To the uninitiated, Christianity’s obsession with sin can seem off-putting. We don’t like to constantly face what is wrong with ourselves, and no one wants to talk about it. We hear about God and love and yet it immediately descends into talk of morals and guilt and forgiveness. The idea of grace is all wrapped up in God’s apparent concern with our moral status; He loves us and grants us favor despite our unworthiness. Why can’t God simply love, without having to constantly reference our failures? It is wearying; I don’t want to think about my own unworthiness all the time, this is not a beautiful thing. The constant reference to my guilt does not make me feel loved. If my friend acted this way, constantly referencing how wrong and bad I was but saying they still loved me anyway, I wouldn’t want to stay in that friendship; it is simply weird.
Yet, in the book of Revelation, we see Jesus up on the throne, and the image is that of a lamb as if slain. He still bears the scars of His death for our redemption. Apparently this will not be forgotten on to eternity; our sin, our need for salvation, will be forever impressed on the very image with which God presents Himself from the height of heaven. Is this a good thing? At first thought I don’t know that I like it. I just want to be accepted and loved, and have my moral failures and shortcomings all but forgotten and glossed over.
Well, I want to show why this is so fantastic, why it is actually the most wonderful and liberating thing about the Christian faith. Once you wrap your head around this you will walk with an incredible joy and release and freedom that is the greatest thing in human experience. You will know that you are definitively forgiven, that you are accepted, established, that your good destiny is truly secured. God is not constantly focused on what is wrong with us; rather, He is making it clear that He stands forever actively against the condemning voices, guarding us and blessing us. He wants to make it clear that our total forgiveness and acceptance is absolutely secured. I want to reason through this slowly, and ask awkward questions, and get to a true intellectual and emotional understanding of the whole nature of this central tenet of the Christian faith.
The Worst Injury
If someone injures you, for instance cuts off your arm, it is a grievous thing. You have the well-deserved sympathy of all, everyone comes to your aid. Church people visit, people bring you meals, your mother calls and everyone feels tremendously sorry for you. You didn’t do anything wrong per se, after all, someone cut off your arm!
However, if YOU are the one who cut off that person’s arm, it is a different story altogether. You are hunted down, thrown in prison. No one calls, no one brings you meals, your mother is ashamed. You are the guilty one, you are the one who did it. For God’s sake, we are talking about an arm-cutter here! No one loves that person! This is a person who knows they are hated and they know they deserve to be hated.
The harm, the injury, the life-devastation is greater to the perpetrator than to the injured one, because after all, THEY ARE EVIL and they know it. A rotten and seething conscience is much closer and more active and more vengeful than even a missing arm. This is not to detract at all from the pain and suffering of the innocent party, but innocence and any other pain is much easier to bear than guilt. Guilt attaches to the central self, the core identity. Guilt is the chief injury a person can do to himself.
If I am injured, something about me is damaged, yet my truest self, my conscience, my innocence, remains intact. We can expect God and fate to treat us kindly despite our undeserved harm. This isn’t really a Christian or religious thing, it is a human thing. If I am the perpetrator of evil, I will forever be the one who is capable of evil; I AM evil. Not just my arm, or my emotions, but my very self comes under question. Even I cannot imagine good coming to me by fate, because I know what I have done. Any good I enjoy in my life subsequent to the proof of my evilness must be snatched by my own wiles; if there is fate or justice it is all going to go against me. I have put myself into a personal battle against fate and justice, and there comes a very honest fear that I will lose.
Garden Variety Sins
Now, we understand all of this when applied to some clearly evil person like Jeffrey Dahmer or Joseph Stalin. Most people are normal garden variety people with normal garden variety sins. Men ogle women they aren’t married to, people gossip, cheat on their taxes, react in angry words with their children, overeat. People tell sightly false damaging stories about others for the pleasure of gossip. Is God so nit-picky that we would go to hell for such minor infractions?
Before I answer that question, which is a very good question, you have to understand that we are going somewhere better with this. If I am going to give you directions to the glorious mountain lookout I have to talk you through the dark forest. I don’t mean to focus on the forest but you have to go through it to get there. This is the same thing, don’t check out.
Of course God is not “nit-picky’! He means well, he means to do you good by leading you through this. He is not holy in the sense that He has some kind of irrational hatred of human frailty and fun. He is holy in the sense that He is unwavering in His defense of the highest pleasures and good at all time, and sees no division between the moral and the aesthetic good, ever. He will never succumb to this damaging schizophrenia, and so He stands utterly opposed to all that is wrong, all that offends the truly good. The law defines this good in moral terms, as the way we ought to live.
