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For pity’s sake, forgive yourself

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Cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye – Matthew 7v5

A WOKE Ofsted education inspector – aren’t they all? – was holding forth in the staffroom. She said: ‘I was aghast. I went into a primary classroom and on the toy table there was a golliwog. I had to admonish the teacher: Don’t you realise how offensive that thing is to all black people?’

A rather un-woke teacher replied: ‘Well, in my class several girls have white dolls that cry and wet themselves. You might as well say that suggests all white women are lachrymose and incontinent.’

The inspector answered: ‘Oh that’s just fair comment!’

Today’s gospel, and indeed all the gospels for the first few weeks after Trinity, are condemnations of hypocrisy and self-righteousness in religion. Pascal says there are only two types of people: the sinners who think themselves righteous and the righteous who think themselves sinners. There is a terrible tendency among pious folk to imagine that virtue is something you preach to others: people who think that the essence of religion is to make other people more moral. I suffered a lot at the hands of these whited sepulchres when I was a boy – perhaps you did too? The gloomy Sunday School superintendent’s chief qualification for the job seemed to be that he hated children. When I was nine he caught me kissing Anne Roberts on the Sunday School trip and harangued us both until we were paralysed with guilt and misery. It was enough to stifle all hope of human affection for ever. Then he would repeat that awful piece of blackmailing nonsense beloved of all revivalists: ‘You can’t DO anything towards your own salvation, so get down on your knees and SAY this etc . . .’ As if saying something were not doing something.

The man in the parable has something in his eye and this means that he can’t see straight. There is a fault in his perception. Most of us tend to perceive ourselves in a good light, leniently and even disguise our sins as virtues. One man is habitually falling about drunk: he just sees himself as sociable and gregarious. Someone else thinks of himself as a fun person: which, being interpreted, means he’ll go to bed with all and sundry. Another woman thinks she’s tastefully displaying a sliver of midriff while her neighbour says: ‘Look at her – going round with her gut hanging out!’

I fear that the gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, was right about one thing at least when he said: ‘Most people are objective about others but subjective about themselves; whereas the Christian task is to be subjective about others and objective about oneself.’ Or as the Lord said: ‘Be ye therefore merciful, as your Heavenly Father also is merciful.’

And have you noticed there is a horrible selectivity about moral judgment? St Paul gives us a long list of sins: fornication, lust, greed, malice, gossip, back-biting. The sins of the flesh are readily condemned by the seeming religious, but when did you last hear of anyone being slung out of the Mothers’ Union for gossiping, or dismissed from the General Synod for maliciously misrepresenting those with whom he disagrees? Mote and beam? Too much patronising selective judgment, don’t you think? It’s not just sex and booze and backing the gee-gees that involve us in sin.

Now this next bit will get me into a bucketful of trouble . . .

Selectivity in sins condemned? When I was a priest in the City of London, we let Alcoholics Anonymous groups use the vestry for their meetings. Of course, these groups can help save people who might otherwise be lost. But there’s some furtive doubt in my mind over the whole business: isn’t there something suspect about sitting round a dry table for hours on end talking about yourself? Blake’s words come to mind: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. But even apparently innocent things can lead to sinfulness. As C S Lewis remarked, ‘He that hath looked upon an overlarge plate of eggs, bacon and fried bread and lusted after it, hath committed breakfast in his heart already.’ So let us stop looking out of the window and pointing at other people. Let us look in the mirror and point at ourselves instead.

But even this can lead to trouble. Sin is a pest, but don’t let’s overrate it – otherwise we denigrate the victory of Christ. The marvellous news is that he really has done away with our sins. Gnosthi Seauton, know thyself. Surely. But don’t let’s take ourselves too seriously. You know that the devil fell by the force of gravity. And, as St Augustine said, sin truly is ‘a mere nothing, a privation of good’. Goodness is the only reality. You can understand this practically: meanness is only a parody of thrift; lust a perversion of love; laziness an abuse of leisure and so on.

The devil has a two-pronged strategy: he either wants us to deny our sins altogether, so that we can never seek for the cure; or he wants us so to wallow in them that we despair. Christ’s answer is that we confess our sins and then regard ourselves as born again, five seconds old. Of course, we fall into our old faults, but if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us all our sins over and over again, till seventy times seven. The great Samuel Coleridge has words of wisdom and comfort if you’re consumed with despair and self-loathing:

Art thou under the tyranny of sin – a slave to vicious habits – at enmity with God, and a skulking fugitive from thine own conscience? The best and most Christian-like pity thou canst show is to take pity on thine own soul. The best and most acceptable service thou canst render is to do justice and show mercy to thyself.

We live in a world which encourages personal self-indulgence and irreligion together with rigid social conformity to fashionable secular values. We forget that the most serious sins are intellectual, doctrinal and spiritual. Forget racism and sexism for a minute: how about atheism? The most serious sin of the lot – forsaking or denying God. Because if we don’t believe what’s true, we can’t do what’s right:

  Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments

  As you can boast in the way of polite society

  Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?

  There is no life that is not in community

  And no community not lived in praise of God.

But God will even redeem atheism, because our Heavenly Father is merciful. The Jewish father went to the Baalshem and said: ‘My son has turned away from God. What shall I do?’

And the Baalshem replied: ‘Love him more than ever.’

Be merciful to your neighbour and to yourself. Don’t forget to confess your sins, but don’t let the oppression of sin wear you down. Overcome it rather with mercy and love. Two images: the roses in the paradise garden and the fire of moral awareness:

  But sin is behovely . . .

  And all shall be well and

  All manner of thing shall be well

  When the tongues of flame are in-folded

  Into the crowned knot of fire

  And the fire and the rose are one. 

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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