We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?Continue reading “The Prickly Side of Grace”
Usually, when someone calls you “a real piece of work,” it’s not a compliment. We say such things about those we think are odd or whose behavior is hard to understand. But in a famous soliloquy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Yet Hamlet’s opinion of humanity is mixed. He calls human beings “the beauty of the world” and “the paragon of animals.” But he also asks, “what is this quintessence of dust?”Continue reading “A Piece of Work: Understanding the Human Condition”
Those who recite the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer, up until the 2019 edition, have traditionally prayed these words: “O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” The Litany or General Supplication employs similar language and in the prayer it contains the church addresses each member of the Trinity, asking God to have mercy on them for several specific sins. Evil, mischief, blindness of heart, pride, vain-glory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness– they are the sort of things that might raise eyebrows in ordinary conversation. But in this context, we are not only undisturbed by such an admission, to hear the congregation recite it in unison offers a kind of comfort.Continue reading “Us Miserable Offenders”
A saying attributed to St. Augustine goes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” No one seems to know where or even whether Augustine actually expressed such a thought. To be honest, it sounds more like something a modern would say. The view of the ancients was much less approving of anger than in our day. The ancient attitude was more like the one expressed by the fourth-century monk who warned: “If when you want to reprove someone you are stirred to anger, you are pandering to your own passion. Lose not yourself to save another.”
The old monk’s restraint seems peculiar to modern ears. Everybody gets angry. We’re pretty sure that some people deserve our anger. Besides, anger is just an emotion, an expression of our righteous indignation. When it is rightly employed, anger can be the fuel that energizes change. At least, that’s how we see it. Perhaps we are right in thinking this. As the words attributed to St. Augustine suggest, maybe anger really is the offspring of hope. Could anger be a fire kindled in the soul by a vision of a different world? We have removed anger from the list of deadly sins, given it a new name, and declared it to be a virtue. We call it justice.
The rhetoric of justice has become commonplace in our day, both inside and outside the church. But a common definition of what we mean by the term is hard to find. For some people, justice means racial reconciliation. For others it speaks of economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth. Those who serve meals in the homeless shelter, others who work with victims of human trafficking, and people who disrupt traffic on the expressway to protest police shootings all believe they are working for justice. Often, what we call a hunger for justice, is really only anger.
Justice is a biblical virtue and a foundational requirement of law. The standard of biblical justice is righteousness, a measure that is established by God. The boundaries of what constitutes just behavior are not subject to the whims of the majority. In Scripture, righteousness is a matter for conformity, not consent. Today’s justice warriors often seem to have a very different view. We live in a vigilante culture where those who don’t like the outcome of due process take matters into their own hands. This view essentially equates justice with bullying. This is true whether it is a virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or a literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose to intimidate.
But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus to find that there really is such a thing as virtuous anger. Jesus’ anger is an extension of the ultimate expression of virtuous anger: the wrath of God. Both testaments speak of God’s anger. Divine wrath is a measure of the distance that sin has introduced into our relationship with God. We know what it is like to be the focus of someone’s displeasure and to experience rejection. The Bible’s language of divine wrath is intended to remind us of what it is like to be in an oppositional relationship with God.The emphasis is not on God’s emotional state so much as it is on our position. Sin makes us God’s enemies. He is opposed to us because we are opposed to Him. Unrighteousness always places us at cross purposes with God so that we cannot be in harmony with Him.
As Christians, we are comfortable with the notion of grace. It is a part of our vocabulary. The nomenclature of grace is embedded in the songs we sing. But while we sing about grace, what we desire is many cases is retaliation. We are like Prince Felix, foreign minister of Austria, who was discussing what should be done with the captured rebels after the Hungarian revolt was suppressed in 1849. When someone suggested that it would be wise to show mercy toward the rebels, Schwarzenberg agreed. “Yes, indeed, a good idea,” he said, “but first, we will have a little hanging.”
A desire for justice is legitimate, as are many of the concerns of those who call for it. Unfortunately, what we call justice can also be nothing more than sentimentality expressed in the form of anger. This sentimentalized quest for justice trades on impatience. It misrepresents evil, by oversimplifying its nature. We are willing to shout, carry a sign, or post to social media. But that’s about as far as our plan of action goes. Anger is our only real contribution to the cause.
