Have you ever been given a Gospel tract? Chances are that when you opened it, if you got that far with it, you read a sentence that said “You are a sinner.” If you can remember a time when you were not a believer, try to see yourself at that time opening this tract and reading that you are a sinner. Do you read any further? Or do you throw the tract in the trash?
In truth, I believe that the fact we are sinners is the starting point of our faith. When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome, he was writing to a people he was yet to visit. They had not yet heard him teach or preach, and as far as we know, they had never received a letter from Paul. Therefore, in his letter to the Romans, Paul strove to give them a synopsis of Christian theology as he saw it, from start to finish. From the beginning, Paul reminded them that whether they are Gentile or Jew, they have sinned.
But as we know, in the twenty-first century, it is very difficult to convince non-believers that they are sinners. And that is probably because the popular definition of “sin” is false. We think that “a sin” is something we do, that is often a lot of fun for us, that pisses off an anthropomorphic God and makes Him want to punish us, but He has to forgive us because that’s His nature. With that definition of “sin” in mind, it is no wonder we don’t take it seriously and don’t even want to talk about it except in a joking way. Most people can remember things they have done that violated a commandment from the Bible. Perhaps they used God’s name in vain when they stumped their toe. Or they looked at an attractive person and thought about sex. But it is easy to rationalize such behavior, concluding that no person was hurt or offended. Certainly God was not offended! And almost anyone can come up with instances where they have offended another person. But most of the time, the notion that they offended God never occurred to them. After all, He is a forgiving God.
So how do we convince others that they need a Savior? For that matter, how do we convince ourselves? Perhaps, we are tempted to conclude, we don’t need a Savior. After all, from what do we need saving?
Let’s begin to explore this by setting aside the idea that our sins offend God. Not that they don’t. But if God is offended, we might ask why it would concern us. Let’s approach the subject by examining our own need to love, to be loved, and to escape separation, aloneness, and meaninglessness.
See if you can think of a time when you really felt bad about something you chose, thought, or intended. I will share with you two stories from my own past.
When I was very young, before I was old enough to begin school, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. One day I found a pair of scissors and for some reason decided to experiment with them. I found that my grandmother had laid out one of her dresses on the bed, and she was out of the room. I picked up a section of the dress to feel the soft fabric. For some reason I thought that cutting a hole in it, one too small to notice, would be a harmless act. As harmless as seeing a cake on the counter and taking a bite. So, I took the scissors and snipped off a little piece. My grandmother came into the room and discovered what I had done. She was very upset and told me it was one of her favorite dresses. All I could do was sit on the side of the bed and be very sad while I watched my grandmother bury her face in the dress and weep bitterly. I don’t remember being punished for my action, but seeing my beloved grandmother cry like that was its own punishment. It made me feel so lonely, so separated from her love, so longing for the assurance of it that I was used to having.
The other story I want to share was about an incident that occurred when I was in high school, far too obsessed with being accepted by others and liked by girls. Being accepted was a struggle, and I had very few dates. But one guy who I thought really liked me had a reputation of being so wild that my parents forbade me to hang around him. His name was Roger. One day Roger asked me to hang out with him on a certain evening, because he said his girlfriend wanted to fix me up with a girl who was really hot looking and really easy. I could not resist the invitation! I didn’t tell my parents I was going anywhere with Roger, but I told them I had a date and needed to borrow the car. I figured I had told them the truth. But when they asked me the name of the girl I was dating, I had to make one up. The awaited night came, and Roger and I went to his girlfriend’s house. Sonja, the girl I was to be with, was to meet us there. (Sonja was not her real name. I made that one up, too). But when we arrived at the girlfriend’s house, we learned that there had been a mix-up in communication. Sonja already had a date for that night. But she did come by, I met her, and we made plans to get together on another night, one month from then. And Sonja did look fine! And Roger told me she was really easy! I could hardly wait. Sonja left, and Roger and I spent the rest of the evening cruising around town, not really doing much of anything, having fun but avoiding trouble. Of course, the next day my parents asked me how my date went, and I had to make something up.
About a week later, I was sitting in “study hall” class and noticed a photo in a newspaper that a student who sat in front of me was reading. The picture was of a girl who looked very familiar, and when I drew closer for a better look, I could see that it was a photo of Sonja. Underneath the photo was her name. I pointed to the picture and remarked, “I know that girl.” My fellow student looked at me grimly and said, “You do?” She turned back to the front page that ran the story so I could see the headlines. Sonja’s mother had murdered her with a baseball bat!
