All day long, and all the days of our life, we are sliding, slipping, falling away—as if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting.

—C. S. Lewis

I ain’t got to, but I can’t help it.

—William Faulkner

Sin. The very word has a slithery, reptilian sound to it. For me, the word summons up overtones from the past, when heavy-breathing Southern revivalists would stretch it out in full two-syllable fury. “Siiiiii-yun,” they would shout, and raise their fists in defiance against the Satanic force that lay in wait for each of us, that lay in wait inside us.

I trembled as a child when I heard about sin and the horrors of its punishment. Subconsciously, my images of God were forming as I listened to those revivalists. God was no Father to me, for I had no image of father to draw on—mine died of polio just after my first birthday.

So God was more like the authority figures I knew, especially the tanklike German matron who inspired fear in the hearts of any first-grader daring to whisper or throw spitballs in her domain. Only, God was far larger and stricter, the strictest teacher imaginable.

Martin Luther grew up haunted by a stained-glass window from his boyhood church, a window depicting Christ as a stern king with a raised sword. The sword appeared to Luther exactly like a rod. To my child’s mind also, God loomed as the great Enforcer who brought swift and terrible punishment to all who misbehaved. And it did not help that church members told me my earthly father, now in heaven, was looking down on me to help spy out my hidden sins.

Now, looking back, my early, oppressive encounters with the word sin almost seem to belong to someone who lived on another planet. I rarely come across the word these days in Christian books or magazines, rarely hear it railed against from the pulpit, never hear it on network television. Fear of sin, the dominant force of my childhood, and that of many others, has nearly disappeared from view.

Ever since Freud, the idea of behavior as a series of independent moral acts has given way to a much fuzzier image of behavior as the random expression of the vast subconcious. Partly as a result, the concept of sin is in grave danger of extinction in our culture at large. Not so long ago, George Bernard Shaw called the doctrine of original sin the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. But now I doubt whether a single one of the residents of my street would even recognize the term “original sin.” (“I dunno—maybe some kinky new fad?”)

We thus find ourselves in the schizophrenic position of ignoring the most obvious fact about human behavior, the fact of sin. I suspect if a true prophet from God came in judgment against the sins of our modern culture, he would be greeted first with incredulous laughter, then scorn, then violent opposition (curiously, the exact same responses greeted most of the Old Testament prophets).

As I reflect on my own pilgrimage of faith, I find that it has mirrored the schizophrenia of the larger culture. Sometimes I am dominated by sin-consciousness, sometimes I rebel vigorously against it, but most often I avoid it completely. Yet always I have been plagued by a nagging, underlying sense that I must somehow come to terms with this word that shows up on so many pages of the Bible.

One Person’s Sins

Sin as an abstract idea teaches very little. Sinners themselves teach much, and perhaps for that reason the Bible expresses in story form most of what it says about sin. And to learn about my own sin, I had to begin by tracing its progress in my life. I had to identify my sin—not just a stray sin here or there, but patterns of sin that keep breaking out. Here are a few sins from my long list:

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  • Deceit. I am ashamed to admit it, but I have struggled with a consistent pattern of deceit. Earlier, justifying my deceit as a creative way to oppose “the system,” I would engage in such shenanigans as mailing all utility bill payments without postage stamps (causing the utility companies to pay postage, until the Postal Service wised up and stopped delivering such mail) and subscribing to record clubs in order to tape-record the records and send them back for a refund. Over time, plagued by a guilty conscience, I cut out such practices, but I still recognize a deep temptation to rely on deceit when I feel trapped.
  • Permanent discontent. You may not find this one on any biblical list of sins, but this root attitude affects me in many sinful ways. Years of working as an editor gave me an editor’s personality that is never satisfied. I always want to strike out words, rearrange sentences, crumple up whole first drafts. While such dyspepsia can serve a worthwhile purpose in editing, in life it does not. I find myself editing my wife’s behavior, and my friends’. I constantly yearn for what I cannot have and cannot be. Mainly, I make myself nearly impervious to that spirit the Bible calls joy.
  • Hypocrisy. All Christians fight this sin to some degree (there I go again, rationalizing), but writers perhaps more than most. I write about leprosy patients in India, and about the extraordinary humility and sacrifice of missionaries I have visited there—but I write from the comfort of an air-conditioned office, with strains of classical music filling the room. How do I live with that disparity? How should I?
  • Greed. Do you know of any ministry other than writing that has a one-to-one relationship between ministry and income? Each person I “reach” in a book means more money in my pocket. Need I detail the dangers of mixed motives that can result?
  • Egotism. Again, a most embarrassing admission I would much prefer to leave off my list of sins. Like every other author and speaker, I begin with the rather audacious assumption that I have a viewpoint worth listening to. If I did not believe that, I would not go through the painful process of writing. The danger of pride rides with every thought, every sentence, every word.

