Before any discussion of practical and pastoral matters begins in I Timothy, the author sets the groundwork for what follows in verses 15-17 in the first chapter: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
That this passage leads to worship— “to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever”— tells me that all our theological, moral and spiritual discernment must begin and end with worship, in a stance of reverence, awe, wonder, submission, surrender, repentance and delight toward God. If we would be virtuous people ourselves, worship reminds us that all virtue pleasing to God is only borrowed from the most holy God, who is a limitless fount of virtue, who accepts back only his own virtues as the coin of his realm, and who who delights in sharing and imputing his virtues to us.
Calling oneself “the worst of sinners” may sound like neurotic self-loathing, and these words could certainly be pressed into such service. I suppose that if I had grown up in a powerless and persecuted minority group, I would need to hear more about God’s limitless and eternal love for me, and about my limitless and eternal my worth to God, because everyone else was telling me plenty about my sinfulness. The secret that I must confess, as a member of the powerful and privileged elite of white American males, is that having worth and virtue ascribed to me by race and gender hasn’t really helped me feel all that great about myself, either. Nor does the post-modern gambit, of saying that there is no sin except saying that anything is sin, help me feel better about myself. For then I have to wonder, where do these distressing and undesired words, thoughts, compulsions, fears and sometimes actions of mine that I don’t approve of come from? That’s a recipe for debilitating shame, and either I will project that shame on to others as hatred, or on to myself, as depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. I understand being a sinner to mean that I have a problem, but not that I am the problem. No one is. Sin is the problem, not you or me. What a relief!
To say that I am the worst of sinners means that I am done looking around at others so that I can say, in my heart of hearts, “At least I don’t do THAT, like they, or you-know-who, do.” It means that I need no longer feel responsible to fix the world, something which no mere mortal has achieved as yet. Rather, I am responsible first for my own journey of healing, for which this passage promises me great hope and help, not in the form of laws and logic, but in mercy, hope and eternal life. However hard I might be on myself or others, this passage highlights the divine patience. So, why should I be any less patient with myself and others than God is? Again, what a relief.
To say that I am a sinner, even the worst of sinners, takes one off the pedestal of moral and spiritual superiority and puts us all on the level ground of solidarity. It changes the focus from “What must THOSE people do?” to “What do WE need?”
To name ourselves, “the worst of sinners” does not absolve us of the need to discern right and wrong, nor to give and receive counsel. It only means that we offer our questions and concerns not like lawgivers and law enforcers, but like one beggar telling another beggar where he got bread, or like one sick person telling another patient where she got medicine and effective, compassionate care. It means that treasures of moral and spiritual discernment can come out of our brokenness and struggles, not just from our wholeness and achievements. It means that no one is beyond the need for God’s mercy, just as no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. It changes the whole purpose of doing moral and spiritual discernment from that of proving who’s right and who’s wrong, to a common journey for wholeness and health, which no one can undertake nor accomplish on their own.