"I, A Poor Miserable Sinner"?

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.