Amazing Sin, How Deep We're Bound
I have often heard Christians speak of John Newton's powerful story: how he was once a slave trader who was gripped by God's love in the midst of a tumultuous storm on the high seas. We hear the story and assume that Newton turned immediately from his sin after that awful storm in 1748, and then sat down to write, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."
His blind eyes may have been opened on that dismal night, but not wide enough. Upon his return to Liverpool, Newton promptly signed on as mate of another ship and sailed to Africa, where the Christian traveled from village to village buying human beings and returning them as cargo. He then sailed across the Atlantic, studying a Latin Bible in his quarters as 200 slaves lay in the hull, shackled two by two, squeezed into shelves like secondhand books. As many as a third died during the long voyage across the ocean, and many more suffered serious illnesses. When the ship arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, Newton delivered these men, women, and children into a life of toil and oppression while he sat in church services and took leisurely strolls through fields and woods outside Charleston.
It is not as difficult to see the mess in others' lives as it is to see the mess in our own. For years, Newton had no notion that slavery was evil—few Christians of his day did. That makes me wonder how blind I am to the cultural deceptions of our times. What hidden sins skulk in my soul? And if I am without the awareness or language to name them, how can I change?
An Absurd Mess
Part of our mess is not knowing we are a mess. Most of us in contemporary life have never participated in the evil of slavery, never been convicted of a felony, never abused a child. Sometimes we don't feel a pressing need for grace because we do not see our sin as particularly troublesome. Both social science and theology help explain why this is so.
A robust finding from social science research is that most people think they are better than others—more ethical, considerate, industrious, cooperative, fair, and loyal. People think they obey the Ten Commandments more consistently than others. One polling expert noted, "It's the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person." Sixteen centuries earlier Augustine bemoaned: "[My] sin was all the more incurable because I did not judge myself to be a sinner."
Theologians discuss the noetic effects of sin, meaning that our intellect is dulled—our eyes closed—as a result of living in a fallen state. In the narrow sense, it means we cannot reason well enough to see our need for salvation unless God, in grace, first reaches out to us. In a broader sense, it means our awareness of sin is dulled in various ways by pride.
Karl Barth, the 20th-century Swiss theologian, shows the absurdity of this sin. Our pride demonstrates how much we want to be like God. Meanwhile, God—the eternal and majestic Creator, filled with all power, knowledge, and goodness—empties himself in the form of Jesus, even to the point of a violent and horrific death on trumped-up charges. Humans are puffed up in pride as God is emptied in humility. It is absurd.
But it is nonetheless real. While pride blinds us spiritually, our defense mechanisms—the psychological armor we use to protect ourselves from seeing the truth about ourselves—keep us in the dark, and for good reason. If we live in a world without grace, then our defense mechanisms are the only things keeping us from the precipice of despair.