On the other hand, Micah 6:8 shows us what true justice looks like in practice: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” To act justly is to do the right thing. For the Jew, this meant conformity to the standards of God’s law. For Israel’s rulers, it involved the application of the law’s provisions and demands across all sectors of society. But the obligation to act justly was not exclusive to those who governed. In Micah’s prophecy, examples of unjust behavior include many drawn from daily life. They weren’t limited to the sins of rulers or even the rich. They involved sins of the marketplace and the family as well as the ruling powers (Micah 6:10–11; 7:5–8). Justice is the burden of the state, but it is also the obligation of the individual. Justice is a concern that stretches from the boardroom to the bedroom.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
The greatest obstacle facing us in our quest for justice is the fact that we are, by nature, fundamentally unjust. When the New Testament speaks of righteousness, it speaks of the righteousness that comes to us from God as a gift through person and work of Jesus Christ. God, who has established righteousness as His standard, is also the only source of the righteousness He requires. By sending Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice of atonement, God was able to maintain His standard of righteousness while providing righteousness to those who had none of their own. God is the only one who has a right to feel righteous indignation. He keeps the accounts and He alone can execute ultimate justice. The day of vengeance belongs to the Lord (Isa. 34:8; 61:2). But God is also the only one who can satisfy His wrath. He is the Just One and the one who justifies because the only righteousness God will accept is His own.
To “do justice” in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism. It means that we will reflect Christ’s righteousness in our ordinary lives by the power of Christ. Doing justice is not a matter of living up to God’s standard but one of living out that standard through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To act justly in this Christian sense also means to act out of mercy. This includes specific acts of mercy, but it also involves more. The command of Micah 6:8 is to “love” mercy. The Lord calls for more than a practice of almsgiving. To love mercy is to cultivate a merciful disposition.
Not long after I started driving, I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries, and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty. I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case. “How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute,” I replied. The judge looked around the courtroom. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge inquired. He was not. “Case dismissed,” the judge curtly declared. The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy, but it was not. The judge dismissed my case on a technicality. He could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me.
Mercy is something else. Mercy belongs only to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict. It is a person. Because Jesus took our place, God’s verdict of righteous for the believer is no mere legal fiction. When the Bible calls us righteous, it means what it says. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
It is only through this lens that we can understand what it means to be just in the biblical sense of the word. Justice is not outrage. Neither is it revenge. Justice is righteousness, which is first received as a gift and then displayed as a testimony to God’s grace. It is the habit of walking with an awareness of God’s goodness, knowing that He has shown us mercy and empowered us to do the right thing. Justice is an act of faith that trusts God to look out for our interests. Justice is the offspring of hope that has two beautiful daughters. Their names are grace and truth: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
A while back, I noticed a menu option on my retirement account’s website labeled “net worth.” When I clicked on it, the site asked me to type in information about my assets and liabilities. The result was a brightly colored graph that represented the total of all my worldly goods. I have looked at it many times since then, and its effect is always the same. Instead of making me feel secure about my future, it leaves me anxious. No matter how much I have, it seems that I would like to have just a little more.
There is a word for this condition. It is what the Bible calls greed. Greed, like lust and gluttony, is a sin of appetite. While lust is usually associated with sex, and gluttony is linked with food, greed is a similar inordinate desire for money and possessions. Most of us are pretty sure we don’t suffer from greed because we don’t see ourselves as wealthy. The rich are greedy, perhaps, but not us. The flaw in this reasoning is that desiring is not necessarily synonymous with having. It is certainly possible for a rich person to be greedy, but so might one who is poor. It is not the having but the wanting that is the problem. The adjective that best expresses the impulse of greed is not “most” but “more.” Whatever I possess will not be enough if I succumb to the influence of greed. I must always have a little more.
Perhaps the great difficulty we face in this matter is the fact that none of us sees ourselves as greedy. We are pretty sure we can spot greed in others. There are some people who, as far as we are concerned, have more than their share. But we do not fall into that category. We are, for the most part, people of modest means. If we have a little more than we thought we would, it is because we worked hard, saved, and have been wise in our financial dealings. Or maybe we are like the majority of those first heard Jesus’ teach. We have limited means. Jesus believed that the poor needed to be warned about the danger of greed as much as the rich. We might be outraged by this if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus Himself was one of the poor. He had no place to lay His head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus was dependent upon the generosity of others for His support. At the time of His death, Jesus owned only the clothes on his back (John 19:24).
Greed is a problem for the rich, the working class, the middle class, and the poor because greed does not focus on what we have but what we want. Greed substitutes things for God. In this respect, greed is a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5). Greed is a misconstrual of life itself. It persuades us that life consists of piling up of goods. If we have enough, we will live. How much is enough? It does not matter how much or how little we possess. Where greed is concerned that answer is always the same: “Just a little more!”
