Words in the Christian Vocabulary: Sin (3)
Some people enjoy restoring antique automobiles.
Some people enjoy driving them. Most
of us enjoy watching others drive the antique automobiles which they have
restored. We smile when we see an
antique car chugging along in the village parade.
But none of us would want to contend with rush hour traffic or a highway
trip in an antique car.
this is what the church persists in doing, many people tell us, whenever the
church speaks of sin. Surely the
notion has been antiquated, we are told. Surely
it belongs to the era of the Model “T” Ford.
Let’s be honest: outside the community of faith the notion of sin, the
word “sin”: these are out of
fashion. How did it all come to be
one, thanks to some zealous but uninformed Christians sin came to be associated
with innocent pastimes, like card playing or dancing or theatregoing.
To speak of such matters as sin is ridiculous.
another, sin became associated with lurid immorality, with a degradation
(admittedly) that was also secretly coated with juicy, lurid lewdness.
Since very few people are luridly immoral, and since no one will admit to
finding it juicy, few people today understand sin as pertaining to them at all.
sin was rendered unfashionable by the self-confident secularism of our society.
Years ago a European who thought autosuggestion to be the key to
self-improvement urged people to say repeatedly, “Every day in ever way I am
becoming better and better.” We
smile at the naiveness, even the arrogance.
Yet we smile too soon, for any society that worships the myth of progress
(and the myth of progress is the mirage that North Americans chase) most
certainly believes that it is getting better and better.
We shall progress, we are told, only as we jettison such antiquated
encumbrances as sin.
the church, in her singing, preaching and praying continues to use the word.
Profounder people among us won’t let it drop.
Karl Menninger, internationally known psychiatrist and founder of the
Menninger Clinic in
the community of faith isn’t going to drop the word, we should be sure we know
what it means. Sin, at bottom, is as
simple as it is dreadful: sin is simply telling God to “buzz off.”
The telling may be explicit and conscious.
More often, in fact nearly always, it is implicit and disguised because
unconscious. It makes no difference.
God is told to get lost. He
claims us for himself. We say,
“Leave me alone.” He insists
that he wants only our blessing, and the obedience he wants from us will prove
to be our blessing. We reply,
“Everywhere else in life obedience is something we have to render a boss we
can’t stand. Why should we think
you are different?” He grounds his
claim upon us in his love for us. We
say, “I didn’t ask for your love. Furthermore,
I resent your love; it’s an intrusion; I want my life to be mine.”
The root Sin (and the fountain
of all concrete sins)
is a self-important, proud posture of defiance, of rejection, of disdain and
disobedience. The posture pretends
to be a sophisticated looking past God born of a sufficiency without God.
Our sufficiency, however, is only a ridiculous figment of our
imagination, and our innocent sophistication in fact culpable contempt.
read children’s stories where someone highborn, aristocratic, sets out on a
walk. He steps around peasants and
paupers, disdaining them. From his
position of aristocratic aloofness he never really sees them, never takes note
of them, never engages them, so far beneath him he does he find them to be.
As the children’s story unfolds one of the peasants or paupers was in
fact a prince or a princess. The
aristocrat’s proud aloofness, his groundless superiority, has caused him to
forfeit something precious. Men and
women strut like aristocrats disdaining the God who in his Son is lowly and
humble, the God whose condescension to us for our blessing we regard as weakness
In our posture of proud aloofness we do not apprehend the God whose
coming among us at Christmas and
are the consequences of this posture? The
first consequence, obviously, is estrangement from him. God isn’t indifferent
to our postured superiority. He
reacts. He thrusts us away from him.
He won’t allow us to denounce him, defy him, and at the same time
remain on casual terms with him. On
account of his judicial reaction to our disobedience an abyss opens between God
and us. The one who is eternally
Father now looks upon alienated sons and daughters.
The rightful ruler sends away rebellious subjects.
Created to be God’s covenant-partners and co-workers, we relentlessly
conspire against God and his truth. We
sabotage God’s work. We deafen
ourselves to God’s word. We trade
on God’s kindness – or think we can.
second consequence is estrangement from our fellows, those who were given us to
be our brothers and sisters. When I
was very young and warring with my two sisters my mother would say in
exasperation and bewilderment, “Why can’t you just get along?”
Why couldn’t we? Why
can’t people throughout the world, in any era or culture, “just get
along”? A Samaritan woman says to
Jesus, “You are a Jew. I am a
Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews: we
get along like cobra and mongoose.” The
first question in scripture is addressed to Adam and Eve, every man and every
woman, after they have alienated themselves from God: “Where are you?” God
says. The second question in
scripture is addressed to Cain after he has murdered his alienated brother:
“Where is your brother?” That’s
a question God is forever asking all humankind all the time: “Where’s your
brother? Where’s your sister?”
An abyss has opened up between those given us to be brothers and sisters
with the result that we are all hauntingly estranged from each other.
the sociologists could eliminate the social conditions that are the occasion of
human conflict (I said “occasion” not “cause”) would we then be living
in a utopia? Tell me: if the Garden
of Eden were reconstructed and repopulated would we all then be living in Lotus
Land – or would we wreck the garden (again)?
There can be no utopia just because improving our social environment may
change the expression our sin takes but it won’t change us profoundly; it may
change the manifestation of our sin but won’t eliminate sin itself.
