“I, A Poor Miserable Sinner”?

November 3rd, 2010

When I Google the above phrase I am taken to sites related to my roots in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.  The phrase is from the Confession of the “Page 15 Liturgy,” as it is called, of the 1941 Concordia-published The Lutheran Hymnal.  It was the hymnal used during my entire 57-year stay with the church body of my childhood.

The complete confession, somewhat updated, goes like this: O Almighty God, merciful Father, I a poor, miserable sinner, confess to you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserved your punishment now and forever. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray you of your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of your beloved son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.

For years after I left the church this phrase, “I, a poor miserable sinner,” offended my sensibilities.  I could not relate to a punishing God, to my being a sinner in my essence, to Jesus’ death being a necessary sacrifice for my sins so I, though a sinner, could go to heaven since Jesus paid the price with his life, etc. This struck me not as the “good news” of the Gospel, as it was intended, but rather as a fear-based message, a message aimed at putting me in my place as a “poor miserable sinner” in my essence, in my very being.

And I feel fear arise in my body as I challenge this confession’s veracity in this post. Some voice in me says, “Gary, how dare you!  You know you are a sinner! Get with the message! You, of all people, need to use this confession!”  And yes, the inner voice comes complete with all the exclamation marks so noted.  A screaming voice it is.

Yet this, of all dogmas, is one from which I must step away, at least for now.  If one would go to some of the above Google entries for, “I, a poor miserable sinner,” one would find a mixed bag of orthodoxy defending the confession’s relevance, truth and applicability and others whose sensibilities were offended just like mine.  Today I can smile understandingly at the battle of words, yet I cannot just walk away from this confession because it doesn’t resonate with me, though part of me would say, “Why not?”  So what is the truth in all of this?  I can but share what is true for me.

For a Pathwork class I am assisting in next month I have been working with Pathwork Lecture #195.  Its lengthy title is: Identification and Intentionality: Identification with the Spiritual Self to Overcome Negative Intentionality. For me, this lecture has helped me deal with this Lutheran Confession in a way that makes sense.  It speaks to me about what aspects of myself I identify with.  It is one thing to identify parts of myself, but quite another to identify with parts of myself.  The latter says this is really who I am in my essential nature.  On the other hand, identifying parts of myself, not identifying with those parts, simply acknowledges that I have some aspects that, while not part of my essential nature, are still carried with me as “appendages” and must be dealt with.

The parts of the human being this lecture speaks about include the Ego-Self, the Higher-Self (Spiritual-Self, or Divine Self), the Lower Self, and the Mask Self.

Some of us, including me, especially during earlier times but even now, consciously or unconsciously, identify with the Ego Self — thinking this is all that we are.  This is the “I am the captain of my ship” posturing of the Ego. But, the lecture points out, the Ego Self is not capable of grappling with my negative attributes on its own.  It needs to call for help, here from my Higher-Self, that is, from my Spiritual Self.  The Ego Self, over time, must merge with the Spiritual Self, a surrender in the spirit of “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

The Lower Self — that part of me containing distorted energies of pride, self-will, and fear — is to be identified, but not identified with.  I am not my Lower Self in my essential nature!  This follows Matthew Fox’s notion of Original Blessing vs. Original Sin — a position for which he, as a Roman Catholic Priest, had to leave his priestly post in the church.

Pathwork Lecture 195 points to the notion that many of my issues in life arise because I identify with aspects of my Lower Self.  I believe myself to be, in my essence, my Lower Self — certainly reinforced by the Dogma of Original Sin.  And, if this were true, to give up my Lower Self would mean self annihilation. I fight my annihilation, of course, thus leading me to negative intentionality to preserve myself (even though negative in its Lower Self aspects) vs. adopting a positive intentionality that would betray this Lower Self that I, for a long time, thought I was in my essence.

The lecture delves into this notion of identifying with my Lower Self from several angles that I find useful to consider in my life and my own wrestling with my Lower Self attributes. And working with these Lower Self attributes by accepting them, finding how they are distortions of truth, uncovering what their origins are in my belief system and patterns, discovering how they bring misery into my life, and eventually dissolving them, adds to my life purpose.  I have a role to play in my sanctification, if I may use this dogmatic word.

The lecture also deals with the danger of identifying exclusively with my Higher Self and ignoring my Lower Self attributes that I brought with me into the world.  This over-identifying with my Higher Self is called spiritual bypassing in some circles — thinking I am only my Higher Self and not dealing with Lower Self and Mask Self aspects that are part of me.

Finally the lecture points to my ultimate need to identify with my Higher Self as my essential nature.  My Spiritual Self is who I am in my beingness.  Yes I have other aspects, including aspects of my Lower Self, but these are not my essential nature and are not to be identified with.