Jesus’ warning also reveals that greed comes in many forms. “Watch out!” He says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” One of the ways we drop our guard is by defining greed too narrowly. We associate greed with a particular income level or specific set of goods. Somehow the very specific picture we have of the greedy person never looks like us. The forms that greed can take are so various that we could devote an entire book to them and still not exhaust the subject. But the Bible does single out a few of the most common modes that greed assumes. One of its most basic forms is the greed of desire.
The old-fashioned term used for this kind of greed is covetousness. This mode of greed is singled out in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). Desire is the fundamental characteristic of covetousness, but it is a particular kind of desire. The problem with covetousness is not that we want the same kind of thing that a neighbor has. If my neighbor buys a particular kind of car and I decide to buy the same make and model, I am not necessarily acting out of covetousness. I may simply agree with my neighbor’s choice. The distinguishing mark of covetousness according to the commandment is the fact that I want something that belongs to someone else. It is not that I want a car or property or a spouse like theirs. I want their car. I want their property. I want their spouse. There is more at stake than the thing itself. The trouble with covetousness is that the thing I desire is all I have in view. I am so focused on what is my neighbor’s that I have lost sight of my neighbor altogether.
Although the commandment dealing with covetousness focuses primarily on tangible objects like my neighbor’s house, land, ox, or donkey, what I covet does not necessarily have to be material. I may covet their job or their popularity. I may covet the esteem granted to them by others and want it for myself. This is more than a simple desire for the same kind of job or a desire to be well thought of by others. Beneath covetousness is a wish to deprive. I want what is theirs.
Greed, like gluttony, is a cultural sin. Today’s culture has redefined greed. We call it prosperity and consider it to be a virtue. We defer to the opinion of those who have obtained much, not because they are necessarily wise or godly, but simply because they have much. The wealthy control the seats of power in public office and our churches. This is not a new pattern. The New Testament letter of James makes it clear that this has been a temptation to the church from its inception (James 2:2–6). It is certainly not wrong for the wealthy to be a part of the church nor is it a sin for someone who is rich to be highly regarded or function as a leader. It is wrong for the church to show deference to the rich simply because they are rich. This is a reflection of the church’s own greed and its tendency to depend on large donors more than upon God
If lust is the primary garnish of our regular entertainment, greed holds second place. How many of the so-called “reality” television and games shows we watch use greed as the carrot that motivates their contestants to go to extreme measures or put themselves on embarrassing display? This is why reality television is so popular. The lure of greed also shapes public policy and economic planning in our states and cities. School funding is increasingly dependent upon the promise of income from lottery sales, an enterprise that is built upon greed and preys mostly upon the poor.
One of the symptoms of this collective greed is our national habit of justifying unwise practices like these based on some perceived monetary value. We enable the exploitation of others or ignore the negative effects of public policies because they will be good for the economy. Economics has become, if not the only, at least the primary ethical filter that modern society employs when shaping public policy. This is a kind of economic utilitarianism, where the well-being of the few is sacrificed for the good the many on the altar of economic improvement. In actual practice it often seems that the opposite happens. A few reap the profits while the many are harmed. We legitimize greed when we redefine it as prosperity. Since greed is bad and prosperity is good, we convince ourselves that there is nothing unhealthy about the constant desire for more.
Turning away from greed is effective only when it is also coupled with a turning to God: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5). Anxiety about the necessities of life is a trigger for greed. We are greedy because we are afraid. Those who know that God has promised never to forsake them have an answer for their fear. God will provide in the future just as He has provided in the past. His provision in the short-term is a reminder that He offers us something greater in the long-term. We look forward to an eternity in His presence.
It doesn’t matter what our net worth is. We are all prone to greed. How much is enough? The answer is always the same: just a little more. If greed is a form of idolatry then faith is its only true remedy. The fool in Jesus’ parable thought that if he accumulated enough, his soul would be able to rest in those things (Luke 12:19). But rest is Christ’s generous gift to all who trust in Him no matter how much we have (Matt. 11:28–30).
I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. As a child, I was heavy, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as being “big-boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I thinned out in my adolescence, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin, and I am still bothered. I am not alone. According to some estimates, forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year. In our weight-conscious culture, you would think that we would have a greater sensitivity to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons, and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight.
Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. The ancients measured gluttony by the amount of food one consumed. The Christian ascetics viewed hunger as both a virtue and a tool. They seem to have believed that it was better to be hungry than to be full. They thought that hunger and thirst could be employed to bring all the bodily passions into submission. Most moderns do not think that the consumption of either food or drink belongs in the category of sin. We are, however, willing to admit that people have psychological problems in these areas. In the twentieth century, the church’s perspective on eating changed from the ancient practice of fasting for the spirit to the modern habit of dieting for health.
