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?
According to Charles Dickens, after being visited by three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. Terrified by the specter of his death, Scrooge made this solemn promise to the ghost of Christmas yet to come: “I will honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year.” At the close of his tale, Dickens says that Ebenezer Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”
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?”
Ken Myers has observed, “The Christian tradition has long placed great value on care about speech.” He notes that the sacred importance of language is signaled by the fact that two of the Ten Commandments are concerned with speech. One of them has to do with the way we speak about God. The other, not surprisingly, deals with the way we speak about others. It seems that the tongue is the primary instrument we use to fulfill the two Great Commandments, to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-38).
We don’t usually think about our words. We open our mouths, and they just seem to come out. When we do give thought to the language we use, it is out of a detached, almost scientific concern. We think of the connection our words have to the concepts we want to express. But the Scriptures (God’s words) warn that the relationship between our speech and ourselves is far more organic. It is also dangerous. The tongue, James warns, is “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). One of the surest ways to discern corruption of the soul is through speech. James echoes the words of Jesus, who warned the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart and defile us (Matt. 15:18). The tongue is both a muscle and an organ. It is not only something we use to express our thoughts. In some measure, the tongue is us, or at least a part of us.
In the same way, Jesus makes it clear that our words are just as intimately connected to our hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Our words serve both as a sign and a diagnosis. The character of our speech is evidence of the state of our hearts. But this connection means that the problem with our discourse is more than a matter of poor word choice. According to Jesus, corrupt speech proceeds from an evil heart. The examples Jesus gives of the nature of evil thoughts that spring from the heart greatly expand the definition of corrupt speech. The Christian tradition has tended to define such language rather narrowly, limiting it to what we used to call swearing. Taking the Lord’s name “in vain,” coarse language, and vulgarity are a form of corrupt speech but the lowest form. Just as lust is the only the first and lowest of the deadly sins, common vulgarity hardly exhausts the full scope of sinful speech. All the categories of evil thought that Jesus mentions and the multitude of sins that he does not ultimately find their expression in the way we speak to one another.
Our most corrupt speech is often the most commonplace, expressing those sins that we have learned to tolerate in ourselves. This is because our thinking about sin tends to be backward. We believe that small infractions are less concerning than large. We think the problem with these “little” sins is that if we let them go unchecked, they will develop into something larger. Anger will accelerate into 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. We usually treat those sins as minor infractions, when in reality they bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. They are not the cause but the symptom. 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).
The same principle is at work in our speech. Corrupted speech includes coarse language, but it also gives evidence of a deeper evil that springs from unchecked desire, selfish-ambition, rage, envy, and pride. The result is a deadly and self-reinforcing ecosystem of corruption as sinful motives infuse our thoughts, which shape our words, which justify and further reinforce our motives. George Orwell described this deadly cycle in his famous essay on politics and the English language when he observes that effects become reinforcing causes that produce the same result and intensify it. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” Orwell observes. “It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
The fact that Orwell identifies this as a trait of political speech is especially significant because it indicates that what is true of the individual is also true of society. How could it be otherwise? Civilization and its institutions are made of and made by its people. If the cells are diseased, so is the body. It cannot be any other way. Speech, by its very nature, is a communal act. It presumes the existence of another. In his book entitled Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power, theologian Josef Pieper notes that human language and human words accomplish a two-fold purpose. “First, words convey reality,” Pieper explains: “We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course–and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.”
Pieper observes that public discourse, when it is separated from the standard of truth, creates an atmosphere where tyranny thrives. The primary abuse of language in such an environment is propaganda. Peiper notes that propaganda does not necessarily come through the official power structure of a dictatorship: “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon.’” Of particular interest is Pieper’s further observation that the threat from such words “can mean many things besides political persecution, especially all forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.” Especially poignant for this particular political moment, is Pieper’s citation of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who: “counted among the forms of ‘modern sophistry’, as he calls it, also the ‘lingo of the revolution’, which, ‘intent on fomenting rebellion through agitation, singles out one isolated instance, and focusing its spotlight on this, makes everyone blind to all the rest’.”
