Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Secular Lent"

I find it interesting that many who say they don’t believe in God and that Christianity is a fraud will make New Year’s Resolutions in 2008. “What do the two have to do with each other?” you ask. Plenty. New Year’s Resolutions typically have to do either with starting or stopping some behavior that will, if carried out and carried through, make me a better person. It usually lasts only about a month or so and then the whole enterprise is abandoned. I guess you could call it a “secular Lent.” Matter of fact, that’s exactly what I call it. At bottom, both these practices – one secular, one sacred – have to do with what Christians call “sin.” Sin can take two forms: commission (doing something we would to God we hadn’t) and omission (failing to do something we would to God we had). New Year’s Resolutions attempt to address the same reality – human imperfection (which, note well, is not denied), only without introducing God into the issue.

But, of course, without God, the whole idea of “sin” is nonsense. You can talk about an “oops” or an “uh oh,” or, if you have a more philosophical or psychological bent, a “universal human glitch,” but you cannot talk about “sin.” Sin implies that Someone’s or Something’s standard, norm, template of what it means to be appropriately “human” has been violated. But if you’ve jettisoned the whole idea of God, then this is pure nonsense. As Ivan Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s nihilistic antagonist in The Brother’s Karamazov, says, “If there is no God, then anything is permissible.”

Sin is not some universal human glitch; it is willful, stubborn, purposeful rebellion by the creature against the Creator’s purpose. Remember what David said following his adultery with Bathsheba? “Against Thee and Thee alone have I sinned and done what is evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4). All sin is finally sin against God because it is rebellion against God’s purpose for us as human beings. Incidentally, that’s why the Bible is far more interested in “sin” than in particular “sins,” the latter being only a symptom of the former.

For the Christian, the worst thing about stealing is not getting caught. The worst thing about stealing is that stealing makes you a thief, and God didn’t create you to be a thief; He created you to be a person made in His image. If you steal, even if you don’t get caught, you’ve still violated God’s purpose for you and missed your chance to be the “you” God had in mind when He “thought you up” in the first place.

That’s why dealing with sin always involves repentance and redemption. It’s not just tinkering about with this “glitch” or that one; it’s laying down our arms, surrendering, quitting the rebellion, and coming back home – to God and to our true selves.

And that’s why we need God’s help to do it. If it were merely a matter of just making a resolution and trying harder and doing better, Weight Watchers would be out of business in 2008!


Idell said...

Well, once again I can’t resist commenting. Although I don’t claim to be good at them, theological conversations are great fun, and talking about God sure beats talking about the weather!

You wrote:

“All sin is finally sin against God because it is rebellion against God’s purpose for us as human beings. Incidentally, that’s why the Bible is far more interested in “sin” than in particular “sins,” the latter being only a symptom of the former.”

Sin seems so ingrained in our daily lives that the act of sinning often feels more like taking the easy option than open rebellion. In fact, I’ve often wondered if God could possibly care about all of our little sins when there are much larger problems in the world. But if “sins” are symptoms of the “sin” about which you write, I can see why continuing to struggle against them is important. If we reclassify our sins as merely bad habits, or worse, decide that they aren’t sins after all, then we’ve begun to give up the struggle against “sin,” and therein have strayed from our journey back to God.

Another thought:
“All sin is finally sin against God….” Absolutely. But can it not also be argued, by extension, that all sin is sin again His Church. If being a Christian means that we are living members of the Body of Christ—not severed fingers or toes—then how can one member of the body sin without the whole body suffering? Likewise, how can one member of the body offer his or her fervent prayers without the whole body being strengthened? I think this is what the traditions that offer priestly absolutions of sin are getting at.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

It's a joy to think deeply about something important with a serious and disciplined mind. Thanks!

Your observations about "sins" versus "sin" certainly seem on target to me! I would only add that part of the reason we like to focus on "sins" rather than "sin" is that it enables us to compare ourselves with each other rather than with God's ultimate purpose for our lives. And so we come up with our own carefully selected "hierarchy of sins" – "I may be a liar, but at least I'm not a thief...or a (fill in the blank)" and all that nonsense, as though God grades on the curve. Someone can always argue that "no matter what I've done or how bad I am, at least I'm not as bad as Stacy!" and they would have a point. But at the altar of God where the light is brighter and harsher and far more revealing, all that kind of "comparative morality" vanishes and we see ourselves for what we really are. And so the prophet says, "All we like sheep have gone astray and have turned from the way. There is none righteous, no, not even one!" That's why I say the problem is "sin" not just particular, carefully chosen, comparatively evaluated "sins."

Your observation about the corporate character of the Church as the Body of Christ is also on target, it seems to me. We only seem to be "individuals" because we're stuck in time and space and cannot see the whole of reality with all its infinitely integrated complexity (though, as you know, some of the new "theories of everything" like the "String Theory" for the first time have given us a theoretical framework for thinking about a fully integrated universe). If we could see ourselves as God sees us, C. S. Lewis says, we would look more like a large, complex tree than "individuals." Therefore, nothing - good or bad - is purely just "my own personal business." Or as the devotional poet John Donne put it: "No man is an island unto himself."

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Stacy,

It was good to hear from you. I have enjoyed reading your posts here. I have a blog on the Biblical Recorder site:

I pretty much just post what's on my mind, be it controversial or a simple newsletter article from my own newsletter.

Glad you're doing well. Does Liberty Online offer Doctorates? I have begun the process of thinking about possibly maybe going for mine.