What I see that happened to me, then, growing up in the church and reciting this confession every other week and taking on other similar dogmas, was that, intended or not, I had come to interpret the phrase, “I, a Poor Miserable Sinner,” to mean that I, in my essence, was evil.  Being a Poor Miserable Sinner had come to define my essential nature! This phrase led me to the exact place the Lecture warns me about: I had identified with my Lower Self. I had let Original Sin define my essence.

In time I had to individuate from this negative, fear-producing dogma.  No easy task, and it has taken most of my 68 years.  I had to risk leaving this rigid framework that declared me to be evil in my essential nature, saved only by the love of God through the torturous death of his beloved son Jesus Christ.  This oh-so-familiar message no longer fits my sensibilities, and so, right or wrong, I choose to move forward, even into the dark night of the soul, the desert, the deep forest of Mystery.  May my Divine Essence empower me to go forward courageously into this amazing Mystery called Life, where I can grow, manifest, and express all who I am, while purifying and, by the grace of God, transforming those parts of me that are not truly part of my essential nature.  Amen.  With love, Gary

PS Here are the paragraphs of Pathwork Lecture 195 that most speak to what I have shared in this post.

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6 responses about ““I, A Poor Miserable Sinner”?”

  1. Charles Schulz said:

    As an LCMS pastor and theologian, I appreciate your telling of your experience with this confession. I’m drawn to Romans 7 as a response — there we find that Paul both identifies his sinfulness and, through the course of the self-reflection, he distinguishes himself from this sinfulness, so it is no longer “I” but “sin living in me” that sins. I believe that this is only possible through confession and absolution and the aim of absolution should not be identify the believer as evil but to grant the believer a new identity in Christ, the identity of a beloved child of God. Only the forgiving and releasing Gospel of Jesus can bring to us the bold place of asserting, “I don’t sin any more; it’s sin in me doing that!” I believe that this needs to be more clearly stated and taught in my church body — perhaps even an explicit statement in the liturgy needs to be added.

  2. Alan Butterworth said:

    Dear Gary,

    I too thank you for sharing and for seeking to get in touch with all of who you are. Our stories are a bit reversed.

    My parents were leaders in Unity (Eric and Catherine Butterworth). Perhaps you have heard of it or them. Both turned away from ‘orthodox’ Christianity as children over this confession (which used to be used in many denominations). My father’s mother gravitated to Unity, (which I describe as ‘conservative New Age’; aren’t labels fun?). My mother started with Christian Science. Both teach re-incarnation and many ideas that worked their way across the miles from Hindu roots.

    They met at Unity Village in Kansas City as both trained to become Unity Ministers. So I grew up in a home where I was the opposite of a poor, miserable sinner. And yet, as a young child, and especially as a teen, I began to dismiss their teaching because it was divorced from the reality of how they lived. As you know, the job of kids is to rebel. So I rebelled from the idea that we are to ignore reality and simply repeat ‘affirmations’ or whatever you want to call them. I had an innate idea that there was ‘truth’ somewhere that would help me deal with reality.

    I am slow. It took me 15 years after someone shared that they believed Jesus died for my sins before my heart changed and I became a Christian. I could share a lot more about those years, but would you believe about half way thru I married an LCMS Lutheran? So when I confessed faith, I was baptized in an LCMS church.

    Our strengths as individuals and as organizations are often our weaknesses. Having studied a bit of a lot of Christian ideas, I am still a Lutheran because I believe the theology lines up best with my understanding of the Word of God (the Bible) which I believe is the norm for faith. My understanding is the Bible has two roles: one is to help us with our human issues (the stuff that we confess, like David, makes us poor, miserable sinners); the other is about our relationship with God. I don’t see the Bible as a hammer to beat other people over the head.

    This is where my ideas may be offensive to many in the LCMS. I agree that from a human perspective, the LCMS (and all human organizations) are, us, flawed. It is the rare church or individual that is emotionally healthy, or tries to live what they say they believe.

    Please understand, I can’t judge my fellow Lutherans any more than I can judge you or anyone else. That is God’s job, and I am grateful I don’t have that responsibility.

    There is one word that might help you understand my journey. Faith is all about reality. It is not about pretending or believing things that cause me to deny reality. If there is such a thing as ‘truth’, then belief and receiving the Love of God should change me.

    So, I am not disagreeing with you to the extent that your experience in the church left you having a hard time receiving God’s love. I believe this simple concept is where so many get lost. If you look at the parable of the Prodigal Son, we see a metaphor for the most incredible, loving Father (God) of any faith anywhere. The prodigal’s imperfect admission of what he has done is more than enough for the Father to come running and make a fool of himself loving and hugging and kissing his son.

