Dirty Saints and Stain-Free Sinners: A Story

Reading Time: 4 mins

His face was gaunt and his eyes had a haunted look to them as he strode into the office. He resembled a man beaten down, a wreck of an individual who looked disheveled and worn out.

His face was gaunt and his eyes had a haunted look to them as he strode into the office. He resembled a man beaten down, a wreck of an individual who looked disheveled and worn out. He absently scratched at track marks on his arm that he didn’t bother to cover up. His outer appearance was an extension of the inner battlefield, a scarred land inside and out. At a quick glance you would have thought he was a strung out homeless twenty-something. You would have never guessed that he came from wealth, and that he slept in a bed that was not made of cardboard and urine-stained blankets. He sat down across from me. He was a stranger. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me. The reason why he initially trusted me, to even talk with me was due to my position as a minister in the church. We didn’t need to establish a trusting relationship. All pretensions to pride were stripped away. A man who looks up from the bottom of a dark hole is willing to let go of any last remnants of pride in order to find the means to get back to the top to be in the light again.

It did not take long for him to get to the point of his visit. His tear-filled conversation was a grisly description of his personal war. The opponents were named: alcohol, heroin, prostitutes, and pornography. He tried it all. He wanted to drown out the years of pain inflicted by his family. He was a man who had been born with a mental condition... not enough oxygen flowing to the brain in the womb. Born into a well-to-do rich and status seeking Jewish family, he was quickly labeled the black sheep. The successful lawyer brother and business woman sister were the favored children in the family. He told me that his mother would say she loved him, but the actions didn’t back up the words. Money was thrown his way as “proof” of parental love. Money that then was turned around to drown out the pain in alcohol and heroin, to seek a perverse sense of love in prostitutes and porn.

His mental condition led him to believe that Jesus actually spoke to him through his hand. In our conversation he sought to give proof of this by asking his hand questions. If the “Jesus-hand” agreed it would move vertically up and down. If the “Jesus-hand” disagreed it would move from side-to-side. It reminded me of a kid with a magic eight ball. The “Jesus-hand” was proof to me... proof that my education hadn’t trained me to deal with something like this. How effective would a BA in religious studies and an MA in Christian apologetics be in helping him? Sure I had a ministry certification. I understood how to put together Christian education programs. Do some counseling with teens, typical soap-opera stuff like relationship problems. I wasn’t prepared to deal with a mental illness. So what could I offer him?

He actually provided the clue. In his own tears he cried out for help. He cried out to Jesus. I quickly realized that here was a man who, despite his open-book sin-filled life, he had found the Rock in the storm. He knew Jesus. He knew his hope was found in Him; despite the fact that he believed Jesus communicated to him through his hand. My education actually would be of use here. My study of Scripture and theology would come to bear in the counsel and care that I sought to give this man. If ever there was an over the top contemporary picture of Paul’s depiction of his own inner battle described in Romans 7, here it was. This man was the embodiment of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator...the dirty saint and stain-free sinner all in one.

So to Romans I went with him, but it was not to Chapter 7; rather it was to Chapter 8 that I took him. You see, he didn’t need to be convicted of that battle, the law had already done its work. He needed to hear hope and comfort. He needed to hear of God’s grace, his forgiveness, and his love for him. So I grabbed a Bible and a highlighter and highlighted this passage for him:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

He needed something simple to hold onto. A promise he could return to when temptations came, when the storm raged, when his Old Adam sought to drown the New in the midst of the deluge. He needed a piece of Scripture that recalled the Gospel promise that I spoke to him; a passage that would especially remind him of God’s love for him in the midst of the warfare. I told him to read the passage when he faced temptations. I told him to also read the passage when those temptations got the best of him. He left my office with what seem like a bit of peace, maybe it was the temporary respite found in the eye of the storm, but it seemed like relief however brief it may have been. My last mental picture is of him walking out the front gate reading the Bible. I don’t know what happened to that man. I don’t know if he is like the Gerasenes demoniac who after Jesus had healed was “dressed and his right mind” and who then went off to the Decapolis to tell everyone what Jesus had done for him (Mark 5:1-20). I hope and pray that this was him. But maybe it is not. Maybe his body is rotting in a box six-feet under the soil; a life that finally was consumed by the inner demons, destroyed by the constant abuse of drugs and alcohol. Whether in life or in death it is my hope that he is in the eternal comfort that is Christ.

As I reflect back to that man and back to that day I am constantly reminded that he acted as a mirror to me. In his haunted eyes I saw my own. I don’t face the same demons, but the sin that is ever before me is no less damning than his own. I am no better than he. The same darkness resides in both of us despite the fact that it might outwardly manifest itself in differing ways. The same commandments are broken even if culturally my breaking of those laws might seem more “acceptable” than the ways in which he broke them.

But my eyes weren’t the only eyes reflected there. The eyes of Christ were also present. The Christ, whom Paul tells us became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He became every filthy action that that man did... that I did, because he took on our jacked-up natures. The true image of Romans 7 of simul iustus et peccator is the cross. We see the holy perfect God become the unholy ugliness of sin. Both are present in One.

May God always send us people like the embattled man. Not just so that we can share the Gospel with them, which is a high calling, but so that we can be reminded of the same state of despair that we all face. For us to be reminded that “no one is righteous no not one” (Rom.3:10), and to be told again and again of the grace, love, and forgiveness that we have in Christ Jesus as we struggle to live our lives as dirty saints and stain-free sinners.