John Owen: Hate Yourself

When I first started planning my articles about John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, I really didn’t like it. There was a lot in the book that stood out as old-fashioned, unhealthy, and destructive. I took a bit of a generous view, though, and rearranged the articles to say some nicer things. There are things I appreciate about his perspective, things that are valuable and worth considering. And then there’s the other stuff.

For instance, in Chapter 11, on how to kill sin in your life, Owen tells you that you should just feel really guilty all the time. “Charge thy conscience with the guilt which appears in it, from the rectitude and holiness of the law … Be much, I say, in affecting thy conscience with the terror of the Lord in the law, and righteous it is that every one of thy transgressions should receive a recompense of reward … Say to thy soul, ‘What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! … Entertain thy conscience daily with this treaty. See if it can stand before this aggravation of its guilt.”

Chapter 12 offers similar advice: “Use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of thine own vileness … Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and thine infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot but fill thee with a sense of thine own vileness.”

One more – Chapter 14: “Let, then, thy soul be exercised by faith with such thoughts and apprehensions as the following. I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not … I plainly see that without some eminent succour and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God.”

Yeah, this is the one where John Owen tells you to hate yourself.

For those of you who are just joining us, Owen’s book is about mortifying or killing sin. Think of it as 17th century self-help. Although he’s got some good, practical advice about regulating and monitoring your behaviour, so as to avoid addictive or unhealthy habits, he also goes right in on the ‘hate yourself’ stuff, as evidenced above. Some of these ideas we’ve seen before; for instance, Calvin wrote about our distance from God, and how it should be a source of shame. Owen says the same thing, and then takes the additional step of treating that shame as a way to mortify sin. Guilt yourself into goodness.

And like – I don’t even know if I have to say anything further, really. That kind of psychic self-lacerating – it’s just fucked. In the first place, I guess, I’m just genuinely not convinced that feeling shit about yourself creates long-lasting and meaningful change. If you have behaviours that you’re trying to break, I don’t think that the best method is focusing on how vile and shitty you are. Partly my thinking here stems from, say, medical thinking on topics like addiction. Doctors don’t go around berating alcoholics and insisting that they feel ashamed as part of their recovery. The medical community increasingly recognizes that addiction has underlying causes and even a huge genetic component. It’s less an ‘evil’ choice and more a sad decision, requiring a restorative approach rather than brickbats and shame. But – alright, let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit, go in to bat for Owen. Isn’t it good to acknowledge your weaknesses? I don’t know about you, but I’m not able to make myself perfect. I can try hard, but I’m fallible and flawed, and ultimately I’m not good enough. I’m not perfect, and I can’t get myself there, and I’ll never be able to get myself there. From that perspective, I am a poor and weak creature. I’m not that good at being good. I’m okay, but I’m not great. And I think a lot of other people feel that way too. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge that? Why shouldn’t we be honest with ourselves and with each other about our need for God to help us with the changes that we’re not able to make?

Mm, yes, compellingly argued. Quick question though – while we’re doing all of that, do we have to feel bad about ourselves? There’s a gap here between humility and guilt – and it’s very closely tied to the gap between sin and salvation. We discussed this the other week, but briefly, there’s a gap in Christian theology between sin and salvation. After you become saved, it seems like you should strive to become a better person, but strictly speaking it’s maybe not totally necessary. Non-Christians can strive to become better people and still end up in hell (because they’re not saved), and Christians can be awful and still end up in heaven. Owen is attempting to bridge that gap, and integrate sin and salvation into each other. One of his main bridging tools is guilt. You feel bad about your sin, you become a Christian, and then God helps you fight your sin. The crucial idea in Owen’s system is that you can’t fight sin yourself. He insists that you can’t beat sin – because if you could beat it, then you wouldn’t need God or salvation. You could skip Christianity altogether. As a point of comparison, one of the things I’ve heard secular people say is that if they die and find out God exists, well, they’ve done their best to live a good life, and they’re willing to be judged on the wholesomeness of their hearts, as people who tried their best. For Owen, that’s not good enough. That’s where his guilt would come into play – he’d say well, you think you have a wholesome heart, but you’re actually a vile little worm, and if we’re really truly judging you on merit, you’re fucked. You need salvation to make up the shortfall in your own character. We might not find that line of argument convincing, but it’s how he’d try and loop salvation back in.

In some ways, though, I almost wonder whether Owen’s idea carried the seed of its own destruction. When secular people talk about morality, at least in my experience, they aren’t running around with a clipboard trying to tally up the balance between their good and bad actions. They’re committed to doing their best, and doing good in the world, and even though they fail sometimes, they’ve still got that underlying commitment. They’re not looking to be justified by individual works, but rather by their commitment to pursuing goodness as best they know how. They see themselves as justified by their faith in goodness, rather than by good works per se. Where Owen’s concept of guilt hinges on the punishment we deserve for individual actions, our broader cultural mindset, I’d argue, is more focused on our faith, on our commitment to the greater good. It’s almost like mainstream secular society is too Protestant to be guilt-tripped over individual actions. We’re culturally Protestant, carrying the heritage of the Reformation regardless of our actual religious beliefs. That’s a success for the Reformers, but it means the guilt stuff doesn’t really work any more. Personally, I’m okay with that.

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