They did not even enjoy the pears, simply taking a few bites and throwing the rest away. Oddly enough, it is with this story of mere petty theft that Augustine highlights his own depravity. Augustine was not trying to say that petty theft was just as bad as murder or adultery. Nor was he trying to elevate himself by degrading himself. He did, however, recognize the bankruptcy of his own motives for that theft in a way that he never could for any given murderer or adulterer. On reflection, he realized that he did not steal because he was hungry or because there was anything good and wonderful about what he stole. He committed theft only to revel in the misdeed itself–to enjoy placing himself in charge at the expense of God and neighbor.
There was no pretense left about trying to do the right thing or merely being inept at pursuing some higher good. Even the murderer might have been acting out of desperation or a sense of justice. Even the adulterer might have been ineptly trying to make the object of his passion happy. We can speculate on such motives, but can never really know them unless we are, in fact, murderers and adulterers in the strict sense of the words. If we are honest, however, we can be much more intimate with our own motivations. We can make educated guesses about the character and depravity of others, but we can only really know ourselves in this regard. Augustine’s judgement, and the judgment on those Christians who humbly see themselves as the chief of sinners is not a judgment on the severity of acts of sin or on the harm that such acts cause–it’s a judgment on our own character. This character stands alone as chief of sinners because ours is the only character of which we can make such a precise judgment. When the person in the pew behind me makes the same judgment about himself, it is none of my concern for we are each speaking without a common frame of reference.
It is paradoxical to try to puff ourselves up by maximizing our sinfulness, but there are no depths to which our sinful nature will not stoop to preserve itself. So rather than turning confession into a competition by trying to make yourself anything or trying to end the competition by saying we’re all winners/losers, simply be who you are: a poor miserable sinner redeemed by Christ. Our standing among all the other sinners out there should not be our concern one way or another. Ranking ourselves as equally bad is still an attempt to rank ourselves.