The apostle Paul says that the “Law’ is our tutor, that leads us to faith. It is not the agent of faith, the basis of faith, it is a road to somewhere. So Jesus teaches about the Law, and says that if you are even angry with your brother, you are guilty of murder! What does he mean? He means, it isn’t just what you do, it is what you desire, what you are like inside, what you love, your heart, that defines you. The law only points this out, like a flashlight shining into your messy closet. You may hold yourself back from murder but in a sense you wish for it, you may hold yourself back from adultery but inside you want it. Jesus is saying that this kind of double life, appearing to be something while on the inside wanting something entirely different, means that your true self is actually quite evil. You only appear to be respectable. Jesus calls people like this a “white-washed tomb’, meaning it looks clean on the outside, but is dead and putrefied on the inside.
So we arrive at the idea that Paul teaches, that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) This is something which is not true only in some vague general theological sense. You can sense people fogging over when you start to talk about inheriting sin from Adam and all of that. That is true, but that is not the primary and active truth. What the Law properly parsed out shows is MY sin, my ACTUAL guilt, the real living fault-line where my soul has transgressed and broken down on the waves of life.
In Augustine’s confessions, he had an epiphany of his own real sin:
Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree–how I know not–and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”
I myself had such an experience, perhaps this is why Augustine’s experience resonates so deeply with me. I was just out of high school, and had decided that Jesus was the way and the truth, but I had not really come to an understanding of the faith. I went to a big formal Baptist church, with an organ playing and all of that, and a guy got up and said, “we must remember that Christ has died on the cross for our sins.” I did not really understand at all what he was talking about, and I found the organ music irritating, but I was hit in waves with of a revelation of my own sinfulness, of how I had done so many things wrong, so much harm, specific things. I wept and wept in there, just deep waves of weeping and regret. Everyone kind of moved away from me; I probably should have gone out by a fig tree somewhere.
The point is, we must come to the very end of ourselves. It is tempting to relegate these kinds of stories to the category of nuthouse religious experiences, when in fact they are stories of a person coming at last to the full truth about themselves and the world. It is no general principle of “man’s sinfulness’ from which we must be rescued. I am the perpetrator, I am the one. I may have received some sin nature from Adam, but that is academic. I really screwed things up badly. Me. I actually need forgiveness myself for real evil. I have loved and acted on love for very selfish and damaging and stupid things. I am actually ashamed. I am truly on the wrong side of justice. I think it is probably impossible to understand the real release of forgiveness until you come to a place where you see that not only have you been harmed, you are a harmer. It is this worse thing, your own personal true evil, that Christianity addresses. God sees you, sees your shame, your wrong, and where everyone else on earth rightly hates you for it, He has compassion even then.
This idea is not the end of the road. The only point is that our truest need, our greatest damage, is our own evil. The Christian faith focuses on it because it is the central need of every human. It is our most hopeless problem. It is not some theological theory, it is the real fire that eats at our joy and our inner peace day and night. It is born of real deeds that demand true justice. It is not just that “all’ have sinned – it is that YOU have sinned, I have sinned, we have done real specific evil, we are the ones who love evil in the real world. If God loves, He must hate the evil that harms us. Yet, we each have a big hand in being the agent of harm towards those around us. This is the miracle of the Christian faith, not that a superior moral code is presented, but the solution to the problem of our own evil, the problem of true forgiveness, has been accomplished. Any form of Christian living which emphasizes superior moral code or behavioral repentance over and above this solution to true forgiveness, terribly misses the point.
I will be so bold to say that you will not enter into true faith, true intimacy, true peace, until you come to the weeping tree and truly beg for an end to your uncleanness. Then the scales come off of your eyes, and you see your life for what it really is, for what glories God really intended your life for, and how you have so fallen short. Rightly does He hate your sin, and at great cost does He forgive. Then do you see that it is forgiveness that you want, it is release from a punishing conscience that you long for, and the work of Jesus to release you while preserving justice to those you’ve harmed becomes very very important to look into. Once the issues of your secret conscience have been dealt with justly, and yet still you stand alive, there is such freedom to truly smile! Simple innocent pleasures become enough to satisfy, because you are no longer stealing them in a battle against fate and justice.
Now, Paul ends his whole first section of the book of Romans like this:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:31-39, NKJV.
In other words, if God has dealt with this most central and difficult need, our inward evil, and still stands with us and blesses us, what else could be so bad? If our own evil can’t get between us and God, what else could even come close? In a sense, if you are released from guilt, you are released from the sting of virtually every other stress! Even peril and death can’t hold a candle to the feeling of pending condemnation, and that is all over with in Christ.