March 2015

Aiming for the bull’s eye

By and large, if I was speaking to someone and asking him or her to give a thumbnail sketch of themselves, and the first statement was ‘I am a sinner’ I would be somewhat disturbed, and would probably assume that the person I was speaking to was somewhat disturbed as well.

‘Sinning’ is a curiously old-fashioned sort of word and not one that seems to refer to any contemporary pattern of thinking. But, during this holy season of Lent, we are asked to repent of our sins, thereby introducing yet another word nor used in normal speech. It is a classic example of the way in which the church can go out of its way to appear top be completely disconnected from the world it is trying to serve.

The problem is, at heart, a simple one of translation. I know there are some who appear to think that the Bible was written in the language of the King James version. But it wasn’t. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word translated as ‘I sin’ was a normal word in everyday usage. It was amartanw (hamartano) and it meant ‘I get thing wrong’. More significantly, however, it had its origins in the world of archery where it meant ‘I miss the target’. Here, I think, we are getting close to what Lent is all about.

Lent is not about saying how dreadful,and worthless we all are. It would be odd to think of ourselves as being made in the image of God and, at the same time, as being irretrievably shoddy products. There are several things God cannot do, and one of them is that he cannot make rubbish. And we are not rubbish. We are, however, human, and humans are delightfully complicated creatures who for all sorts of reasons – through fear, through a lack of confidence, through cowardice, through idleness, through egotism: the list goes on - get things wrong. That does not mean that we intend to get things wrong: most of us in our lives try to get most things right, but we end up missing the target. Lent is the time when we are encouraged to look not just at the occasions when we have missed the target but at the reasons why we missed the target, and to ask God to give us a second (or third, or fourth or hundred and twenty second) chance to get closer to the target. Lent is an immensely positive time when, yes, we might come to one or two uncomfortable conclusions about ourselves, but do so knowing that God wants to help us to make things smooth.

The overwhelming majority of us want to hit the target. There are a few – a very few, I believe – who don’t and who actively and deliberately aim away from the target. They are evil. I know some people think that evil is some dark force operating in the world. I don’t believe that for one moment. Evil things are done by evil people who are totally responsible for their own actions. The rest of us – the overwhelming majority of us – are simply human, with the wonderful gift of free will which we can use well or less wisely. Lent lets us look at how we use that gift gives us the chance to use it more wisely – to get ever closer to the target.