(Painting: "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things," by Hieronymus Bosch, early 16th cent., oil on panel)
79.) The Effects of Sin on the Christian Life - Part of our call as individual Christians is to grow more fully into the roles and realities mentioned above (see Thesis #78). We must strive to work sin out of our lives, as much as possible, by the patient road of self-discipline and of opening ourselves up to the work of God in our lives. Sin can never present to us the danger of an “un-becoming,” of damnation, because we have already entered into the new humanity, and the strongest sense one gets from Scriptural references to the subject is that this is a change which cannot be reversed. It is not like putting on a jacket, which can later be taken off again, it is rather more like evolving into a whole new kind of being; and evolution does not work in reverse. What we can do by sin, however, is to stall our progress toward our intended goal, to give up on the pursuit of our intended goal and thus, in a sense, to lose an integral part of our identity as developmental beings. The problems of sin—death and domination by Satan—have already been dealt with by Christ. For those who have chosen to enter into the new humanity, even the problem of our corrupted nature has been dealt with. However, we still have freedom of choice, and if we choose to stall our own progress, we can do so.
80.) The Meaning of Sin in the Christian Life - Christian experience in the Western tradition has become myopically sin-oriented, to the point where being a Christian, for many people, entails having a continual guilt complex. According to my view of Kingdom-theology, however, Christianity is not really about sin at all. Sin was a part of our story—a necessary part—and it still is; but our story is much more about the love of God than it is about sin. God’s love is clearly seen for us in the way that he has sought us out and redeemed us even in our sins, but that is only the first step of a much greater journey. With our Anselmian view of sin as legal crime against God, we are constantly engaging in spiritual self-flagellation and, for some Christians, in worrying about our individual salvation. We need a broader perspective on sin that keeps in mind two things (along with, of course, the realization that indeed we ought to be striving to turn our surface-level, habitual “no” to God into line with the much deeper, heartfelt “yes” that allowed us to enter the new creation): first, that Christianity is not so much about me as an individual as it is about the whole community of God—a vibrant, beautiful reality which continues to expand and to mirror in great clarity the triumph of Christ, a reality of which I am a part. The Western “introspective conscience” was rather a late development in Christian tradition, and only recently has been even more amped up because of the philosophical individualism that has taken hold since the Enlightenment. It is much more consonant with the spirit of Christianity to think about my life as part of the church, rather than as an individual who stands alone before God to be either saved or damned. Second, we must remember that sin is the "natural" state of humanity (our free-willed choice to follow our creaturely programming and its priorities rather than responding with a Yes to God’s call for us to grow into something greater), and that, since we live in the already-but-not-yet, though our sins will disappoint us and we ought to work patiently toward our own reformation with the help of the Holy Spirit, it does us no good to dwell on them, nor to let those sins define our identity. Much of what we call “sin” is simply natural behavior, in the sense that it is the pattern of all creation—self-serving action aimed at our own pleasure or preservation. But God calls us to something higher, something beyond our mere genetic programming—something that, in relationship with him, we are capable of growing toward. But here and now, while we live in the time before the restoration of all things, it does us no good to be surprised or shocked that those around us—and we ourselves—are selfish, lustful, wrathful, greedy, and gluttonous. Is God disappointed, frustrated with such things in us? I rather suspect not, since it would seem irrational for God to expect something different from us than what we are actually capable of being here and now. He longs to draw us further up, to move us away from selfishness and toward love, but all of us will stumble in that journey simply because of our own natures. Those things are obstacles to our ultimate goal in union with God, but they are no reason for God to be angry with us. In the same way, my toddler boys are impolite, messy, and have very little emotional restraint. Am I angry with them that they are this way? Only in occasionally stressful situations; but that’s because of my own selfish limitations. In general, I know that they are these things simply by nature of being toddler boys. I want to help them grow to something higher, something of which, with my help, they are capable of becoming. But it will not come without many stumbles along the way and a long, hard road of practice for them; and even then, as adults, they will have learned selflessness only imperfectly. Yet I do not hold it against them; I do not hold wrathful judgments over their head for being what they are; rather, in love and patient discipline, I walk with them toward something higher, and I love them even on the days when they don’t want to be polite and clean and patient. Rather than assuming that I am more moral than God, I would suggest that perhaps God treats sin in just this way (indeed, with an even richer love than I could ever have for my boys). He knows we are sinners, but he calls us to be something more. When we fall down, or when we throw ourselves back into our sins with gusto (like a toddler throwing a tantrum), he brings to bear his patient discipline and his unending love, and picks us up again. Let us answer his love with the firm intention to grow out of our sin, toward deeper love, but let us not, in our own desire to move past sin, think of ourselves as anything less than eternally beloved of God and part of his brilliant, beautiful, unending Kingdom of light.