The worry that corruption of speech will lead to cultural corruption is more than the concern of a frustrated grammarian. It is the conviction of philosophers, theologians, and God’s word itself. The problem is not a matter of style but truth. The need for our words to correspond with reality is what lies behind the command not to bear false witness. Regard for truth is the root concern of the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, a prohibition that cautions us not to use God to make cheap promises that we do not intend to fulfill. Truth is also in view in all the Bible’s cautions about the dangers of flattery and slander.
Such concerns are understandable when we consider that speaking is also a divine act, since language originated with God. God spoke the first words ever uttered (Gen. 1:3). By that word, all things are made. This original word shows the power of language not only to describe but to shape reality. The fact that sin also entered the world through speech is proof that words can destroy as well as create. The temptation that drew our first parents down into sin was a distortion of something God has said (Gen. 3:1-5). When they fell, they carried all of creation with them. We have not lost our ability to speak. But that capacity has been sorely damaged by the entrance of sin into human experience. This harsh reality prompts James to lament that “no human being can tame the tongue” and to call it “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
Orwell believed that the degradation of speech could be reversed. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he explains. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” But Orwell is only partly right.
The rudeness and violence we see in contemporary political discourse are, unfortunately, not an anomaly. Uncivil discourse is the norm in both popular and social media. It is as characteristic of the church as it is of the secular culture. Orwell may be right in saying that the way we speak to one another could improve if we gave it more thought and applied ourselves to discipline. The resulting change would be no small improvement and a desperately needed relief. But if what Scripture says about us is true, the difference would only be cosmetic. Our problem is deeper than our choice of words or even our tone. According to Jesus, our inability to engage in civil conversation is evidence of a poisoned heart.
But Dangerous Virtues isn’t just about sin. Those who know Jesus have another power that determines the contour of their lives. This is the transforming work of Christ, which enables us “to become the righteousness of God.” Righteousness is more than a matter of what we do. Ultimately, it is a function of who we are. In the Christian life, being always precedes doing.
Click here to find short videos and discussion guides linked to each of the chapters of the book. Small group leaders can use these free resources to jump start a nine-week study of the nature of sin, righteousness, and the power of the gospel to transform our lives. By considering the alternative to culture’s “dangerous virtues,” you will discover much more than a way of life. Once you see them through the lens of Christ and His saving work, you will discover the way of the living.
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).
I first learned about sex from my father. The lesson came in the form of a brief hallway conversation. I don’t think my age was even in double digits at the time. I don’t recall who initiated the conversation, though I suspect it was in response to a question I had asked. I didn’t understand much of what he said. The whole thing sounded pretty unappealing to me at the time. I was sure I would never want to have sex with anyone. I was wrong, of course.
I didn’t know it then, but the sexual revolution was just getting started. I turned sixteen in 1969, the summer that Woodstock happened. At the time, I was just a kid growing up in the rust belt of the Midwest, too young and too far away to attend the event whose posters promised “three days of peace and music.” It turned out to be three days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. During the summer of love, sex and love were synonymous. The sexual revolution changed not only the shape of sexual morals for a large part of the culture, but also our view of the place of sexual desire in human experience.
But sex isn’t really the problem. The problem is desire and the unrealistic expectations that are born of our desire. The biblical word for this is lust. Sin entered human experience through common desire. Genesis 3:6 says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” The appetites mentioned in this verse are commonplace. The forbidden fruit was “good for food.” In other words, the tree was edible. The tree was also appealing to the eye. The tree appeared to be “desirable for gaining wisdom.”
It’s important to understand that our struggle with lust is much larger than the desire for sex. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated “lust” refers to desire. It can speak of both legitimate and illegitimate desires. In its sinful form, we may fix our desire on many things. It is just as likely to be focused on someone else’s possessions or on their success as it is to be an illicit desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust, everything in the world is a potential target. Lust is such a common feature of our culture that it is hard to find a dimension of our experience that is not somehow shaped by it.
