The Heart Of It All (Part 2): The Sin Problem & Our Battle Of Conscience
Christian claim #2: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”
Houston…We Have A Problem!
We have a problem. And how we deal with the problem is, well…problematic.
On the one hand, we all sense deep down in our bones that something is wrong. The psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theorised that deep in our bones we are fractured and are in search of wholeness: our soul longs for something more. Many have heard this view summarized as having a “hole in our soul;” but Jung himself was unafraid to borrow Medieval language: we seek “union with God.” Perhaps the sentiment is close or even parallel to St. Augustine, who said in a prayer directed to God that “our hearts are restless, until they rest in you” (Confessions 1.1). Go to the closest bookstore and browse the enormous “self-help” section. We all sense that something ain’t right.
On the other hand, however, we don’t know what to call it. In a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin?, psychiatrist Karl Menninger traced the loss of “sin” language in the mental health profession. Terms like “evil” or even “wrongdoing” were replaced with the language of sickness or genetics. And with that change, of course, came the loss of guilt. After all, why should I feel guilty for being sick, or for doing what I am programmed to do?
So we adopt a basic view of the world: something is terribly wrong, we don’t know what it is exactly, or why it is, but we are certain that its not my fault. And this view of the world has proved to be unsatisfying. As humans, naturally we’ve tried (and still do try) to fix this problem on our own. We go to the self-help shelves to figure out why our lives are so out-of-balance. We pay thousands of dollars to doctors and guru’s to help get our aura in the right place. We know instinctively that something is wrong…but we can’t put our finger on it. With more medicine, therapy-programs, and self-help manuals available than ever before in history…we are still hopelessly adrift.
The Banality of Evil
And just how deep is the problem? When Adolf Eichmann stood trial for Nazi war crimes, it was dubbed “the Trial of the Century.” Everyone in the courtroom expected to encounter a terrible monster with a penchant for the sinister; instead, they were introduced to a feeble elderly man whose job was to make sure the trains ran on time. A crime so extraordinary was carried out by a man who appeared so…ordinary. When the philosopher Hannah Arendt described the entire ordeal, she coined a remarkable phrase: “the banality of evil.”
Eichman’s defense was that he was simply following instructions. Intrigued, the psychologist Stanley Milgrom put out a newspaper ad for subjects to test out an experiment. 40 men were selected to give shocking volts of electricity (ranging from “slight” to “severe”) to a patient based on a doctor’s orders. The entire experiment was staged, with an actor playing the part of the patient. The patient would scream in pain, and the doctor would order more shock treatment. As the level neared “severe”, the patient would stop responding (appearing unconscious), and yet the doctor would order even higher levels of shock. Although some participants expressed extreme agitation, 65% of them delivered the highest level of shock to the patient. Other experiments of this nature have been duplicated, confirming similar results. In the absence of strong peer pressure to the contrary, the majority of participants were willing to follow orders directly against their moral intuitions.
What do these two stories teach us? That the “problem” around us is also within us; it is more common to humanity than we like to imagine, and there appears no end to how far we might go when given the proper environment. We have a problem, and we don’t have what it takes to fix it.
A Truth To Which We Refuse To Bend?
The claim that there is something fundamentally wrong in the world and in ourselves–in the created order–is actually a counter-cultural claim. In his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis suggests that our modern scientific worldview actually masks the problem (or inadvertantly exposes it) rather than offering a helpful fix. We are told that the ancients and medievalists offered us nothing but magic, whereas our more refined notions of a world-without-the-need-for-God have provided us answers and explanations of how the world works. In response, Lewis notes that the wide-spread use of magic occurred at the same time as the rise of modern science — and both are foreign to the way medievalists approached the world. Lewis writes:
“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men..
Reflecting on Lewis’ comment, Tim Keller offers this insight:
In ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. If you violated that metaphysical order there were consequences just as severe as if you violated physical reality by placing your hand in a fire. The path of wisdom was to learn to live in conformity with this unyielding reality…Modernity reversed this. Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable. Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.
What if…there is a reality outside of ourselves for which we long, and for which we were made? What if…living “out of sync” with this reality lay at the root of our problems?
The Christian Definition of Our Fundamental Problem: “Sin”
Christianity has a story to tell in this regard. In Christianity, the key question one is often asked is “Have you been saved?” A question such as this raises a more basic question: “Why do I need saving?” The Apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament (under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit) claims that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). “Have sinned” is in the past tense; “come short” is in the present tense. Paul here is claiming that every human is guilty of being less than what they were created to be. Paul even presses his case by quoting Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, which claims there is “none righteous, no not one” (See Rom. 3:10-18 NIV). The “problem” around us is also within us; it is more common to humanity than we like to imagine, and there appears no end to how far we might go when given the proper environment.
