The Useful Sinner: A Story of Grace in Practice

God’s Chief Agents Have Often Been Notoriously Weak: Murderous Moses, Lying Peter, Adulterous David …

Mockingbird / 1.27.21

Real-life stories of sin and redemption have always been rare exceptions to the norm. Those whose failures become the fodder for public consumption find that hiding is the best coping mechanism. Keep out of the limelight to survive. And certainly don’t write a book about the whole ordeal.

Unearthed from the archives of Mockingbird’s now distant past, The Useful Sinner is a book that does the opposite. What happens when your sin is exposed and your life is shattered to pieces? What happens after the scandal makes the rounds? The Useful Sinner narrates the too-surreal-to-be-made-up account of a man whose failures caused him to lose everything except grace. It’s the kind of memoir you can’t put down, a page-turning story punctuated by invaluable observations about life, sin, judgment, and one-way love. Below are just a few excerpts from a book to read when it’s too late to change the past.

Click here to purchase it for less than half the price of Amazon. 

God’s chief agents have often been notoriously weak. Moses, a murderer, was chosen to deliver the tablets of law, which contained a prohibition against his crime. Peter, a liar and coward, became a great leader of the church. David, a murdering adulterer whose misdeeds were fully chronicled, was the greatest king of the chosen people and was frequently quoted by Jesus during his ministry. Jesus used David’s words as he was dying on a cross, and St. Paul described him as a man after God’s heart. While we cannot hope to avoid sin, we can take comfort in knowing that there is a marvelous collection of useful sinners who have gone before.


I had always viewed Christianity as a bundle of beliefs and behaviors and had never understood sin to be the dominant theme. I had come very close to assuming that righteous behavior was a prerequisite to faith and inclusion within the church. I thought in terms of sacrificing missionaries, soup kitchens, and, as my brother used to say, kind people being instructed in being kinder. My church in a subtle way shunned non-conforming types, and the remainder had a kind of uniformity and cleanliness. In short, I thought the church was the last place for a serious sinner. I did not know a profound truth which had already been well articulated: the primary bond of understanding among Christians is sin.

When I could see myself for what I was, much of the Bible had a new meaning which spoke to my circumstances. I was struck by the involvement of Jesus with the worst elements of society and the scripture writers’ delicate use of the term “sinners” in quotation marks to describe people. I saw the scandal as the weeping woman — in our tradition, a whore — rubbed his feet with her hair, and I imagined the gossip the next day. I identified with the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus would not condemn but simply told to leave her life of sin. I see his anger vented not at the notorious sinners, but reserved for those who presume themselves righteous. In associating Jesus with the poor sinners who were like me, I now know, I felt the stirring of appreciation and inclusion which would become love. He did not reject the sinners; he reached out to them in compassion, just as Louisa and Paul had done to me.

In the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), I had always identified with the dutiful brother who stayed home and worked while his younger brother squandered his inheritance in wild living. I understood his anger and sense of injustice when his father celebrated his brother’s return. The younger brother’s conduct deserved condemnation and rejection; the faithful brother had performed and demanded justice on the basis of comparison. But the father’s love for his sons was not earned by labor or lost by foolishness and he was overjoyed at the younger son’s return. He did not grudgingly take him back or rebuke him, but called for the best robe, sandals, and put a ring on his finger.


The relationship between a sin and its consequences is not predictable. In a world teeming with endless possibilities for evil, every sin is an incubator, carefully tended by a malignant and opportunistic enemy.


I have since come to think that secrets have a malevolent, corrupting, and self-sustaining power, particularly within the family. Secrets may be necessary for a time; however, their keepers are probably wise to plan for a controlled divestiture.


The consequences and recollection of sin may diminish over time, but a smoldering residue remains. The restoration of reputation is a lifetime proposition — if that.


Faith in a loving God is the bridge by which we escape from the life governed by our corrupt and stubborn will to the life of peace and abundance in Christ. […] To be a useful sinner is a glorious ambition.