For the cause of humankind’s wrecking itself is that profoundest inner
disorder rooted in our defiance and disobedience concerning God.
third consequence of God’s judicial reaction to our root sin is alienation
from ourselves. An abyss opens up,
somehow, between me and myself. You
see, God can always be refused. Still,
our persistent refusing him doesn’t change the fact that he has made us for
himself and therefore we are going to be most authentically human, most
authentically our “self” only in him. To
refuse him is always somehow to refuse ourselves.
To be estranged from him is to be estranged from ourselves.
To think we can get rid of him but continue to possess our “self” by
means of our “self” – this is folly twice over.
The self we’ve lost can’t be the means to possessing a self we are
trying to find. It’s no wonder we
are chronically discontent, dis-eased, ill-at-ease, self-alienated.
It’s no wonder we keep asking “What’s wrong with me?” when in
fact everyone is suffering from the same ailment for the same reason.
It’s no wonder we keep trying to anaesthetize ourselves with adult toys
and trinkets and playthings. Yet
every so often the anaesthetic breaks down and we are startled to find “it’s
still there” – the haunting, non-specific but undeniable apprehension that
there’s something of the innermost “me” that I’m missing yet can’t
you think this sermon is a “downer?” Have
the last ten minutes been pessimistic and therefore depressing?
Then what I’m going to say next should send you home rejoicing:
“Today’s sermon is the most optimistic I have ever preached.”
Why? Because the most
optimistic thing to be said of any of us is that we are sinners.
we don’t say that we are sinners then what expression are we going to use to
describe, ultimately explain, the outer and inner wreckage we can’t deny?
Are we going to say that humankind is sick?
But “sick” has dubious connotations today, and they aren’t going to
help us at all. Besides, if
humankind as a whole is sick, then are there some among us who are considerably
less sick than the rest and can therefore “cure” everyone else?
The history of the world tells us that whenever a group in any society
thinks it can “cure” everyone else it behaves with conscienceless savagery.
On the other hand, if we say that there’s no
privileged group in the society that can cure the rest of us, then there’s
no physician adequate to our disease; there’s no physician with curative
powers equal to the disease.
this point someone will want to say that the problem lies with the word
“sick” as a diagnostic tool. Instead
of regarding humankind as sick we should regard ourselves as socially
maladjusted. To speak of
ourselves as socially maladjusted, however, is to invite social engineering.
The last ninety years, from the October revolution in
examine this assertion more closely. When
we say that humankind is a sinner we aren’t using “is” in the same way as
when we say a horse is four-legged. When
we say that a horse is four-legged we mean that a horse is supposed to be
four-legged, has to be four-legged. It
was never meant to be anything else and is never going to be anything else.
But when we say that we are sinners we are saying just the opposite: we
are sinners but we aren’t supposed to be.
We are sinners but we were never meant to be.
We are sinners now but by God’s grace we shan’t be.
say that we are sinners now is to say that we have falsified ourselves somehow,
but by God’s grace we can recover our true identity.
We can recover what we were made to be.
Our capsized situation can be turned right side up.
Most gloriously, it can all begin now.
you understand why it is optimistic to speak of humankind as sinner but
pessimistic, hopeless and dangerous to speak of humankind as sick or socially
maladjusted. Under God we can begin
our journey toward the destination to which we’ve been appointed – which is
nothing less than the overcoming of alienation everywhere in life:
reconciliation with God, with our fellows, with our innermost, profoundest
times today we have used the word “alienation” to describe the threefold
consequences of our root rejection of God. Think
for a minute of what it is to be an alien. An
alien is someone living precariously in a country to which he doesn’t belong,
living precariously in a country of which he isn’t a citizen.
Since he isn’t a citizen he lacks the rights and protection of citizen;
he can be deported at any time. To
be a citizen, on the other hand, is to belong, to have one’s life unfold in
the security that one isn’t going to be deported.
To be reconciled to God, and thereafter to fellows and self, is to know
that we belong. It’s to know that
life “fits.” The most optimistic
diagnosis is that we are sinners, aliens, for only as the diagnosis is owned are
we going to ask, “How do I become a citizen?”
do we become citizens of the
return to the optimism of the diagnosis. Optimism,
if it is to be genuine optimism and not mere wishful thinking, has to be
grounded in realism. The realism of
the human predicament is that we are sinners before God. The optimism of the
human predicament is that we have been appointed to embrace our Lord who is also
Saviour just because the forgiveness he pronounces he also effects.
As we are forgiven and know ourselves forgiven, our reconciliation with
God begins to effect reconciliation everywhere in life.
of the Samaritan woman in John 4. As
a Samaritan she’s alienated from Jesus, a Jew: ethnic alienation, virulent
today. As a woman she’s alienated
from him because he’s a man: gender alienation, virulent today.
As a five-time married woman who is currently shacked up (what’s the
point of getting married a sixth time?) she’s alienated from Jesus because
he’s sinless: moral alienation, virulent today.
Because of her reputation she’s alienated from her townspeople
(that’s why she’s at the well by herself at high noon when everyone else
indoors seeking shelter from the heat): social alienation, virulent today.
Jesus presses upon her the living water, the profoundest thirst-quenching
water, that he himself is. In that
moment, without ever having heard of the apostle Paul (who isn’t even an
apostle yet), she understands what Paul means when he comes to say that
forgiveness is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
The church is entrusted with the message of
forgiveness, just because the church, the Christian community, consists of those
who have tasted forgiveness themselves. We
know what it is to have been an alien and what it is now to be a citizen of the