The “problem” around us is also within us; it is more common to humanity than we like to imagine, and there appears no end to how far we might go when given the proper environment.
The bad news, it seems, is clear in both the Old and the New Testament: we are charged with “sin,” “coming short of God’s glory,” and being “unrighteous.” So…what is sin? In general terms, one could speak of “immoral ways, filthy thoughts, and shameful deeds” (Galatians 5:19 CEV). We immediately think of outward actions which most people readily acknowledge as fitting these categories, such as idolatry, adultery, and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:9 NIV). Perhaps we can think of times in our youth when we participated in “drunkenness” and “wild parties” (Gal. 5:21 NLT)—both of which are called “sin.” But the Bible says that everyone—everyone—is guilty as charged, and that you and I are as guilty as the vilest offender. Perhaps this sounds a little shocking to you. After all, you might say, I’m a pretty good person. I am kind to my neighbors; I pay my bills on time. I might break the speed limit occasionally, but I can’t see how that puts me and Osama Bin Laden in the same category!
It helps to understand what “sin” means in the Bible—and what it is not. Some people think “sin” is just a made-up term for “guilt”—something we feel when we do bad. No—according to the Bible, sin is a real objective thing. Some people think “sin” is just “doing a bad thing.” Sometimes “sin” refers to a particular deed, but the real problem, according to the Bible, is not a particular deed, or even a list of deeds. “Sin” refers to a condition. For example, if a person is handicapped (perhaps this person has an arthritic leg), he or she may be able to walk some days. He or she may appear perfectly healthy at times. But the truth is that they suffer from an arthritis condition. They have a troubled leg—regardless of what you might see, or even how that person feels at any one moment. So our acts of sin are just signs, symptoms, effects of a deeper problem: a sinful condition (see Romans 3:9-18, and Rom. 5:12-21).
The Bible charges every human with suffering from a condition called “sin.” The nicest person on the planet, and the most evil, sinister person you can think of—we all suffer from sin. And the signs are all around us.
Here’s a list of symptoms that you might suffer from a sinful condition: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, and envy” (Gal. 5:20 NIV). Do any of these sound close to home? How about exhibiting signs like being “mean-spirited” (Rom. 1:29 MSG), “arrogant and boastful” (Rom. 1:30 NIV), saying “cruel things about others” (Rom. 1:30 CEV), or occasionally partaking in “deception” and “gossip” (Rom. 1:29 NLT)? What about using “filthy language” (Colossians 3:8 NIV), experiencing fits of “rage” (Col. 3:8 NLT), having a tendency to “lust” (Col. 3:5 NLT), or just having “a desire for sex sins” (Col. 3:5 NLV)? Could the phrase “lovers of themselves” or “lovers of money” (2 Timothy 3:2 NIV) describe you? Are you ever “ungrateful” (2 Tim. 3:2 NIV), “unforgiving” (2 Tim. 3:3 NIV), “rash” (2 Tim. 3:4 NIV) or “headstrong” (2 Tim. 3:4 NKJV)? Has it ever been said about you that “no one can get along with them” (2 Tim. 3:3 NLV)?
How are we supposed to understand this? First, some outward sins we often take for granted, failing to recognize how much they hurt God. The Bible lists “liars” and “perjurers” in the same sentence as “slave traders,” “kidnappers,” and “those who kill their parents” (1 Timothy 1:9-10 NIV; NKJV). Any sinful action hurts the heart of God. Second, we often overlook the serious inward sins. Jesus Christ says that the outward sins, like lying and murder, are just symptoms of inward sins, like hatred and envy. “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16 NKJV). Third, every human who is able to make decisions for themselves is guilty of choosing wrong. Suppose that you are the one person in the world who is “free” from ever having committed any of the things mentioned in the previous paragraph (good luck!). After listing these sins, the Bible writers conclude that these sins, “and the like” (Gal. 5:21 NKJV; NIV), “and whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10 NIV) are common examples of how everyone is guilty. We all are guilty of sin before God.
Using all the examples given above, we can make some general observations about sin. At its heart, sin is rebellion against God (Genesis 3:22). It the ungratefulness (Rom. 1:21, 25, 28; James 1:17; 2 Tim. 3:2), choosing to be the master of our lives, instead of recognizing God as the Creator and the Ruler of the universe. It is the condition of loving ourselves too much, and loving God too little. It is prideful arrogance (James 4:6; 1 Peter 3:5) and a perverse will (Rom. 12:2).
