How should Christians mourn their sin?

For many of us, especially we Protestants, it’s tempting to say we shouldn’t.  After all, we’ve received the imputed righteousness of Christ–our sins are covered.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Surely, if anything is worth mourning, it is our hard-heartedness and division from our Father in Heaven.  What’s more, the Bible includes the book of Lamentations, suggesting that such laments are appropriate in response to our own sin.

But this mourning is not itself free from temptation.  In his Institutes, John Cassian identifies two types of “dejection.” He writes:

“But that dejection and sorrow which “works repentance steadfast unto salvation” is obedient, civil, humble, kindly, gentle, and patient, as it springs from the love of God, and unweariedly extends itself from desire of perfection to every bodily grief and sorrow of spirit; and somehow or other rejoicing and feeding on hope of its own profit preserves all the gentleness of courtesy and forbearance, as it has in itself all the fruits of the Holy Spirit of which the same Apostle gives the list. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, benignity, faith, mildness, modesty.” But the other kind is rough, impatient, hard, full of rancour and useless grief and penal despair, and breaks down the man on whom it has fastened, and hinders him from energy and wholesome sorrow, as it is unreasonable, and not only hampers the efficacy of his prayers, but actually destroys all those fruits of the Spirit of which we spoke, which that other sorrow knows how to produce.”

When confronted by sin, we are forced to choose which perspective we will examine it from. Will we see it on its own, outside the power and mercy of God? Or will we see it in the context of the eschatological judgment and final redemption that God shows the firstfruits of in Christ on the cross?

Christian dejection, to use Cassian’s phrase, must take the latter perspective. Curiously, if Cassian is right, such dejection is not incompatible with joy. Rather, we must have both joy and sorrow and that at the same time.

It’s not clear what the difference between Christian dejection and the other sort is, but Cassian is clear: there is a difference, and if we fall into the wrong kind, we fall into sin. We must be a sorrowful people, for we are a sinful people in a sinful world. But our sorrow must be of the right sort, lest we use it to further harden us to our good and loving God.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

10 Comments

  1. If “blessed are those who mourn” means Christians have some sort of obligation to be mournful, does that mean that they also have an obligation to be persecuted?

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  2. Matthew Lee Anderson October 10, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Jim,

    Sorry it came across as an obligation. I had an earlier draft that made my position explicit: “mourning is the appropriate response to sin seen correctly.” I think it’s the way Christians will be, not a way that they *should* go force themselves to act. The same would go with persecution. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount isn’t listing things Christians should go do–he’s describing what the Christian life looks like. Those are two very different things (the motivation for behavior in each case, namely, is different). I would refer you to Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy for a more full explication of this position.

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  3. I figured you’d clarify. (I’ve read Willard, which was why I was surprised by the implication.)

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  4. Hello – I am new to this site (came over from Semicolon’s Book review site).

    I wonder if the wrong kind of Christian dejection would be that which leads us to despair. To despair means that we have lost hope in the forgiveness of God. In a way, this could be a form of pride by thinking “my sins are too big for God.”

    I also wonder if “dejection” is a bad translation of the word. Sure wish I knew Greek. There does seem to be an emphasis of “always being aware of our own sins” (at least within the Christian East) – but I would not personally equate that with “dejection”, but rather with a type of humility.

    kindest regards,
    Deb

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  5. Matthew Lee Anderson October 13, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Deb,

    Welcome to Mere-O!

    You make a great point about the wrong kind of “dejection.” It’s so good, in fact, that Cassian makes it too (and I forgot to highlight it!). In Chapter 9 of the same book, he writes: “There is, too, another still more objectionable sort of dejection, which produces in the guilty soul no amendment of life or correction of faults, but the most destructive despair which did not make Cain repent after the murder of his brother, or Judas, after the betrayal, hasten to relieve himself by making amends, but drove him to hang himself in despair.”

    It’s difficult to pin down the quality that makes “dejection” Christian, but Paul makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that there are two sorts of “sorrow.”

    As for the translation, I agree that it might be poor. I’m using an open-source translation, which is pretty outdated and I didn’t look for a greek copy. The translation, in fact, is so old that their victorian theological minds left off the chapter on “Fornication” because it would be too immodest to translate it into English! : )

    That said, I’m not sure “humility” is the best word for it–I think locating the virtue of humility in the context of sin is problematic. I almost want to describe the “sorrow” as a sense of “modest reserve.”

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  6. That said, I’m not sure “humility” is the best word for it–I think locating the virtue of humility in the context of sin is problematic. I almost want to describe the “sorrow” as a sense of “modest reserve.”

    Yes, I see your point and I think its quite relevant. I think it is because I personally connect dejection with despair. Perhaps our Victorian brothers had a different connection with this word.

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  7. Oops I meant to add: As to the point about humility. I realized that when it is used in the East it is usually within the context of not judging our neighbor..so you are quite right that “humility” used in place of “dejection” in this particular work would probably not fit.

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  8. Thanks Matt, great post! I’ve often wondered about the correct attitude towards sin. I’ve mainly swung between flippant disregard and deep mortification, but this description will help balance my perspective.

    Currently, as I think of it, the awareness of sin is meant to open us up and free us from those unrealistic ideals you described in an earlier post. Thus, it is meant to teach us to be truly happy, instead of being an intolerable abyss.

    Though, at the same time, there is something bracing about getting a glimpse of the darkness in this world. It is a deep experience, for which I don’t know the word, to see such things while also having an inescapable impression that an all good God is fundamentally in control.

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  9. Matthew Lee Anderson October 14, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Eric,

    Thanks for the kind words. They’re encouraging!

    I agree responding to sin is a thorny problem. It’s such an interesting problem, though, because it encapsulates all of Christian theology–anthropology, Christology, eschatology, justification, etc. Figuring out how the different strands relate to our experience of sin is fun and frustrating at the same time!

    One way I’ve been thinking about it lately: from which vantage point should the Christian look at the cross? From the position of the disciples while he is on it, or the position of the disciples after he is risen? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question, though my intuitions are on the side of the resurrection. Barth, however, says that if we could (we can’t!), we should stay firmly on the side of the disciples watching him die, since we too participate in his crucifixtion.

    More stuff to think about, I suppose! : )

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