Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

'I'm not perfect' versus 'I am a sinner'

Everyone will admit that they're not perfect. And this seems to be the same thing as saying you're a sinner (i.e. that you have flaws). But if someone said to you, 'I am a sinner', that would sound like a much more serious and humble statement than 'I'm not perfect'. So what is an explanation for this?

I think the difference is that saying you're not perfect is saying you have flaws, but it doesn't mean that you're actually failing to fulfill your moral obligations towards others. Whereas saying 'I am a sinner' indicates not only that you are not perfect, but also that you're failing to fulfill all your moral obligations.

The difference could be analogised to two different styles of grading. You usually don't have to get a 'high distinction' (A+) to perform decently on an assignment. You can usually do OK with just a 'pass'. Although it may not be as impressive, you're still getting your degree. So, on one view, you can have flaws and still be doing everything you should be doing as a person.

On the other hand, saying 'I am a sinner' implies more of a view where you're not even getting a pass. You're just not meeting all of your moral obligations towards others.

In terms of how each view can go astray, the 'I am a sinner' view can be misinterpreted so that someone thinks of themselves as a pathetic failure (which is bad because the Bible encourages humility and the acceptance of forgiveness, not a complete lack of self-esteem). Whereas the 'I'm not perfect but everything is basically OK' view can lead someone to be unaware of obligations that apply to them (because there are more moral obligations applying to them than they think, e.g. 'don't steal' if they are a thief).

Here is a parable that seems to refer to the two views:

Luke 18:9-14: "Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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