The effects this incident had on me came gradually. First, I had to keep my secret for the next few months while the horrible murder was one of the main topics of conversation in the city. My parents talked about how tragic it was. I could say nothing. How I wanted to! My lies had created a wall between me and my parents.
Besides hurting my relationship with my parents, my actions made me feel really bad about myself. Haunting memories of the incident lingered. When I was older, I came to the realization that many women are promiscuous because they are desperate for love. Sonja had to be desperate. And of course sexual promiscuity does not bring love but instead drives one deeper and deeper into disappointment and desperation. Sonja may have been easy, but there was probably a tragic reason, and I was haunted by the fact that my intentions had been not to give her the respect and companionship that she needed but to exploit her vulnerability for my own pleasure. Ideally, I might have helped her. She needed to know that she was loved. Instead, she died. I needed to extend love to another person. Instead, I kept a secret and came to feel that I had played a part in her death. Separation, aloneness, and meaningless were the victors.
I have just given you a picture of sin, not as an act but as a human condition. It is a rebellion against the God who loves us, and it threatens to sever our relationship with Him. As Papa, the character who represents God the Father in William Young’s novel The Shack said, “Sin is its own punishment.” Tell people they need to be saved from sin and they may not listen to you. Start by listening to them. Help them find salvation from aloneness, meaninglessness, and despair, and they respond. Love them, and then tell them they are loved unconditionally by God. People will come to realize that it is the attitudes they have and the choices they make that cause them to not fully experience this unconditional love.
There is no better biblical picture of sin than the stories of the Original Sin, of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Now, please don’t let your unbelief in the historicity of these stories prevent you from grasping their true meaning. They tell of the reason for our sin nature and its consequences. I do not believe that God created humans with the intent that they be sinful, and I do not believe that there was a brief time in history when humans were sinless. I don’t see the fall of humankind in terms of time. When I speak of Original Sin, I am not speaking of the “first” sin but the “basic” sin.
Humans were created in the image of God. No one really understands what this means, but the writer states it in Genesis 1:26-27: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Then in the second account of creation, God tells the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:15).
What happened after that, it seems to me, was inevitable. Humans, sensing that they were special creations, the image of God, decided they wanted more. They wanted to be God. While God intended for them to serve and have fellowship with Him, they decided to usurp His power. So they partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, they adopted a lifestyle of determining for themselves what was good and what was evil, instead of submitting to God. Isn’t this basically what the sin condition of humankind really is, both today and in history? Isn’t it basically our insistence on being God, rather than submitting ourselves to Him? As John Eldredge wrote, in his classic book about manhood Wild at Heart, “There’s a part of us fiercely committed to living in a way where we do not have to depend on anyone—especially God.” We talk about our sins, as the plural form of the word suggests, acts that are against what God would have us to do. But “sins” are really symptoms, or behavioral manifestations, of something far deeper—sin. Sin, in the singular form. Sin, the insistence on living in a way that we do not have to depend on God.
And what does this insistence on independence do? It severs a relationship. When we wrong another person, it hurts our relationship with that person. When we wrong God, it hurts our relationship with God. Ultimately, it leads to aloneness. Meaninglessness. We no longer have fellowship, we are no longer partners, and we no longer serve God.
It is common today for Christians to believe that God created humans for a relationship with Him. This might be true, although I do not see this clearly in the Genesis accounts. It seems that according to one of the Genesis writers, God created humans to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26). Yet God definitely had a relationship with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But nowhere does the Bible say that after they were expelled from the Garden, they ceased to have a relationship with God. God’s desire for an intimate relationship with us is expressed throughout the Bible. While the quality of this relationship varies among individuals and circumstances, it is evident to me that the major factor that hinders the relationship is man’s rebelliousness and disobedience. And the major factor that restores it is God’s forgiveness and human’s repentance.
She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11a)
My problem with forgiveness is that I take it for granted. Because indeed it is granted, absolutely free of charge to me! My exposure to Christianity has been so skewed toward the “Grace” end, as opposed to the “Judgment” end, that it is difficult for me to think about forgiveness as a serious issue. If I do something wrong I might worry that others might not forgive me. But of course, God will forgive me! God does not want to punish me. I never believed He did.
