can we be too conscientious?

We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.—Martin Luther

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“Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”—Martin Luther 

Reflections by Michelle Curtis, seminary student

The brilliant theologian who instructs us here to sin is also the man who nearly killed himself trying to please God as a young monk. Luther was so riddled with guilt that he went to confession multiple times a day until his priest finally told him to go away and not return until he had some real sins to confess. Years later when Luther proposed we “sin a little to spite the devil,” he was not proposing a philosophy of “sin all the more so that grace may abound!” On the contrary, Luther is pointing to the dangers of striving so unceasingly not to sin that in the process we forget God’s grace. For Luther, not knowing grace meant living in absolute terror of God’s judgment. 

Melanchthon and Luther
Melanchthon with Luther

 

For me, striving this unceasingly for perfection tends to result in deceiving myself into actually believing I am perfect. I grew up with strong teachings about the upright life God calls us to live. I learned early on that following Jesus means I will love God and neighbor and avoid certain wrong actions. This teaching has encouraged me to make many good choices and to follow Jesus closely as a disciple. But in my perfectionism, I also interpreted these teachings to mean, “God’s grace gets me into heaven, but in everyday life I’m basically on my own to do the right thing all the time because that’s what God expects of me.” 

When I was 18, I participated in three months of discipleship training before a five-month missions assignment in Chile. One day during training we were discussing pride, and I asserted that I genuinely believed I was not prideful. I was just following Jesus’ call to love my neighbor, proving that I was no “mediocre” Christian, and trying to “save the world” while I was at it. One of my fellow trainees suggested that if I actually thought I was not prideful at all, I should probably look again. It wasn’t until a couple years later that it dawned on me how much pride I had been hiding from myself. I had been trying so desperately to be the good Christian I believed God expected that I blinded myself to my need for God’s grace. 

In the years that followed, God has taught me a lot about grace in everyday life. Then, last summer I was walking through a prayer labyrinth trying to listen to God when I heard God say that I needed to receive the fact that I am a sinner. What? I had been hoping to hear something encouraging from God, maybe a word of assurance or comfort. But instead that day I clearly heard, “You are a sinner.” When I got over my initial disappointment, I found freedom in accepting that I am a sinner: it means I am not God, so I can stop trying to act as if I am. Whether by blatant rebellion or the failure of good intentions, I am human, and I miss the mark of what God wants for me. The good news is not about achieving perfection or being allowed to sin as much as we want. Rather, the good news is that Jesus offers us grace right here in the midst of sinfulness. 

I’m with Luther here: sometimes we must stop taking ourselves—and our quest for perfection—so seriously and have some fun. The idea is not to sin as much as we possibly can, but rather to be able to say: “Yes, I am a sinner. And I’m saved by God’s grace.” 

Michelle Curtis, a seminary student and former CHI intern, helped write the companion guide for This Changed Everything 

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