You will note that my list of sins excludes many overt ones such as child abuse, drunkenness, and adultery. I am not tempted toward those sins, and that fact offers my first clue into the nature of sin. Sin strikes at the point of greatest vulnerability.

I spend my days secluded in an office, away from people, susceptible to an introvert’s self-absorption. The sins of discontent, egotism, and greed are internal sins. They grow like mold in dark, moist corners of the mind and psyche, nourished by slight rejections, mild paranoia, and loneliness—the precise occupational hazards of every writer.

A brash public figure such as quarterback Jim McMahon or comedian Joan Rivers will face a different set of temptations. And those who depend for a living on the successful preening of their bodies will likely fall at different points; adultery constantly tempts them, as Hollywood divorce rates easily prove. Similarly, while a poor man may struggle mostly with envy, a rich man battles greed.

We who battle “internal sins” can easily think our sins somehow more respectable than more blatant sins such as adultery and drunkenness. The moment we entertain such thoughts, we fall into an even deeper hole. I have attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and have never met a recovering alcoholic who denied his or her own sinfulness; but I have met many Christians who find it difficult to confess their own sins. I know such Christians well, for I am one.

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Malcolm Muggeridge expressed the danger this way: “It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways—in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgment by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practise.”

We can quickly work up ire against the decay of our society—witness the furor over abortion and violence and pornography and other external sins—but unless we also come to terms with our own private sins, we will have missed the message of the gospel. If you ever doubt that, simply turn to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus painted with one brush lust and adultery, hatred and murder.

A Shift In Outlook

In my childhood, thinking about sin terrified me. In adolescence, it repulsed me. Yet now I find myself thinking about sin often, and fruitfully. What caused the change in perspective?

I now recognize that the faith I learned in childhood fixated on sin, stopping short of grace. Only after I experienced firsthand the loving grace of God could I begin to think about sin healthily. I had a guide in learning about grace, a gentle old Scottish Presbyterian minister named George MacDonald. He died in 1858, but he left behind a collection of sermons that have taught me about grace (many, edited by Rolland Hein for a modern audience, are found in the books Life Essential and Creation in Christ).

MacDonald preached the gospel of grace so strongly that one of his sons protested, “It all seems too good to be true!” MacDonald replied, “Nay, it is just so good it must be true!” As I immersed myself in the writings of that godly man, many of the calluses that had grown thick against the harsh fundamentalism of my childhood began to soften and fall away. The first to fall was my image of God as a cruel and heartless teacher.

I had viewed God as a cranky old codger who concocted an arbitrary list of rules for the express purpose of making sure everyone would be punished for breaking one or two of them. The rules made no sense in themselves, I thought, especially the 613 Old Testament laws.

However, George MacDonald taught me another way of looking at law. It was not a new insight, and yet MacDonald’s understanding penetrated me with gradual emotional force until it changed the whole way I viewed God and rules. The key is this: the rules were not given for God’s sake—just so he would have an excuse for punishment—but rather they were given for our sakes. I suppose I had paid lip service to that truth, but emotionally I was still reacting to my childhood image of God as stern taskmaster.

Every parent knows the difference between rules designed primarily for the benefit of the parent (Don’t talk while I’m on the telephone! Clean up your room—your grandmother’s coming!) and those designed for the benefit of the child (Wear a hat—it’s below freezing! And don’t skate on the pond yet!). The law, even the Old Testament Law, primarily fell into the latter category. In Israel, God selected a race of people as “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” to demonstrate his own holiness. Yet at the same time he, as creator and designer of the human race, knew that human society would work best without adultery, without murder, without lying, without idolatry.

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I began to look at the Ten Commandments in this light. They emerged as the skeleton of a society designed primarily for the benefit of the people themselves. Each negative command could be turned around and stated positively. At its core, each protects something of great value to the human race. Consider a few examples:

  • I, the Creator, am giving you myself. You will need no worthless images of wood or stone, for you can have me, the Lord of the Universe.
  • I am giving you my name, and you can be called by my name. Treat it as your sacred possession, and do not defile its meaning by using it in vain.
  • I have made human life sacred and eternal, stamping my likeness on every child born. Protect and value what I have created. Cause it to live, not die.
  • I am giving you marriage, and the mystery of love and intimacy between one man and one woman. Preserve it against dilution through adultery.

