There is a song by Sufjan Stevens called John Wayne Gacy Jr which is both horrifying and beautiful. It’s one of the best meditations on the nature of sin I’ve encountered.
Gacy was a serial killer. He was executed in 1994 for the murders of more than 30 teenage boys in the late 70s, boys whose bodies he buried in the crawlspace under his house. The song is about him. Without grisly details, without sensationalist revelling in the fear we all have of deranged cruelty, Stevens paints a picture of the horror of what Gacy did. When he cries out: “Oh my God,” you instinctively feel he means it as the Psalmist at breaking point might have meant it. The world, people, this sick person, are all so fallen. So in need of God’s intervention to put a halt to evil.
But in the closing lines of a song about someone who has surely done truly horrific things, Sufjan Stevens sings: “And in my best behaviour, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”
Even our acts of righteousness are like filthy rags before the Lord, if you believe that Isaiah 64:6 is meant to be applied to us. I suspect that’s what Stevens is getting at when talking about his ‘best’ behaviour. And most Christians would agree with that in principle. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None of us can cast stones at the guilty because we ourselves are filthy with sin. It’s all so easy to believe in theory. It costs us almost nothing to say this stuff. “I’m not perfect,” we say. But what we mean is: “I have not achieved my full righteous potential, and I recognise that, which makes me pretty awesome despite my failings.” Cost-free confession has become our mantra.
Look up front in church at testimony time: “I used to be an addict.” “I used to struggle with porn.” “I was once a bad person.” We have no use for sermon illustrations that have not yet reached their happy endings. The intention is to showcase the glorious work God has done in people’s lives but for most of us it just reinforces the fact that there is not place for my failure and my sin in the light. Our skeletons must at all costs stay underneath the floorboards until we are cured, delivered, healed, restored and ready to be an example to all those shrinking inwardly into the shadows because they still struggle with sin. Hell, maybe they’ve given up struggling.
Sin is sin. Pretending it isn’t will most likely result in destructive consequences. We can all get behind that. But pretending it isn’t there? That’s just how we roll until we’re better. Wouldn’t want to be a bad witness. Nothing speaks to non-Christians than infallible God-botherers who reek of antiseptic.
And in church, we dare not let our neighbour in the pew know of our unconquered sin because they are righteous and they would only condemn. And our neighbours think the same of us.
Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin, and yes, he came to heal us and restore us. But he also came to shine a light into dark places. It’s right that we repent and weep over our sin. That’s quite hard when we’re all pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Jesus loves us now. Not tomorrow when we’re better. We’re a family of saved sinners. Not just in theory, but in reality. If we all admit it at the same time, maybe we’ll be less likely to attack and judge and patronise and smirk. Shall we try? On the count of three. One…two…