Sin audio (3MB)
Sin isn’t the most popular term in our world today is it, though comedians occasionally use it as a means of getting a laugh. Yet it’s central to a reformed understanding of the human condition. But it sounds so harsh to say that I’m somehow warped in my humanity; that everything I do is tainted by sin. I do lots of good things. I’m basically a very nice person. Yet that’s what the Bible tells me. So is this a good or a bad doctrine? Is it a doctrine that makes you depressed or that gives you hope? Well, let me suggest that in fact it’s a doctrine that should give us hope.
But before we think about how it might give us hope I want you to think about the way you see people behave.
What sorts of reactions do you see from people who do the wrong thing? Don’t we see people trying to explain away their failures, or justify the evil within them. Sometimes it’s the fault of their upbringing, sometimes it’s some trauma they’ve gone through, some will say what they did was out of character with who they really are, some even blame their doctor for prescribing the wrong drugs.
And even when we’re willing to admit that we have problems we’re often told you mustn’t get depressed about it, you need to build up your self esteem. But is that the case? Or do we actually need to develop a healthily low self esteem.
They say the key to mental health is self awareness, self-understanding. People spend fortunes talking to therapists so they can get to understand themselves. And it’s not only mental health. The key to healthy relationships is also self awareness. You see, if we understand ourselves as flawed human beings, i.e. sinners, it’ll help us forgive others, treat others with patience and understanding and ask forgiveness of others. If we’re willing to admit that we have failings then it’ll make it easier to accept everyone else who we’ve always known have failings. So the Christian doctrine of sin can be a great source of hope.
What is sin?
Sin is essentially wanting to replace God with something else. Soren Kierkegaard defined sin as not wanting to be oneself before God. That is, it’s wanting to have an identity apart from God. It works itself out in us trying to fill the God-shaped hole within us with anything we can find that might divert us from the real issue.
So it’s not about breaking the rules. It’s about a broken relationship with God that results in all other relationships breaking down.
Ernest Becker in a book called “The Denial of Death” says that a child’s need for self-worth “is the condition for his life” - so every person is desperately seeking “cosmic significance”. He says our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially deify. i.e. we treat it with all the passion and intensity of worship and devotion. And that even applies to those people who think of themselves as non-religious. This explains, for example, why engaged couples tend to idealise their partner. I find one of the greatest hurdles in marriage preparation is to convince the couple that their partner is not the ideal person they think they are; to explain to them that they’re basically incompatible. They’re not going to fulfill their life by becoming totally absorbed into this other ideal person. It might sound harsh to say it like that but unless they can get over it their marriage will be a difficult road to travel.
Another way to say this is that unless they can find their identity in something more ideal than their marriage partner they’ll end up lost and badly disillusioned. If your partner is your “All” then any shortcoming you may discover about them will be a major threat to your own sense of self.
Why do we have this need for a sense of self-worth? Because we’ve lost our connection with the only one who can truly give it to us. As much as we try to achieve it by working hard, or building our social status, or climbing the career ladder, or marrying the right person, or living in the right suburb, sending our kids to the right school, building up our power base, taking control of our life and even those around us, whatever the path we choose, we’ll fail, because we’re looking in the wrong places.
The Consequences of Sin
When we seek to create a personal identity without God it leads to all sorts of consequences. The first is that whatever it is we base our self-worth on is likely to let us down.
I heard a woman from Kevin Rudd’s electorate on the radio the day he was replaced as Prime Minister. She said “I’m traumatised by the decision”. I thought what an interesting word to use - ‘traumatised!’ But of course if you’re deriving your identity from living in Rudd’s Electorate, or perhaps being part of his party base then you would be traumatised wouldn’t you?
If I derive my identity from being a parent it’ll be fine as long as my child performs well. But what if they fail? What if they do something I’m ashamed of? What happens to “me” then? Will there be any “me” left?
If I derive my identity from being an Anglican minister and my success as a minister becomes central to who I am, what happens if my congregation doesn’t grow? I become the victim of neurotic guilt don’t I? I might even become bitter because circumstances have stopped me being the person I think I am.