I am coming to a new appreciation of forgiveness, though, as I learn to see sin as a hindrance to relationship. I believe God has emotions. In many places, the Bible describes God being angry, sad, and taking pleasure. I don’t think God has emotions in the same way that I do. The ways God’s personality is described in the Scriptures is metaphorical, I believe. However, I also believe that metaphor is a very useful and true way to think of something that is as big and mysterious as God. So if God gets angry sometimes and sad sometimes, it follows that these emotions are triggered by the sin of those He loves. I picture God weeping over my sin, as my grandmother did after I cut her dress. I remember how her weeping made me feel that day. It made me wonder if she would send me home, tell my mother, never let me come see her again, or simply ignore me for the rest of the week. These fears really bothered me. Imagine the relief I felt when soon after the incident, Granny made it clear to me that she loved me as before. That our relationship had not changed. While I never forgot that “sin” against my grandmother, I also will always remember the joy I felt that our love for each other continued. That was a forgiveness that I did not take for granted!
I am learning to see God and His reaction to my sin as I remember the way my grandmother wept that day. I broke Granny’s heart. I break God’s heart. I picture God weeping the same way that my grandmother did. Granny didn’t punish me. She didn’t tell my mother. Seeing Granny weep so bitterly as she covered her face with that dress was its own punishment. And the relief of experiencing the relationship restored has become the way I am learning to think about God’s forgiveness. I also picture God weeping as Sonja was used and abused, even weeping over my intention of using her, though the intention was never carried out. It still broke God’s heart. And today I rejoice that I am aware that though I’ve broken God’s heart, He still loves me and calls me into a relationship with Him.
I am also beginning to see God’s forgiveness as the essential element of my forgiveness of self. The Bible does not really contain a commandment that we forgive ourselves. But failure to forgive oneself is toxic, and it is essentially failure to accept God’s forgiveness of oneself.
“Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:11b)
Repentance means turning away. Intending to never go there again. If breaking God’s heart troubles me, it only makes sense that I would decide to turn away from whatever caused His heart to break. However, repentance has been something I have struggled with even more than forgiveness. Desiring to turn away is not difficult. But sometimes I find that though I decide to turn away from an area of sin, I know that soon I will sin in the same way again. Apparently, I desire the sin more than the turning away!
I think that most Christians can point to an area of sin in their life that they know that they can’t stop. For some this area might be not forgiving someone who has wronged them. For others it might be greed or envy. There is sin that haunts me as well. I don’t like it, I can turn away from it, but I know that I will be back.
It is not easy for me to make myself vulnerable like this. Many people turn away from listening to Christians who seem to know for sure what they believe and live it effectively. Especially those who say they believe everything in the Bible without question. But if you are willing to be vulnerable and admit that you struggle with a sin issue, many people, including many who are unsure whether they want to believe in Christ, will see you as a lot like they are and will find it refreshing and encouraging!
I, like many I think, have taken comfort in Romans 7:15-20: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. This passage gives many Christian sinners a feeling of relief, that though there are sins that they are addicted to and cannot resist, they are no different from the Apostle Paul himself.
I have really come to doubt whether the Christian should understand the passage in this way. When one studies other writings of Paul, including other sections of his letter to the Romans, it is evident that Paul believes that a person who is in Christ, who lives not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, is no longer a slave to any kind of sin. The person might sin, but sin does not enslave the person. The person feels remorse, asks forgiveness, receives it, and repents.
Let us return to the passage in Romans chapter 7. Read through the end of the chapter and realize that in verses 15-20, Paul is not describing all of himself. He is describing what he often refers to as the “old man,” the “flesh,” or the “sinful self.” Verses 24 and 25 say, Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Paul, then, does not leave us with only a description of his sinful self. Paul says he has been rescued! Not by his own willpower to resist sin but by Jesus Christ. His message in this and other letters in the Scripture is that a true follower of Christ Jesus can indeed be rescued from the body of death which is slavery to sin.
This does not make me feel good about my own journey of faith. I am able to repent and largely stay away from many things that are wrong. But there is at least one area that I often decide to turn away from, knowing all the time that I will be back. I feel that I am a slave to it. It makes me wonder if I have the right to call myself a Christian at all. The Bible says that I can be free, and it says that I cannot rescue myself. Only God can rescue me. Sometimes my attitude has been to simply give up and wait. Since I cannot stop myself, all I can do is continue to sin and wait for God to act!
