Two years ago, I was finishing up my undergraduate thesis. My advisor was a suave Ivy League production, and his affirmation meant more to me than…almost everything. When he treated me as though I were his equal and took my ideas seriously, it made me feel as though I were jumping into another world that was exciting and new, where I was useful and had a place.
As the project drew to a close, one of my final questions was about the standard capitalization for the word god.
“If it’s just a general god,” my advisor explained, “then it’s lower case. But if it’s used as a name, then it’s capitalized. Like…” his voice trailed off as he tried to think of an example.
“Like Yaweh, or whatever,” I said, shrugging.
As if God’s name was a whatever.
I fell under conviction only after the words escaped my unguarded lips. Stultified into silence, I stared at the coffee-stained carpet. I had traded reverence for God for an opportunity to appeal to my professor’s disbelief in him.
For a long time, the shame I’d relive every time I remembered my words made it too painful for me to unearth what had led up to that moment.Even the dictionary convicted me:
whatever: used to indicate indifference to a state of affairs, situation, previous statement, etc.
Indifference about the name of my God. I pretended to be indifferent about Jesus Christ because I wanted someone with a doctorate to think well of me.
Julian of Norwich
Even now, almost exactly two years later, my careless words still break me. I know I’m forgiven and am grateful for that, but, at the same time, I am wounded by what I said.
The idea of being wounded by sin makes me think back to Julian of Norwich, who, in 1373, had 16 visions while she was deathly ill. After her surprising recovery, the anchoress recorded what she had seen in the now-classic The Revelation of Love.
In the book, she writes about how early in her life, she asked God to give her three wounds. She felt as though they would help her live a life focused on God. She writes in Middle English,
…[B]y the grace of God and teachyng of Holy Church, I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life; that is to sey, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kinde compassion, and the wound of willfull longing to God. And all this last petition I asked without any condition.
How she describes these as wounds caught my attention — she wants contrition, compassion, and a longing for God to be so paramount in her life that they cause her pain. It was the idea of contrition that most struck me and I looked the word up.
Contrition: sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment, arising from a love of God for His own perfections
Contrition involves sorrow, which does lead to a wound — we’re stunned by our humanity that turns against God for something incomparably less valuable.
Peter and King David
We see the idea of being wounded by sin in scripture. For example, all of the Gospels record Peter’s denial of his association with Jesus Christ on the night of the crucifixion, and all of the Synoptics emphasize his grief, mentioning that he wept when he realized what he had done.
And after an interval of about an hour, still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.Luke 22:59-62, ESV
Once Peter realized what he had done, his grief was overwhelming. The Koine Greek adverb originally used in the gospels for bitterly is πικρός (pikros) and is used metaphorically to indicate something sharp or acute. The pain of sin was sharp, like a knife, wounding him.
Another powerful example of a soul grieved by sin is in Psalm 51, which King David wrote after the prophet Nathan came to convict him of murdering Uriah, Bathsheba’s wife. David writes:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;Psalm 51:7-12
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
His bones are broken in light of his sin. David feels the guilt and shame with his whole body — his entire being is hurt by his sin. He asks God to “restore” joy to him, revealing that the effects of sin have taken it away.
My sin, my wound
Yahweh, or whatever.
Those words were audible sin, but there was much more happening underneath; the reason for my shame wasn’t the words themselves, but what they represented. They were the fruition of a more deeply-rooted sin that was pulling me away from God, who had so much more to offer me than my professor’s affirmation ever would.
So why did I say what I did? To show that I could be serious about believing in God, but I was still able to detach myself? To be intellectual, whatever that means? To seem cool?¹
I shouldn’t have been carrying around the emptiness that precedes being captivated by lesser things, but, for a myriad of reasons, In college, I was. When I felt that gap closing when my professors praised my writing, I felt like I had finally become valuable — forgetting that God already has made clear that I am. I had let myself be blinded by the glamour of the intelligentsia because they gave me a place.
But what kind of place was it, if I found myself naming God and then calling him whatever to gain their approval? Why would I want the approval of someone to whom blasphemy might appeal? I was actively trading out reverence for God for the careless words of praise from a person who didn’t even know God.
As I stared at the coffee-stained carpet of my professor’s office, I realized that the words were the product of many unchecked thoughts, a poorly directed inward striving for something to fill a gap that only God can. This wounded me because I saw my own disregard for who God is, my own disbelief that he loves me and cares for me and has a plan, purpose, and place for me too.
I am grateful to God that whatever is not the end of my story, or Peter’s, or King David’s. What Julian² grasped is that while sinlessness is an impossibility, contrition for sin draws us closer to God. By asking for the wound of contrition, she is taking what is inevitable (sin) and transforming it into something that will draw her nearer to God.
Again, we see this with Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to several disciples after they’ve been unsuccessfully fishing throughout the night. They miraculously catch fish and Jesus eats breakfast with them on the beach. After the meal, he talks with Peter.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”John 21:15-19
Peter had previously denied Jesus three times. But now, three times he affirms his love for him. Jesus’ response is simple: follow me. Peter had sinned against God, but the invitation for Peter to follow him remained.
Indeed, it’s not sinlessness that’s distinctive of a Christian, but contrition. It’s that woundedness that comes from sin that reveals to us that we care about honoring God; it’s the evidence that the Holy Spirit lives within us and is speaking to us today.
We can have hope and comfort that despite all of our weaknesses, our careless words, and misguided passions, we have a God who is willing to let us be wounded that we might know him more. David sums it up well in the conclusion of the 51st Psalm:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.Psalm 51:17
Jesus didn’t despise Peter. Instead, he said follow me. Peter didn’t lose the privilege of walking with Jesus or being the Πέτρος — the rock — that founded the Church. No, instead, the wound was the symptom of sin and a believer’s heart who recognizes its gravity and the grace of God.
And while the hurt of my sin remains with me, and even though I cringed every time I wrote whatever, my wound, while profound and painful, reminds me of the gravity of sin and the grace of an almighty, capital-G God, my Yahweh, my salvation, without whom I am utterly impotent, like chaff blowing in the wind — and with whom, I have a place and am loved.
- Swaying on your core convictions, whatever they are, is the opposite of cool.
- We don’t know her real name; it’s taken from St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, where she lived.
© Olivia Davis 2019, all rights reserved