Gluttony is not a matter of body size. It is a sin of consumption. Gluttony is to food what lust is to sex. Gluttony distorts and magnifies bodily appetite until appetite becomes an end in itself. Food, drink, indeed, all our ordinary bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what exactly is His design for our hunger? Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. Proverbs 16:26 says, “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.” This proverb echoes Genesis 3:17–19, where the link between toil and eating is a consequence of sin. But the proverb reveals the complementary benefit that comes from this connection. Hunger is a motivator that drives us to work. We work because we do not want to go hungry (see 2 Thess. 3:10). Hunger also motivates us to take in the sustenance we require for life. But, similar to the curse of Genesis, hunger has two sides. Like work, hunger existed before the fall. As was the case with the first temptation, ordinary hunger can be a gateway to inordinate appetite. Part of the appeal of the forbidden fruit was that it was “good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Sin has the same effect on all our bodily appetites. Hunger can be a motivation, but it can also be a master. Just as sin distorted God’s design for work by introducing an element of drudgery into its execution, our hunger can make us slaves.
Slavery to food can take many forms. For some, this bondage expresses itself in a variety of eating disorders. Binge eating, starvation, and binge eating followed by purging are destructive coping methods for dealing with perfectionism and low self-esteem often related to body image. By eating (or not eating), those with eating disorders attempt to heal themselves or make themselves feel better. Food plays an increasingly larger role until it becomes the central focus of life. For others, bondage to food is reflected in an unhealthy, almost paralyzing, fussiness when it comes to eating. In Paul’s day, this was usually a result of misguided religious conviction. In 1 Timothy 4:3, the apostle warns that the last days will be marked by false teachers who demand that their followers live an ascetic lifestyle. They will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” Likewise, in Colossians 2:21, he speaks of those whose rule of life was comprised mainly of prohibitive regulations, which he summarizes in the three commands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”
According to the apostle, a combination of ignorance and pride fueled this bankrupt approach to spirituality. Those who adopted its practices thought that they could obtain eternal life by keeping traditions that focused on “things that are all destined to perish with use” (Col. 3:22). Today’s culinary aesthetes are more liable to be driven by a political and social agenda than a religious one, but their spirit is the same, and Paul’s directive to the Colossian church equally applies: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Col 3:16). Righteousness is not a matter of one’s dietary preferences. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17).
In an affluent culture like ours, eating is not just a necessity; it is also a form of recreation. This leads to another type of bondage when it comes to food. Some people are fussy about what they eat because they scorn simple fare. Every meal must be a grand experience. These people view their food the way others look at their possessions. Only the rarest and most expensive will do. Their problem is not that they eat good food but that they view ordinary food, along with those who eat it, with contempt. Their diet is a symptom of greed and pride. They are addicted not to food but to luxury. In the book of Revelation, this is the fare of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 18:3).
Does this mean that it is a sin to enjoy our food? Are we acting unchristianly if we eat a meal at an expensive restaurant? The Bible teaches that the enjoyment of food is a gift from God. One of the ways God shows His love to the world at large is by supplying us with food. Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
The mistake of gluttony is the error of thinking that appetite is the gateway to satisfaction. In reality, it is the opposite. Hunger by its very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7 observes, “Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.” Satisfy your hunger with a meal now, and a few hours later that hunger will return. There is nothing to be done about it. When eating becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12–13). Gluttony conflates desire with satisfaction, expecting more from food than it can supply. The glutton does not eat to live but lives to eat. In reality, our appetites are merely signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They point out our emptiness and our need for God. When we look to earthly means to fully and finally satisfy ourselves, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).
Jesus’ perspective on eating was personal and practical. Scripture says that Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). He taught the church to ask for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:11). Ordinary food played an important role in Jesus’ ministry just as bread was a central image in His teaching. The connection between food and Jesus’ ministry should not surprise us. He lived in a culture in which worship and eating were connected. Jesus made communal eating a part of the sacred life of the church. At the same time, Jesus taught that life is more than food (Luke 12:23). Food is necessary for life but is not itself life. We do not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4). Life is more than food just as the body is more than clothing. Food is necessary for life but is not synonymous with life. The power of Jesus’ teaching on this matter is grounded in His assumption that food is needful. We need to eat, but when we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.
It does not have to be food. We can rely upon our health or finances or even clothing. Like the Israelites who worshiped the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness, we forget that our life does not come from the things that God uses to sustain it (2 Kings 18:4). How then do we deal with gluttony? The primary method the Bible prescribes is self-denial. “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” the writer of Proverbs warns. “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Prov. 23:1–3). Self-denial is not an end in itself. By practicing self-denial, we discover how God supplies all we truly need.