But the situation gets even worse. To have a sinful condition means that we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2). It means that we live and act as if God doesn’t exist. And our sins are going to kill us (Ezekiel 18:4; Rom. 6:16).
A Biblical Tale About The Human Condition
When did this get started? The first three chapters of Genesis paint a picture to illustrate the human condition. In the beginning, goes the story, God created everything. He spent six days speaking into existence the sky, the seas, the grass, the trees, the birds, the fish, and all the other animals. But humans were meant to be different. God said “let us make man in our own image, in our likeness, and let them rule over every living thing” (Genesis 1:26). So God didn’t use his voice—he used his hands. He reached down and took common, ordinary dirt and fashioned the human body. Then into this common earthly body, he breathed his own breath—the spirit of life, and man became a living creature (Gen. 2:7). He cut this man open, and from his side did the same thing in making woman. So humans are described as possessing two very different natures: (1) We are made in the image of God (unlike any other thing), but (2) we are also of the earth—just like every thing else. This two-naturedness continues throughout the story. And you can see this two-naturedness even today. Humans are able to reach extraordinary heights, but we are also capable of the most heinous crimes. Humans can have the most beautiful dreams, and the most terrible nightmares. We are a mixture of the earthly and the heavenly.
This first man and woman—Adam and Eve—represent every human in every generation. We are born with such great potential—made in the image of God, and given the opportunity to look more and more like him. But we are also given “free choice,” which means we can choose to become less and less like him. So the first couple was told they could eat from any tree in the garden—except one. They were free to obey God, but given one restraint. And just as we all do—it raised the curiosity about that one restraint.
What happens in the story of Adam and Eve happens to all of us. First comes temptation. We are given rules, guidelines, clear instructions. But the thought enters our minds: “what is beyond that limit? How green is the grass on the other side?” But it’s more than that. The temptation given to Eve was that in eating the fruit they would be “like God.” You see, the temptation was “throw off the restraints. You can be in charge of your own destiny. You can decide what is right and what is wrong. You can be master and commander of your own life. You can be your own God.” So Adam and Eve listen to the temptation. Eve listened to the serpent; Adam listened to Eve. But in both cases, temptation led their minds to wander from the instructions of the Lord. “We are lop-sided, giving in to the earthly far more than to the heavenly. And we suffer consequences as a result.”
“We are lop-sided, giving in to the earthly far more than to the heavenly. And we suffer consequences as a result.”
Temptation leads to sin. They ate the fruit they were not supposed to eat. And immediately “they knew they were naked.” What that means is that after eating the fruit, after “disobedience” had now entered into the story, they indeed were able to see the other side. But with great ability comes great responsibility. Now, they were no longer protected from the sad, evil side of life. Now they had to deal with all the responsibilities that come from being able to see clearly from both sides. They lost their innocence, and would forever have to deal with life as God did, but having to do it with this “earthly nature” still tied around our necks. And God knew what Adam and Eve didn’t know—the only way to deal with that kind of responsibility is to be above the earthly nature. We simply can’t deal with it adequately as long as we are human. We are lop-sided, giving in to the earthly far more than to the heavenly. And we suffer consequences as a result.
Temptation led to sin, and sin led to punishment. We must understand that punishment has two parts (1) voluntary, and (2) necessary. Good parents punish their children for doing wrong in order to teach them a lesson. That’s voluntary punishment. But if a child runs out in front of a car and gets hit—that child has to bear the scars of their action, whether the parents want them to or not. That’s necessary punishment. Sin led to necessary punishment. The wages of sin, says Paul, is death (Rom. 6:23). He got that from the Adam and Eve story, where God says that because of their actions, they will die. God is life—and there is no sin in God. So sin is the opposite of God. And sin leads to death.
We Don’t Have What It Takes To Fix The Problem
Have you ever noticed how inadequate our good intentions are? How helpless we really are to change much? How our attempts at “fixing” often make things worse than they were originally? I once heard Rubel Shelly relate the following three stories.
Years ago now, the Dyaks tribe in Borneo was suffering from a severe outbreak of maleria. So the United Nations World Health Organization stepped in to fix the problem. They sprayed DDT to kill the mosquitoes. Sounds like a good plan. And it worked—sort of. The mosquito population fell dramatically, but so did all the thatched roofs of the Borneo people! Why? Because these roofs were being eaten by caterpillars. The only thing to stop the caterpillars were wasps. Guess what happened to the wasps? With no wasps, the caterpillars proliferated and literally ate the roofs off their houses. Cats living inside these homes would rub against the walls then lick the insecticide off their fur–which led to their death! Without a strong population of cats, what do you think happened? In some places, a swarm of rats took over, threatening to bring typhus and other diseases. As a stop-gap measure for one remote village, the Royal Air Force strapped a container of several dozen cats to a parachute–I kid you not–and dropped them down! (One wonders if the container of cats fell through the newly-thatched roofs! But I digress…)
A similar story takes place in America. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, entomologists released ladybugs across the South to fight off aphids (and some aphids, by the way, were accidentally introduced into the United States from Asia). The aphids were destroying apple and pecan trees, and ladybugs are their natural enemies. Today the fruits and nuts are doing well, but millions of people across the south have to deal with swarms of ladybugs every year.
