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.

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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.

The language of sin

In this broken world, we have two options.

First, we can deny our complicity and blame others for messing up the world. In doing this, we put ourselves in the role of moral spectators, critics, or victims. In Jesus' parable of the two men praying in the temple, the religious leader says, "I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don't sin, I don't commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income." This is the path of self-deception.

The second option is to dare to believe that God is gracious and to admit our sin. In Jesus' parable, the tax collector does not even risk raising his eyes to heaven, but beats his chest and cries out, "O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner" (Luke 18:13). This is the path of hope, the journey of Lent that leads toward Easter.

We are sorely tempted to take the first option. I do sometimes. I am usually nice to my students, treat my colleagues fairly, deeply love those in my family, pay my taxes, provide psychological help to pastors in crisis, go to church and tithe. I don't steal, commit adultery, use illegal drugs, or swear. And I floss regularly. When I was younger, I would gladly sing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" and then remain uncomfortably silent for the next six words. I was no wretch, that was for sure.

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But when I look at myself honestly, I see my sin. I micromanage, consume more than my share of resources, and harbor bitterness from past losses. I hoard my time and resent others for intruding on it. I am vain and consumed with how others perceive me. I wrestle with my sexuality and have strayed away from Lisa, my wife, with my eyes and my heart. I have learned how to pretend to listen without really listening. I think more about being great than about being good. I act more spiritual than I am. I am a mess—broken in every way—and my only hope is in God's mercy.

I have been socialized in a therapeutic language that proclaims "I'm okay, you're okay." Our culture is fascinated with the cult of self-esteem, as if this is the path to self-acceptance and the ultimate experience of love. Many have become adept at polishing the steel of the defensive armor, but the inner self still longs for love more than self-love, for grace more than impression management, for authenticity more than admiration. Beneath the armor of our pride, we live as vulnerable men and women longing to be loved and known. Our hope is found in cautiously shedding the armor and clinging to the possibility of amazing grace.

Slow Change Coming

In the parable of the prodigal son, who looked longingly at the pods he was feeding to pigs, Jesus says that "he finally came to his senses" (Luke 15:17).

We each have moments of coming to our senses. It may happen while sitting in a counselor's office, participating in a worship service, or praying quietly. Some people come to their senses while scooping pig slop; others are encompassed in the warm embrace of a lover. The moment may start as a gentle nudging, wisps of renewal coming as a gentle summer breeze. Or it may knock us over like a coastal hurricane. We might be alone or sitting in the midst of thousands. In every season and every place God keeps pursuing us, wooing us home, bringing us back to our senses.

Like most of us, Newton came to his senses slowly. While in Charleston, Newton began writing letters and journal entries that showed pity for his human cargo. God was working in his heart. Newton returned to England, married, and … no, he still did not change.

Allowed to captain his own ships, he continued to steal and sell human lives for several more years. In his journal, Newton even wrote that being the captain of a slave ship was optimal for "promoting the Life of God in the Soul." Newton's slave trading might have continued for many more years except for a seizure that made a career change medically necessary. In all, Newton spent 10 years trading slaves, most of them after his conversion to Christianity.

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Newton's biography was not the story I expected, yet it is hauntingly familiar to my Christian journey. We fall short of God's desire for our lives. Our disordered passions do not suddenly become ordered with a flash of insight or a spiritual awakening. Sanctification is a lifelong calling, an epic journey. It was not until many years later that Newton could write, "[I] was blind but now I see."

Newton became a customs officer, studied theology, and eventually—despite feelings of unworthiness because of his past sins—became a minister. As Newton's eyes opened more fully with each passing year, he became horrified at his sin. One of his friends later recalled that he never spent 30 minutes with Newton without hearing the former captain's remorse for trading slaves. It was always on his mind, nagging his conscience while reminding him of his utter dependence on God's forgiving grace. In one of Newton's letters to a member of Parliament, he described the slave trade as "a millstone, sufficient, of itself sufficient, to sink such an enlightened and highly favour'd nation as ours to the bottom of the sea."

Seeing our sin occurs over a lifetime of pursuing God. Our vision is seldom restored in a single burst of light but with countless rays streaming into our darkened eyes over many years—and always in the midst of amazing grace. At the end of his life Newton said to his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." Now I sing it out—the whole line.

Mark R. McMinn is the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College. This article is an excerpt from Why Sin Matters: The Surprising Relationship between God's Grace and Our Sin (Tyndale, 2004).

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