The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but food is an important part of our earthly life. Eating has played a vital role in the worship as well as the ordinary fellowship of the church, and it will continue to be part of our experience in the life to come. As important as food is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. The basic rule when it comes to our eating is the same rule that guides us in all of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
We are sinners. We don’t deny it. But most of the time, we don’t think much about it. We don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about our own sins. We don’t punish ourselves or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, our sin feels more like a low-grade fever than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder us from being our best, but it doesn’t keep us from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother us that much, either. If anything, the fact that we are sinners serves as an escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” we want to say. “We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Of course, we went off the rails.” The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts upon which a majority of people agree. Most people identify with the label sinner.
The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but also to study their sinfulness. One monk, who probably lived in the fourth or fifth century, described the benefit of a life of solitude by pouring water into the cup and pointing out that its cloudy nature became clear after allowing it to stand for a time. “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil,” he said. “But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.”
Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics that generated sinful behavior. Why do we think so differently from previous generations about sin? One reason is that we have radically different notions about virtue in our day. Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense. The word seems outdated. Virtue sounds more like something that would have concerned our Victorian great-grandparents.
The ancient idea of virtue grew from a desire to overcome the human disposition that the Bible labels sin. For Christians, God is the key component in any notion of virtue. He is also the key component in any notion of sin. Virtue doesn’t just involve the measure of what we think is good as individuals. It is more than the community standard. In the Christian view, God is both the measure and the measurer of what constitutes genuine virtue. That same measure provides the dividing line that separates sin from virtue.
David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Or as theolgian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”
Virtue or goodness has God as its primary reference point. Virtue is what we were made for. It is a life that reflects our design as creatures made in the image of the God who is Himself good and the source of all that can be rightly called good. But it it is equally true that we can’t think about personal goodness or virtue without also taking our own sin into account. Any possibility of true goodness depends ultimately upon God. We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.
Perhaps all of this sounds too abstract and detached for ordinary people like us. It’s one thing for theologians and philosophers to debate about sin and virtue. Why should we concern ourselves with such matters? We have jobs to go to and bills to pay. We mow the lawn and drive the kids to school. What does any of this have to do with the real world in which we live? The answer is that sin and virtue lie at the heart of everything we do. Our ideas of sin and virtue shape the way we work at our job, live in our neighborhood, and treat the members of our family.
What is more, these matters are a deep concern for us. Sin and virtue drive the storylines behind the television programs and movies we watch. Our lawcourts are backlogged with cases in which the parties involved dispute with one another over these same concerns. We may use different language when we talk about sin and virtue. We may speak of “doing the right thing” or talk about what people “ought” to do. We also seem to know intuitively when others have crossed a line. We may not agree about what is right, but nearly every one of us has a kind of moral radar that is hypersensitive to those who do something we consider wrong.
However, our moral sense seems to be one-sided. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult to see our own. Not only do we disagree with the ancient consensus of the church about the gravity of our sins, but we are also strangely comforted by its universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.
In general, our thinking about both sin and virtue is backward. We think more of individual sins than we do of sin. We treat virtue the same way. We tend to see virtue as a collection of righteous actions. Our concern when it comes to sin is that it will grow. Small infractions will become larger. Anger will accelerate until it becomes murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. Those sins that we usually treat as minor infractions bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28). This does not mean that there is no difference between thought and action, or even that every sin is the same. Angry words are not the same as a shotgun blast to the head, though some might argue that both can be equally destructive in their own way. They might even say that between the two, the effects of someone’s cruel words might last longer.
Righteousness in the Christian life is not a collection of good acts that balances out our bad deeds. Righteous actions spring from righteousness. Individual acts reflect the nature of those who do them. We have been made righteous to be righteous. Those who come to Jesus Christ in faith do not lose their capacity to sin. They gain the capacity to obey. This new ability springs from a changed nature, which is a reflection of their new standing before God. The Christian can do good because he or she has been made good through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we look at sin and virtue through the lens of Christ and His saving work, we discover that vritue or goodness is not a way of life. It is the way of the living. It is the pattern of life of those who have been made alive by Christ.