St Augustine once said “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” When we try to find our rest, our identity, in something other than God we quickly find our selves “out of joint.” The things we look to end up enslaving us. We become addicted to whatever it is that gives us self-worth. You may have seen this in your own behaviour. It may be a desire for order, it may be a tendency to be a workaholic, it might be perfectionism, it might be a refusal to do what anyone else tells you. Whatever it is, it has the potential to take over, to rule your life. And if something goes wrong it’ll lead you to despair and disillusionment. Unless your life is centred on God, unless he is the source of your self worth, you’ll end up with a life of emptiness.
One of the interesting outcomes of the last century was the sense of disillusionment of so many people at the failure of science and education to change the behaviour of society. The 20th century was meant to be the century of enlightenment, of scientific advance. We cured countless diseases, we landed men on the moon, we invented global mass communication systems, yet the human condition is as bad if not worse than it’s ever been. Weapons of mass destruction have allowed governments to wipe out entire populations and terrorist groups to wreak havoc in previously safe countries. The greed and selfishness of people in the ‘enlightened’ west seems to have grown exponentially. A sense of duty and responsibility to others is a rare commodity.
But why are people surprised at all this? Because they have an idealised view of human nature. They’ve abandoned the Christian understanding of the sinfulness of humanity and think that all that’s needed is better education or better mental health care.
We shouldn’t be surprised though, should we? Christians understand that we humans have this duality about us. We’re made in the image of God. We have a fundamental connectedness with God in our inmost being. Yet we’re also broken, damaged people, who have lost the connection with God that we had at first. And it’s that loss of connection with God that leads to the social ills we’ve talked about. You see, if our family is the most important thing in our life, as many today would say, then we’ll care less for other families. If we love our nation or our racial group above all others, then we’ll tend to be nationalistic, or racist. If our ultimate goal in life is our own happiness then we’ll happily step over others to achieve it. Even if it’s our religion that gives us our identity we’ll be in danger of looking down on anyone whose religion is other than ours.
The problem is that whenever we find our identity in some object it leads to exclusion. E.g. everyone knows there are two types Aussie men: those who love Holdens and those who love Fords. There were once a minority who loved Valiants but they’ve mostly rusted away by now.
No, only if God is my centre and ultimate good will I have the balance necessary to love all people the way God first loved me.
There seems to be a sense of dismay, even helplessness in our world today as we face the prospect of global warming with its increased occurrences of floods, droughts, violent storms. We can’t believe that the danger is being ignored by our political leaders. We know that even if they were to act now it may be too late. And we wonder how we’ve come to this pass. Well, our first reading today tells us doesn’t it? The breakdown in our relationship with God has had cosmic consequences. The world of Gen 1 & 2, as idyllic as it was, has been ruined. Weeds and pain and sorrow are now the norm. Disease, famine, ageing and death are the givens of human life.
Paul tells us that the whole creation is in bondage to decay, subject to futility, groaning as in the pains of childbirth as it waits for things to be put right.
So how are we going to put it right? Clearly we’re at a loss to know where to even start, but God shows us the way. If our problem is that we’ve placed other things in the place of God then God says “give me all that you are.” He doesn’t want us to make him our top priority. He wants everything that we are, everything that we have. He doesn’t want us to just tithe our time to him. He wants all of it; all of our energy; all of our leisure time; all of our gifts and talents.
This is the hard part of becoming a Christian. God asks us to hand over our whole life to his control. But having said that, is that any harder than living a life where we try over and over again to fill a void with things and activities and friendships and jobs that in the end universally let us down? Of course it isn’t!
What will happen to us if we hand over everything to God? This is what will happen: God will take us and restore our relationship with him to what he intended it to be in the first place. The moment we give our life to him we’ll be able to acknowledge that we’re failed human beings who need his forgiveness - and he’ll give it to us. Our despair at our failings will suddenly be eased. When we find again that we’ve failed to do right we’ll be able to go to him again for forgiveness and he’ll give it to us, again and again and again. We’ll acknowledge the guilt we feel, that in fact everyone feels, and God will heal it, take it away from us. And finally he’ll work the greatest miracle we could possibly hope for. He’ll put his own Spirit within us to enable us truly to find in him our centre and our identity. But more of that in a few weeks time.
Is the doctrine of universal sinfulness something to depress us or to give us hope? I hope you can see that it’s actually a doctrine full of hope because it provides the clearest diagnosis of our situation and leads us to look to God as the only solution to the dilemma of our fallen humanity.