Now I see three major points of view among Christians concerning freedom from sin. One view is that while a true Christian will occasionally sin, a person who is in Christ can never be a slave to sin. This means that true Christians are not alcoholics, porn addicts, or drug addicts. Because an addict is a slave. A second view is that after one accepts his salvation through Christ Jesus, a lifelong process of sanctification sets the person free. There are some passages of Paul’s writing where he seems to take this approach: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12). Finally, there is the view that freedom is simply accepting the grace of God’s forgiveness, rejoicing that because of this grace on can have an intimate friendship with God.
A starting point for my understanding of repentance and freedom was a study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, titled The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. I started reading the book because I felt a hunger to understand Paul and if he really meant that Christians are free from the bondage of sin. Paul’s writings are confusing to me. Nee helped me see something I had neglected. There is a factor evident in Paul’s writing that stands between believing in Christ and His Grace, and allowing that Grace to free us from the bondage of sin. Paul talks about submitting to the Holy Spirit and being led by Him instead of being led by the flesh (our interest in our own happiness and success). I realized that while I had believed in the Holy Spirit and allowed Him to influence me, I had not allowed the Spirit to be number one all the time. I had not allowed Him to lead me. And there is no sugar coating this: when one allows something other than God to be one’s number one leader, it is idolatry. And it became clear to me. Only believers who give charge of their lives to the Holy Spirit can claim to be free from the bondage of sin.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. (Galatians 5:16-17).
God’s Bait and Switch
The things other than the Holy Spirit I was allowing to control me were my marriage, my sexuality, the success of my son, what others thought of me, and the success of my career. These are things that delight most Christians. But it seems that they become sinful when one gives them control over one’s life and one’s choices. It seems that most sin comes from seeking temporary solutions to our fulfillment and forgetting that full, complete fulfillment can come only from one’s relationship with God. Then the temporary solutions—marriage, family, money, career–become idols. Their evolution to idolatry can be very subtle. We might be led to believe that God wants our marriage to be happy, for us to be fulfilled sexually, for us to be wealthy, and for others to think well of us. Some are even attracted to the “Prosperity Gospel” of “Christianity” because it teaches that God wants us to have success and will give it to us. Perhaps God does want us to be successful. God does help us with our marriages, with parenting, and with our careers. God knows we desire these things. But we are mistaken if we assume that this is the ultimate abundant life that God assures us that we can have.
There is a verse in Psalm 37 that is comforting to me, but when I contemplate its meaning, it haunts me:
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4).
I recently commented on this verse in a conversation with my wife, and I remarked, “Of course, one’s desires might be very different after one decides to take delight in the Lord.” Burma, in her wisdom, said, “That sounds like a ‘Bait and Switch’ to me!” It is! I know that many seek God because of His promise of abundant life and eventually eternal life with Him. They are won over by the prospect of God making their marriage happy, or giving them success in business. But those who become mature in Christ find that these pursuits can lead to idolatry if they become things a person demands from God. And when marriage becomes an idol, one is vulnerable to seeking romantic and sexual fulfillment elsewhere when marriage doesn’t deliver. When career success becomes an idol, one is vulnerable to engaging in dishonest or predatory practices when hard work and intelligence alone do not deliver. What God really wants is an intimate relationship with us. It is in this relationship and in serving Him that the desires of our hearts are fulfilled.
So I am left with a disturbing question. Does the fact that I sometimes worship idols mean that I am not really a Christian? Well, read the two verses below and decide for yourself. I do not like what they imply. But that does not mean they are not the Truth.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24).
I am not yet to the point where I exclusively love and serve God. I am growing. And some days I get really frustrated. I think that is because truly submitting to God is the most difficult thing that a person is called to do! It requires trust that God will really do what He says He will do: give us through His grace everything we really need for fulfillment, which is to walk in close relationship and partnership with Him each day. And it requires that we give up our desire to control the other sources of happiness and fulfillment.
Now there is a major tenet of Christian doctrine about where this grace comes from that trips many of us up! While the starting point of sin is Adam and Eve desiring to be their own god, the starting point of freedom is God desiring to be human and experiencing humanity with us, even death on the Cross. The Cross is a theological stumbling block for many Christians and non-Christians alike, because we don’t understand it. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we don’t understand it, but that we try too hard to understand it! But it is such a cornerstone of the Christian faith, that we cannot ignore it. That will be the subject of my next blog post.