Since the tragic death of George Floyd, I have been trying to decide what to say, or whether I should say anything about it. In part, this is because I don’t know what to say. Little of what I’ve read on social media regarding the subject seems helpful to me. It is mostly a mixture of anger and guilt, with a few conspiracy theories mixed in. I have been reluctant to speak because so many others have said that silence is complicity. This rubric seems overly simplistic. It does little to help people process what has happened. Such a sentiment is merely an attempt to predispose people to a particular response. If the precipitating event weren’t so grievous and the subject less incendiary, we might even call it a thinly disguised attempt to bully others into a preferred opinion. Silence in times such as these can mean many things. Silence can be an expression of grief or dismay. It can signify disapproval. Silence may simply be the response of those who don’t know what to say. And, sometimes, silence is the disposition of the wise (Prov. 17:28).
For people of my age, the distress of recent days must seem strangely familiar—smoke billows behind a rocket that hurtles American astronauts into space. Cities burn as people march in the streets and loot stores. It feels like the 1960s again, except without any of the hope. The timing of this latest crisis was also striking, coming as it did just as some states appeared to be on the verge of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people, whether joking or serious, posted memes that implied that the death of George Floyd was part of a larger conspiracy.
I am more inclined to think that there are more ordinary forces at work. Call it sin or fallen nature; it is the principle Bruce Cockburn describes when he sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” But to attribute the state of things to sin seems too simplistic. Just as Jesus is the answer of the Christian to every problem, sin is the stock explanation of their cause. The problem with this explanation is not that sin is trite. It is our view of sin that is the trouble. It is too anemic. We are inconsistent and double minded, congenital hypocrites where sin is concerned.
In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes how newspapers and television often use the adjective senseless to describe acts of murder. Plantinga finds this description puzzling, noting that unless he is grossly impaired, every murder must have made sense to the killer at the time. “He was trying to silence a witness or gain revenge or express his power or act out his racist hatred or stimulate and satisfy his lust,” Plantinga writes. “In a culture in which up-to-date intellectuals often drift toward moral subjectivism, how can an act that makes perfectly good sense to its perpetrator be judged senseless by outsiders?” The answer, according to Plantinga, is that “when pressed, even the most avant-garde observer drops his moral subjectivism, forgets all Nietzschean attempts to get ‘beyond good and evil,’ and joins the rest of us in expressing shock, indignation, and the metaphysical judgment that a murder does not belong in the world, no matter what its author thinks of it.”
C. S. Lewis writes about the same moral sense that Plantinga describes in Mere Christianity, calling it the “law of human nature” or the “rule about right and wrong.” According to Lewis, it is most observable when people are quarreling. When this happens, two things are apparent. First, the aggrieved party appeals to a standard that he or she expects the other person to know and assumes it will be evident to them. Second, the offender almost always affirms such a rule exists by giving a rationale for their action. As Lewis bluntly puts it, “. . . the other man very seldom replies: ‘to hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”
In other words, our moral radar seems to operate on only one band. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult (often impossible) to see our own. At the same time, we are also strangely comforted by the universal presence of sin. The comfort we take in knowing that we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is common, then we are normal. If there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.
This downgrading of sin inevitably leads to sentimentality. Sentimentality, in turn, produces superficiality when it comes to our assessment of the problems sin creates and their solutions. In an essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality, and the Arts,” Jeremy Begbie identifies three traits of the sentimentalist. First, the sentimentalist misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil. Evasion makes us selective in our attention. We refuse to focus on those things that are too disturbing to us. Trivialization compels us to put a spin on sin and its consequences. We are willing to acknowledge the presence of evil in our lives but blunt its sharp edge so that it does not make us bleed.
Second, the sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent. For the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. “In other words, the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion,” Begbie explains. It is enough to feel. There is no need to do. The sentimentalist is outraged by particular acts of sin, but that is all. They may even be outraged at themselves but it is all a display. “We like others to realize that we are compassionate, tender, and so forth,” Begbie explains. “And even if others are not around, there can be something deeply gratifying about exercising feelings that most would admire.”
Third, according to Begbie, the sentimentalist fails to take appropriate costly action. Begbie describes several symptoms of this pathology. Sentimentalists resist any challenge to their way of life. They are more moved by the plight of strangers than those close to them. They deal in ethical generalities like love, peace, and justice, but struggle with awkward individuals. They are impatient and lose interest when the cost of dealing with those in pain is long-term or too great. They rely on banalities and clichés. For the sentimentalist to feel is to act. It is not necessary to go any further.
All of these traits seem to me to characterize the conversation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Actually, to call it a conversation is too generous. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not really suited for conversation. They do not lend themselves to reflection or careful deliberation. Social media is a forum for outbursts. They provide a catharsis for the one who posts but I question their power to change anyone’s mind or to move people closer to reconciliation or solution. Those are long term, costly projects, and few on either side of the divide appear to have the patience for them.
