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As a pastor, I used to do a lot of my writing at a local microbrewery. It had a second floor that was always abandoned on Tuesday nights. Nothing promotes good sermon-writing like a Hefeweizen in a quiet public house. One night the bar tender walked up to me and said, “I started coming to your church.” Turns out she was a recently divorced single mother of two trying to figure out the next chapter of life. I waved at her at church on subsequent weeks, and our children’s pastor told me her kids loved the program. Every few weeks, I’d see her at the pub and ask how she was. I learned that her divorce had been a brutal one and that my sermons were really helping her heal up and move on.
But a few months later, a scandal of my own making broke and the church blew up. I didn’t leave my house for six months, but at one point I did ask the children’s pastor about her, and he said, “Oh her? She hasn’t been back since.”
…that was one of the lowest points of my whole journey.
This is Jilted, by St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
What are you supposed to do with the knowledge that your choices have destroyed other people? How do you live with the memory of the faces of the people you hurt? What do you do with the powerlessness you feel to fix, redress, or in any way mitigate the damage of your own choices? I suppose everyone has regrets. No one gets through life unscathed. We’ve all been hurt by people and have surely hurt others in innumerable ways. So this question haunts all of us for sure.
I think leaders, however, bear a special responsibility for the harm they inflict on the people who follow them. It’s a special class of sin, less like one random man punching another in a fight, and more like a shepherd who eats his own sheep. The only reason leaders exist is for the sake of those who follow, so when they do things that destroy those people, it is a uniquely pungent form of evil. If we deny this, then self-deception of a particularly insidious kind knocks at our door.
The only alternative is to admit it, own it, and deal with the crippling shame that such confession brings. What are you going to do with it, my friend? For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts from the Saintly Mule, who has had to learn a thing or two about it.
It is a horrible thing to realize that someone’s life may have been better for not having met you. Someone like that poor young woman at the pub. When I was finally up to going out in public, I eventually went back to that little taproom. She wasn’t there. She’d moved on. God alone knows where.
I have died a thousand deaths in my heart over what I did to her. I only vaguely and probably wrongly remember her name, and I wouldn’t actually recognize her now if I passed her on the street, but the thought of her journey—how she was finally beginning to find some hope in my preaching, but has now shrunk back into the shadows perhaps with deeper wounds than when she met me, perhaps has left the whole Church in disgust—well, that tears me up, wakes me at night in cold sweats. And she is just one of many such stories.
I’ve had a few people tell me that they still remember my time at the church with fondness, that they learned a lot, that they still appreciate things I taught, and I’m grateful when such stories come to me. They help mitigate a bit of the sense of absolute failure. But they don’t release me from the burden that many hundreds of others may have thrown up their hands and walked away from the Church, from God, from their own lives because of me. No, such well-wishers cannot release me. They don’t have the power, and I don’t have the right to let them. You don’t get to weigh in the scale the good you’ve done in life against the evil, and if the good outweighs the bad, you get to think well of yourself. That’s not how the world works. And it is certainly not how God works.
When confronted with your failures, you don’t get to wave your successes in God’s face and say, “See here, I have compensated for my sins with my righteous acts.” That is not Christianity, that is not the gospel. If I may be blunt, the gospel, at least as the prophet Isaiah forecasts it, says that if I am attempting to clothe myself in even my most righteous actions, they will be revealed to have only the value of used menstrual rags, yes, that’s literally what Isaiah said. Who would sanely wrap themselves in those, stand before the mirror, and say, “See, my fancy new clothes.” The naked emperor in all his pompous self-deception was better off than that.
The gospel of Jesus Christ never weighs our good actions against our evil ones and then takes a sum.
No, no, the gospel of Jesus Christ never weighs our good actions against our evil ones and then takes a sum. The stains of our sin are not removed by any amount of countervailing good. We do not diligently darn our bloody rags into wedding gowns. We must rather shed our rags and wear another’s clothes. We must be dressed anew in another’s righteousness.
This is an old truth, perhaps one of the oldest, and if you are listening to the Holy Ass because you were once in a position to proclaim that truth, then you already know it well. I am reminding you that the message you once proclaimed to others, applies to you still. You cannot remit, remove, or reduce your agonized conscience by any subsequent act of virtue. Nor can it be answered by anyone sincerely reminding you of the good you did once upon a time. Be grateful for such reminders, but do not rest your heart upon them. They are not strong enough to silence for long a disturbed and voluble conscience.
Learn again that first lesson of the faith, my friend. Our sins cannot be outlived or outlasted, they can only be forgiven. And there is only one who has the power to answer the recriminations of our heart. St. John reminds us that “even when our own heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.” There it is. That same Christ you spent all that time pointing people toward, now beckons to you to come again and find rest in the only place it is to be found.
I cannot undo whatever I did to that poor young lady at the brewing company, or a hundred others just like her. I cannot make them right. It is beyond my power. I must live with it. I can only come to Jesus, offering my remorse and shame as the only offering I have to bring, believing in faith that he has not lost track of her or anyone else. That he has the power to redeem even where I destroyed. He has done it for Adam’s folly, and he can do it for yours and mine. He bids me to lay this burden down as with all others, and let him carry it.
Those who are now lost to me are not lost to him. I have to rest in that.
This does not in any way make me less responsible for the things I did and the hurts I’ve caused. It means only that those who are now lost to me are not lost to him, and I have to rest in that. That is what faith looks like. You once gave your own life to Christ? Perhaps it’s time to give him all those other peoples’ lives as well.
May God give you the strength to take Christ as his word. You, who are heavy laden, he wishes to give you rest.
This has been Jilted, by St. Asinus.
 Go, read The Republic on this. Plato was dead right.
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