And people in the American south need only hear the word ‘kudzu’ to think of a third story along these lines. We simply do not have what it takes to fix the problems too big for our intellect and too strong for our might. The same is true in the fundamental problem called “sin.” Our deepest longings and deepest desires are being marred by lesser desires that war against the soul. And we need help.
Just How Bad is It?
This is where we have to face the facts: The sin of Adam and Eve, like the sins we commit, was basically a decision to become our own Gods. We wanted to be in charge. We wanted to set the rules. We wanted to sit on the throne, with all the options before us, and decide what is right. Our “free choice” brought with it all that we desired—the ability to have anything we want; but it also brought nightmares we never expected—the responsibility to always do what is right. But, unlike God, we are made up of two natures. And the earthly side of us is fighting to win over the heavenly side of us. We have great responsibility, but we don’t have the nature to fully deal with it. We are susceptible to temptation. We often give in. We are, by nature, destined to die. And we are helpless to change the situation on our own (Rom. 5:6).
And this is how Adam’s sin affects you, and your sin affects everyone else. Because of our inability to see all the consequences of our actions (only God can do that), we often choose so poorly that our bad actions lead to bad consequences for other people. Because of Adam and Eve, I have to live in a fallen world. Because of Mr. Nobel’s amazing discovery, I have to live in a world with Atomic bombs. Because of someone else’s decision, you may contract a disease, or be hit and killed in an automobile accident. We now live in a fallen world, and its fallen because of bad choices. Bad choices have led to a condition that we all must face. Now, humanity comes short of God’s glory. We, as the human race, are not what God called us to be. And we, as individuals, constantly make the situation worse. There is none righteous, no not one. We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). God hates sin precisely because when we sin we do so much damage to ourselves…and all of creation.
God hates sin precisely because when we sin we do so much damage to ourselves…and all of creation.
Perhaps this is why an entire section of the Bible known as “Wisdom literature” speaks of sin not just as ‘bad acts’ that people do, but actually name ‘sin’ as that thing tearing the universe apart (see, for example, Psalm 104:35, where all of creation is held together by God’s goodness, only sinfulness ought to be banished)! Since the whole world is held together by God’s love, wisdom, and justice, sin rips a whole in the cosmos by denying those very things. The natural order of things, according to creation, was intended to reflect the glory of God. But sin has perverted creation, changed the natural order of things, and set us on a course away from (rather than headed toward) our Creator. Sin leads to the severing of relationships, offends the Deity, and ultimately destroys ourselves. The great Christian teacher Thomas Aquinas once noted that we are not punished for our sins so much as by our sins. God hates sin precisely because when we sin we do so much damage to ourselves…and all of creation.
For the Christian, the first great need is for humanity to open itself up to the realization that we are not the solution to our problem…for we bear the problem deep within ourselves. Even Michel Foucault said that Christianity has one great virtue in that of confession, because (in the words of Os Guinness) “it’s the one time in which we actually go on record against ourselves.” For Foucault, Christian confession brings both knowledge and obligation:
“[obligation] to acknowledge faults, to recognize temptations, to locate desires, and everyone is obliged to disclose these things either to God or to others…The truth obligations of faith and self are linked together. This link permits a purification of the soul impossible without self-knowledge.”
Anticipating The Christian Solution
But there is a second great need—the greatest need of all. We need a solution from outside ourselves. A solution that restores all right relationships, and bring order and meaning back to our lives.
God never meant for sin to have the last word. He wants now (and has always wanted) to be able to walk hand in hand with his special creation, to live with us, to love us, and to enjoy his amazing world.
This is why temptation, sin, and punishment is not the end of the story. Even in the Adam and Eve story, it ends with one more important point: Redemption. God is going to make things better. It has to be God who makes things better, because we don’t have the ability to do it ourselves.
But God does. God has. And God will. It’s a great story. But I will need another post to tell you about it.
(You can read the first post of the series here: The God Question & Our Search for Meaning)
(photo: Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel by Henry Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris.)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.