It is not silence on social media that makes us complicit in the death of George Floyd but our complacency with sin. The trouble with sin is that it seems so normal. It respects no boundaries either of race or economics. It ravages our lives but remains an abstraction to us until its evil is made concrete to us. We only seem to recognize its true nature when we are on the receiving end of sinful behavior. If George Floyd’s death does anything, perhaps it will at least enable us to imagine what it might have been like to have that knee upon our own neck. What it will not do is let us know when the knee is ours. It will not tell us what to do about it. For that we will need a more potent medicine than the accusation or guilt of social media. For that we will need grace and mercy, combined with a conviction that only comes from God Himself.
I am a sinner. I don’t deny it. But most of the time I don’t think much about it either. I don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about my own sins. I don’t punish myself or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, my sin feels more like a low-grade fever more than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder me from being my best, but it doesn’t keep me from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother me that much either. If anything, the fact that I am a sinner serves as a kind of escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” I want to say. “I am a fallen person living in a fallen world. Of course, I went off the rails.”
The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts that a majority of people agree upon. Most people identify with the label sinner. I think we actually derive a measure of comfort from the assertion. We are strangely comforted by sin’s universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing that we all sin is the kind that a bad student might take from the class curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it. Surely God won’t penalize everybody?
The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but to make a study of their sinfulness. Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics which shaped sinful behavior.
Why do we think so differently? One reason is that we have very different notions about virtue. Most moderns don’t think much about virtue at all. The word seems too out of date. Virtue sounds more like something our Victorian great-grandparents would have been concerned about. The notion of virtue is indeed an ancient one. The Greek philosopher Aristotle saw virtue as the pattern of right behavior that characterized a person. Virtue is a habit of life that moves in the right direction. Vice is the same, only moving in the opposite direction.
But even if the term seems archaic, the idea of virtue is not as old fashioned as we might think. Not if we understand virtue as a preferred pattern of life. We may have dropped the philosophical language as a culture, but we still have strong feelings about the way people should live. Theologian James K. A. Smith captures this when he defines virtue as “an ultimate vision of the good life.”
We may not talk about virtue much, but we believe in it. If you doubt this, spend a few hours reading through the opinions expressed on your favorite social media feed. What is all that outrage about? More often than not, it is about virtue or the failure of virtue. We may not all agree on the standard but our vision of “the good life” is clear enough that we regularly criticize those who don’t measure up to that vision. Contemporary interest in virtue seems to be primarily negative. Our ideas about what is good do not necessarily serve as a basis for self-examination and personal improvement. Often they merely provide the grounds for carping against others we perceive to have fallen short.
Others of us treat sin the same way we do high cholesterol or obesity. We know that if we ignore it, things will go badly for us. But our hope is that if we take certain basic measures, we can keep sin under control. This approach takes two primary forms, one is medical, and the other is athletic. The medical model sees sin as a kind of disease. The athletic model approaches sin like a weakness that can be remedied through discipline. Either view makes sin seem manageable. If sin is a sickness, it can be cured through treatment. If it is a weakness, that weakness can be eliminated with training.
One of the appeals of the medical model of sin is that it alleviates the moral pressure that comes with an awareness of sin. So far, I have had two major illnesses in my life. When I was a child, I contracted polio. As an adult, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer. I felt bad on each occasion, but I did not feel responsible. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I did not think that I was at fault. Even Jesus seemed to give credence to the medical model when, after being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He observed, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). But the Bible also says that sin has a moral quality. Every sin is an act of rebellion. This is because sin’s ultimate reference point is God. As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.” Plantinga defines sin as an act (any thought, desire, emotion, or deed) that displeases God and is worthy of His blame. This is what makes sin different from disease. Sin always comes with guilt, and that guilt is deserved.
The appeal of the athletic model of sin is that it makes me my own savior. If sin is a matter of weakness, then all I need to do to fix the problem is to find the right program or the right guru. I need a spiritual gym and a trainer. With a few disciplines and a little determination, I can lick this sin thing. But if you’ve ever known anybody who has tried this approach, you know that success inevitably gives way to intolerance. The “good” can’t understand why the rest of us can’t seem to “get it together” like them. The rest of us recognize such thinking for the pride that it is. But the virtuous are so fixated on their improvement that they are no longer able to see their sin.
According to Romans 7, sin is more than the absence of positive qualities in our character. It as a living force that resides within us. In that New Testament chapter, the apostle even gives sin’s location. It dwells “in my flesh” (v. 18). Flesh, in this case, is not a physiological term. It is not the skin that covers our bones. Sin is not organic in that sense. Rather, it is organic in an altogether different way. Sin is a force that is integrated into our nature. As New Testament scholar H. C. G. Moule so vividly puts it, “the intruder has occupied the whole dwelling, and every part of it is infected.”