But what is opposite of lust? What is the virtue that answers the sin of lust and is its antidote? If the essence of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Sin-shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is a distortion of love that, once it has achieved its full effect, actually proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. Sin is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. For some reason, we return again and again to this false lover and expect a different result.
The answer to sinful lust is love—God’s love, which comes to us from the outside, like the righteousness of Christ. Adopting the language that Martin Luther used to speak of Christ’s righteousness, we might call it “alien love” because it does not originate with us. It is a love that begins with God and can come to us only as a gift. For the Christian, this greater love is the organizing force for all our other desires. In this regard, love is not so much an emotion as it is disposition. We might call it a divinely empowered direction for our lives.
Our natural love is limited. The impediment of sin skews our interests in the direction of self. Jesus implies this in the second of the two great commandments, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, see also Lev. 19:18, 34). We are by nature self-protective and self-interested. We are able, even in our natural state, to show some concern for others. We may enquire about the health of others when they are sick, or express sympathy when they are grieving. We might even sacrifice ourselves for someone if we feel the cause is good enough (Rom. 5:7). But the ability to love others to the same degree that we love ourselves is not natural. Our default orientation is skewed toward our desires. We will easily sacrifice the desires of others on the altar of our self-interest unless something more powerful moves those interests in a different direction.
What is true of lust is true of all the capital sins. Change may require discipline, but it does not begin with discipline. What is required is a miracle of grace. Redirection is necessary if we are to love others in the way that Jesus describes, but there is only one force powerful enough to turn the tide of our desire so that we are as interested in others as we are in ourselves. It is the power of God effected by His love for us. That is why the love that Jesus describes begins not with us but with God. We love others because we love God (1 John 4:21). We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:10–11, 19).
This may sound too mystical to be practical. Do we merely wait until some divine energy strikes us from the outside and makes us care about those for whom we previously gave no thought? God is indeed the source of this love, but it does not operate in some hidden mystical zone. The opportunities to show it and the forms that this love takes are ordinary.
With this in mind, the basic rule that Jesus lays when it comes to practicing love is simple to understand: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). We do not dismiss our desires but allow them to be our guide by providing a mirror image. What would we want for ourselves, if the circumstances were reversed? Nothing could be simpler. It is the execution that poses the problem for us. We can see it easily enough but we often do not want to live by this rule. The corruption of our sinful nature further complicates matters. Often what we desire from others reflects our sinful self-centeredness, making it an untrustworthy guide for our own behavior. An honest evaluation of Jesus’ rule soon reveals that to follow it, we must say no to our desires. We do not need to deny that these desires exist. They are what they are, and Christ already knows that they exist. But we must often deny ourselves. Our mistake has been to believe the lie that we cannot live without the things we desire. This was the original lie that was sold to Eve by Satan. It is the lie that comes with every sinful lust that arises in our hearts.
The ultimate answer to the false virtue of lust is not better intentions or even willpower. The ultimate remedy is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only by the cross that we can say no to our sinful desires. This ability is a gift of grace as much as forgiveness. It is the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). The denial is ours, but the power is God’s. This capacity to say no to ungodliness is natural only in the sense that it comes from our new nature in Christ: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The Christian does not lose the capacity to lust. Instead, believers gain the ability to deny their sinful desires.
What does this mean for our struggle with desire? First, it means that we should not be surprised to find that it is a struggle. The stirring of sinful desire does not mean that the gospel has failed. Second, the general tone of the New Testament when it speaks of sinful desire is one of hope rather than despair. The stirring of sinful desires is not necessarily the evidence of a spiritual defeat but may be just the opposite. We should treat these stirrings as the death throes of the old nature as it rails against the Spirit.
Finally, we should not be so afraid to see our desires go unfulfilled. Countless hours of exposure to marketing has trained us to think that we should have everything we desire. Contemporary teaching about sex implies that we cannot be humans without fulfilling our sexual desires. The truth lies in the opposite direction. Our worst fate may not be that our desires will go unfulfilled but that they will be met. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea,” C. S. Lewis explains. “We are far too easily pleased.” This is the problem with human desire. Not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little.
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 inMere 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
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
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.