I do not read Hebrew, but those who do tell me that the familiar English forms “Thou shalt not” and “Thou shalt” may be misleading. In English, the verb “shall” conveys both imperative (“You shall obey!”) and future (“I shall come Tuesday”). The Hebrew in the Ten Commandments is closer to the future form. God is giving a description of what a holy people will look like.

The nation failed, of course, breaking the covenant. Then Jesus came with a new covenant based on forgiveness and grace. The apostle Paul, reflecting on that Old Testament history, called it a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” “But now,” he wrote, “by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6, NIV).

A Health Expert

I once resisted any thought of God as an authority figure. But lately I have been thinking of other images, realizing that in many areas of life I gladly submit to authority. When I encounter a problem with my computer software, I frantically dial a toll-free number and then scrupulously follow the orders of the expert on the other end of the line. When I want to master a new sport, say, downhill skiing, I pay for expensive lessons. And when I am sick, I go to a doctor.

Perhaps that last image, of a doctor, is the most instructive in thinking about God and sin. What a doctor does for me physically—guides me toward health—God does for me spiritually. I am learning to view sins not as an arbitrary list of rules drawn up by a cranky Teacher, but rather as a list of dangerous carcinogens that must be avoided at all costs.

I once saw in a medical textbook side-by-side photographs of two sets of lungs. The lungs on the left were a brilliant, glossy pink, so shiny and smoothly textured they could have been taken from a newborn. In stark contrast, the lungs next to them looked as if they had been used to clean a chimney. Black sediment coated them, clogging all the delicate membranes designed to capture oxygen molecules. The photo caption explained that the lungs on the left had been removed during the autopsy of a Wyoming farmer; those on the right came from a resident of a factory town who had chain-smoked all his life.

I cannot comprehend how any doctor who has seen such lungs, side by side, could ever smoke again. And I remind myself of that image whenever I think about sin. What those impurities do to a person’s lungs, sin does to the spiritual life. It retards growth, ravages health, chokes off the supply of new life.

I think back to the sins I have mentioned. What effect do they have on my own spiritual health?

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  • Deceit. What would happen if I ignored warning signs and consistently yielded to promptings toward deceit? No one—not my neighbors, not my wife—could fully trust me. I would become a sad and lonely recluse, isolated by my own duplicity.
  • Permanent discontent. I have already said what this tendency produces: an instinctive resistance to joy. It also blocks out gratitude, the emotion doctors judge most nourishing to health.
  • Hypocrisy. Think of the worst hypocrite you know. Do I want to end up like that? Could anyone suggest that a person is better off for hypocrisy, that personal growth is encouraged and not stunted by this sin?
  • Greed. I know well what greed does to me. When I write, it changes the questions I ask from Is this thought true? Does it have value? to Will it sell?
  • Egotism. I battle it even at this moment. Should I really risk exposure in an article about sin? Should I write about my “spiritual disciplines” instead? Or will the strokes I get for honesty outweigh the criticism from those who question my spiritual maturity? Unchecked egotism would ultimately make me a manipulative boor.

Each of my sins, those I have mentioned and those secret ones I would not dare mention, represent a grave danger to my spiritual health. If I give in to any one of them as a consistent pattern, I will suffer grave loss. My spirit will shrivel and atrophy, like the lung tissue of the chain-smoker.

The more I see my sins in this light, the more I see beyond the harshness of God’s punishments. I find myself gazing into the grieving eyes of a parent whose children are destroying themselves. He responds to our sins with punishment and forgiveness, which may seem opposites. But, paradoxically, both have exactly the same purpose: to break the stranglehold of sin and make wholeness possible. He offers healing; we choose the cancer.

I confess that it has taken me many years to learn to trust God. The kind of sins and the type of authority I encountered as a child proved untrustworthy. But through fits and starts of rebellion, apathy, and occasional obedience, I have learned that God himself can be trusted. I can trust him with my health, and I can trust him with my sins. He welcomes me. As Jesus said, applying the doctor image to himself, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

At times, of course, I do not trust him. Sometime today, sometime tomorrow, I will recreate the original rebellion of Eden and act by my standards and my desires, and not God’s. God cannot overlook such behavior; it must be accounted for, as it was with Adam and Eve. But in that reckoning he aims not to destroy but to heal. No surgeon who wills the health of a patient can effect it without some pain.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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