There is no medicine that will cure me of this problem. There is no training program strong enough to counter sin’s own strength. But there is a remedy. It is the remedy that is echoed in the sinner’s prayer in Jesus’ parable: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is not the prayer that is the solution. It is the one to whom the prayer is addressed. God’s mercy, shown to us in Jesus Christ, is the only solution when it comes to sin.
We cannot reason our way out. We cannot work our way out. We can only look to Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus alone is sin’s answer. He is the only antidote to its poison. Sin is far more serious than we could have imagined, and God’s answer to sin is far greater than we know. Indeed, this may be the worst effect of all when it comes to our downgraded view of sin. Because we fail to understand the depth of our sin, we cannot see the magnitude of Christ’s salvation. Jesus was right. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. A sinner like me needs a savior.
In the early days of my walk with Jesus, I did not believe in Hell. Or at least, I did not want to acknowledge the reality of Hell. I had heard about Hell and even prayed a prayer to Jesus to be saved from Hell as a child. But by the time I began to live seriously for Christ in my early 20’s, I had pushed that aspect of the gospel to the margins of my thinking. I was more interested in knowing whether God existed. I was attracted to Jesus because of the message of God’s love. I came to Him for the relationship.
I knew about the cross, of course. I understood that it as the preeminent proof of Christ’s love. I knew that it was the remedy for my sin and I did believe in sin. How could I not? The evidence was right in front of me. Indeed, it was in me. Like the apostle Paul, I was unable to do the good that I wanted to do (Romans 7:19-21). I suppose the experience of my own sinfulness combined with the stark reality of Christ’s death should have made ask whether the cross even made sense if the threat of Hell did not exist. But somehow, I was able to ignore the question.
Except, I kept coming across Hell in the Bible. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Jesus spoke about Hell in the Scriptures in a way that suggested that it was more than a metaphor. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” Jesus says in Luke 12:4-5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has
If I was serious about following Jesus, I couldn’t affirm those aspects of His teaching that I liked and ignore those that made me uncomfortable. I realized that the same was true of the rest of the Bible. If I was going to accept it as God’s truth, I had to accept it all. There was no room to cherry-pick, holding on to the truths I liked and setting aside those I didn’t.
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggested that those who find themselves in Hell choose to be there. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” One of the most insidious effects of sin is that it compels us to flee from the lover of our souls. Without the grace of God bestowed upon us in Christ, we would do so forever.
The cross is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. I was right to see it as evidence of God’s love. But it is also a blunt reminder of the penalty that sin requires. The cross is proof of our need to take sin more seriously than we do. Only a grave condition could warrant such an extreme remedy. The cross is a warning. Jesus’ cry from the cross foreshadows the agony of all who will experience separation from God for eternity because of their sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
It is almost impossible to speak about the reality of Hell without seeming glib. I think this reflects a kind of denial. If it is hard for us to fathom heavenly things, it is even more difficult for us to grasp the danger of Hell. For one thing, we do not want to think about it. It is all too easy to put any thought of it out of our mind. We do not really believe that we deserve it. Most of us harbor a secret hope that in the end, God will change the standard, the way our teachers sometimes did when everyone flunked the exam in school.
The reason so many of us do not believe in hell is that we do not believe in righteousness. Despite all our contemporary talk about “justice,” we have no real conception of justice, at least where God is concerned. We still believe in evil. But only as a hyperbole. Evil is an unrealistic extreme that we see in a handful of others. We do not think of evil in reference to ourselves. Ironically, was true for me, we are happy to claim the cross for our own benefit. But deep inside we can’t help wondering if all the blood and brutality of the thing was really necessary. We chalk it up to the meanness of human beings. Such thinking sentimentalizes the cross, reducing it to a mere symbol. The cross has become a meme for us. We certainly do not see what it has to do with Hell. Or with justice, for that matter.
In the end, the cross and Hell are inevitably related to one another. Hell is the ultimate exercise of divine judgment. Hell is proof that our sin ultimately has reference to God. It is to Him that we must answer. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” David declared after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51:4). Sin is more than selfish petulance. It is more than a moral offense against our neighbor. Whether we are willing to recognize it or not, sin is an offense against God, and He will call everyone to account.
This may be the most disturbing aspect of the cross for those who reject its message. It is a picture of what is owed. The cross is an emblem of God’s love. But it is also the ultimate reminder to any who refuse to accept Christ’s payment, that their debt will one day be called in.