Sin, Grace, and Belonging

The month of May was interesting for me. Although I am used to being up in front of people, I am rarely comfortable with it. So when Bone and Marrow Market invited my friend Jenn Mazzola and I to speak on the Enneagram and Mental Health I did what I usually do – say yes and then panic-read everything I can for several weeks to make sure I feel like I know what I am talking about.

The reason I bring that up is that sometimes while reading so many random books and articles, parallels begin to develop between two separate pieces that add to the meaning of both.

While reviewing several books on the Enneagram I happened to stumble onto one of Paul Tillich’s sermons titled “You Are Accepted.” If you are unfamiliar with Paul Tillich, he was a twentieth-century theologian, professor, and author, who’s most well-known work is probably “The Courage to Be.” Despite being written over 70 years ago his sermon is incredibly relevant today, but what struck me, in particular, was the interplay between Tillich’s discussion of sin and grace, and the current trend towards the idea of belonging and radical self-acceptance, as opposed to some of the more detrimental or aggressive approaches the Enneagram has been known for in the past.

The sermon is centered on Romans 5:20, “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”


He begins talking about despite how well known the words “sin” and “grace” are, the actual definitions often elude us. Sin is such a loaded term, and it’s been used to define so much over the centuries that we rarely can describe it. Throw how we use it in the enneagram and it becomes even more convoluted. Tillich also argues that these words cannot be replaced because they were borne out of the depths of human experience.

He then offers another word as a clue as to what we mean when we mean by sin — “separation.”

For Tillich sin is a “three-fold separation.” It is separation from others, separation from ourselves, and separation from God, whom Tillich also names as the “Ground of Being.” This separation Tillich says is what Paul means by sin, and it’s not an action but a state of being.

I think this also serves to illuminate how sin works within the framework of the Enneagram. There are parts of ourselves that we over-identify with, and those parts of ourselves that we don’t accept are relegated to the shadow, where all they tend to do is grow. It’s these aspects of ourselves that we don’t like and/or refuse to see that can lead to added fragmentation or separation in ourselves. Tillich says that our separation isn’t simply an act, but an ongoing experience or state of being, “in which our whole personality is involved.”

“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”


In the same way the word separation can serve as a clue to what sin means, I think “belonging” can help us decipher what we mean by “grace”. If sin is separation, then grace is belonging or what Tillich calls “the unity of life”.

Accepting those parts of ourselves that we’d rather deny or jettison is essential in moving towards wholeness. It’s an acknowledgement that the wounded parts of ourselves also belong. Grace is an experience of acceptance, and if we are constantly pushing back against those parts of us that we’d rather not acknowledge it inherently leads to fragmentation and an unintentional refusal of grace. 

I worry that we tend to see those negative traits, especially those we find out about ourselves with the enneagram type descriptions, and are ashamed by them, or try to banish them, or repress them, or whatever it is we do, but we rarely see them as something we must compassionately embrace. I know that’s true for me at least.


I’d like to share a portion of the Tillich sermon that I sent to several of my friends after I read it. 

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.


For Tillich, this is an event of grace that allows us to accept ourselves, and it is not an event that we can force upon ourselves or others. “We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say “yes” to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself.”

“But where [separation] increased, [acceptance] abounded all the more.”

What we internalize we then externalize. If what we internalize is self-contempt, that contempt will eventually turn outward onto others. But if we are compassionate with ourselves, we will begin to extend that compassion to others.

We must rest in that acceptance.

Cameron Clark

Author: Cameron Clark