    So many of us are embarrassed by a PDA from an earthly family member, let alone from the God who created the Universe. Even without a confession, we ‘know’ that it is awkward to believe God could love us this way. We have so many doubts about who we are and how God or anyone else could possibly love us. But those thoughts and doubts are not from God. The Scriptures tell us we are created in the image of God, and He loves us unconditionally! When we live in our heads, and refuse His invitation to receive His love, we separate ourself from His amazing love. And through our pride, we try to live as if we don’t need His love. We do that through denial and pretending.

    The only way to truly love anyone else is to share the love we have received from God (1 John 1:4:19). Without God’s love, all our efforts to be loving or good people are all centered in our thoughts and ultimately in a denial of reality.

    What happens when we are honest about who we are? We are humbled in the presence of a God who loves us anyway. This humility is what God is after. Then he can use us to do his will. And he does have a purpose for us. When we are doing all of this, there is no greater joy…even though we still fail because of our sinful nature.

    While David was all about acknowledging this, and I believe this is why He was a ‘man after God’s own heart’ (see example Psalms 34 and 51), perhaps you will be willing to take a fresh look at the Beatitudes. This is not a teaching that is discussed much in the church today. As you begin Matthew, after establishing who Jesus is, I believe it is significant that his very first sermon (after already proclaiming that people needed to repent in order to receive the Kingdom of God) was the sermon on the mount. And what is the first of the Beatitudes? “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.

    I am not going to discuss this at length, but if you study the Scriptures, many would agree the most problematic of all of our sins is pride. It is pride that causes us to resist God’s hugs. We want to try to do it on our own. I don’t need him. I can ‘love’ others without first receiving his love.

    Well, doing things on our own is no longer Christianity in my book. That is nothing more than pretending, denying and keeping God at arm’s length. It is just another human attempt to do things using God’s name that has nothing to do with God.

    I don’t know you, so forgive me foe asking this if I am off base. But is it possible your pride has something to do with the problems you had confessing you are a poor miserable sinner? I know it is hard for me to admit the reality of who I am, what I have done and continue to do. Sadly, because things won’t completely change this side of heaven, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Christianity. But the good news is although God knows everything about you and me, just as He knew all about what David did and didn’t do, He loves you and me anyway! Wow!

    I have rambled on enough. I would very much like to hear your comments to this. Perhaps we can share a bit more.

  3. gary.vollbracht said:

    Thank you Alan,

    I respect your Soul’s Journey and your experiences as well. My brother is a faithful LCMS leader and we have a beautiful relationship that allows us to discuss these matters every week — each open to the other’s journey and faithful to what is alive in our own journey. So precious a love bond between us.

    I find that I am very challenged to enter open dialogue on this matter — it would fill so many pages! I pray this is not stubbornness on my part (though, as you say, I have plenty of pride that I am and will be working with my entire life I’m pretty sure) but rather, perhaps, faithfulness to my inner journey, also, I pray, being led by God. Of course my brother would point out that all within me is nothing but filthy rags and cannot be trusted — so beware of Satan at my door! But for me God is calling me to a level of self responsibility in this matter, and I am choosing to follow this nudge.

    For over twelve years I have been so powerfully helped by the body of Pathwork Lectures on all matters spiritual, that I let my soul respond to these truths, as I continue to let my soul respond to the truths in the bible and from elsewhere. So, as I share in my many, many blog entries, my life unfolds on an ever deeper level day by day. In many ways Life is my teacher.

    So thank you for taking the time to share your sense of truth in this matter. As I totally respect my brother’s views, so also I respect yours. And I choose to be faithful to my own sense of truth as well — and it does change, even hour by hour. Thanks for entering my life, Alan.

    Feeling my love for you in your faithfulness to your journey, my friend. Gary

  4. Andy said:

    Being brought up in this Christian culture, we are all so conditioned. Right from the git go we are stacked with so many lies. I’ve traveled a similar path and only found relief in discovering Advaita through a few select teachers.”The Understanding” that comes frees you of you. If you would like the names of these teachers I will be glad to pass them on. Sincerely, Andy.

  5. Russell Thurman said:

    What is it called when you make up a god to suit yourself?

  6. gary.vollbracht said:

    Very interesting question that I would like to consider. My first thoughts lead me to several references I have found helpful in my spiritual search. The first is a book I am just completing is Bart Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God.” I also consider several Pathwork Lectures on this topic: #88: Religion: True and False, #52: The God Image, and #51: The Importance of Forming Your Own Opinions. Another author I’ve appreciated is Peter Rollins. He wrote “Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine” and “The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction.” Thanks for your question!

    Gary

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