|‘What is the Problem of Sin?’ 16th June 2013 Evening Service SERMON Rev Allister Lane
What’s the problem of sin?
Well, very basically: people being un-free.
Sin enslaves people, preventing us from being able to be all we can be;
preventing us from flourishing;
preventing us from living life in its fullness.
We see the evidence of sin all around us. Something is fundamentally wrong with the world.
Although some may try to deal with the sin of the world by pretending it isn’t there – the biblical story is stunningly realistic about the realities of sin and evil that distort creation.
Attempts to use the power of positive thinking (or to start singing “When the dog bites/when the bee stings ...I simply remember my favourite things”) ...may seem like harmless denial of the real problem, but let’s remember that some of the most appalling injustice and suffering has been a result of “good” people refusing to acknowledge evil and therefore doing nothing to confront it.
Not everyone may use the term ‘sin’, but people who take human experiences seriously recognise that something is fundamentally wrong with the world;
the plague of cancer,
the torments of mental illness,
unstoppable civil wars,
millions of starving people
– it all paints an undeniable picture of agony and darkness.
It’s what the Pink Floyd song lamented:
“It's a sin that somehow/
Light is changing to shadow/
And casting it's shroud /
To deny the darkness of sin in the world runs the risk of ‘turning away’:
“Don't accept that what's happening is just a case of others' suffering
or you'll find that you're joining in The turning away"
The biblical story does not flinch from an honest acknowledgement of the problems in the world.
And in acknowledging the problem, there is no sense in which it ‘makes peace’ with the problem – the story of God and God’s people is one where sin and darkness are always the enemy of God.
For God is providential (God who provides); the source of abiding love, justice and power who shines in the darkness. The biblical story of God’s light shining in darkness has its climax in Jesus Christ.
But of course this story is not proof of a providential God who triumphs over darkness with love, justice and power – it is a confession of faith.
In fact, some would argue that evidence around us would point to the contrary: that God does not (or cannot) help.
The biblical story is not proof but it is a powerful source of hope , based on what God has done in the lives of others. It’s a hope based in the life and death of Jesus Christ – his demonstration of God’s commitment to us: God’s deep desire for relationship with us.
It’s what the Apostle Paul described in the reading:
“the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
So we share this memory of God’s providence – what God has done and therefore the hope we have in what God will do.
But at the same time we are forgetful...
The biblical story is the greater context for understanding the problem of sin, but let’s consider this question (‘What is the Problem of Sin?’) in a different way – a bit closer to home.
Let’s bring into the realm of personhood – of us and how we understand our identity.
How does sin affect our identity?
Søren Kierkegaard said in his book Sickness Unto Death:
‘Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God... Faith is: that the self in being itself and wanting to be itself is grounded transparently in God.’1
In other words... “Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him.
What does this mean? Everyone gets their identity, their sense of being distinct and valuable, from somewhere or something. Kierkegaard asserts that human beings were made not only to believe in God in some general way, but to love him supremely, centre their lives on him above anything else, and build their very identities on him. Anything other than this is sin.
Most people think of sin primarily as ‘breaking divine rules’, but Kierkegaard knows that the very first of the Ten Commandments is ‘to have no other gods before me’. So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship with God.”2
So if this is true, if relationship with God is at the heart of full personhood – anything else that we attempt to replace that with is, well... sin.
Anything that seeks to mask our basic dependence on God;
anything that gets in the way of letting ourselves be loved and cared for by God;
anything that gets in the way of loving and serving God;
any desire to be self-sufficient and autonomous.
Sin is the unwillingness to be what we are as human beings in the image of God, human beings who are ‘ourselves’ only as we live in community with God and our fellow human beings.
In short, sin is not loving and not being willing to let ourselves be loved.3
If we try be ‘self-assured’ or seek to ‘justify our own existence’ by emphasising something in our lives (even something very good) above our identity in relationship to God, we miss the mark. And seeing sin in this way – as destroying our personhood, our true identity – we recognise that any identity apart from God is inherently unstable.
My identity may seem good and solid, but if it’s based on anything other than a deep trust in God, it can collapse at any moment. For example, if I build my identity on being a good parent, then I have no true ‘self’ other than being a ‘parent’. Maybe that doesn’t seem a big problem, until something goes wrong with my children or my parenting, then there is no ‘me’ left.
Timothy Keller suggests the sinful aspect of god-substitute identities common in our culture...
If you centre your life and identity on your spouse or partner,
you will be emotionally dependent, jealous and controlling.
The other person's problems will be overwhelming to you.
If you centre your life and identity on your work and career,
you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person.
At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career
goes poorly, develop deep depression.
If you centre your life and identity on money and possessions,
you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You'll be
willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which
will eventually blow up your life.
If you centre your life and identity on pleasure, gratification and comfort,
you will find yourself getting addicted to something.
You will become chained to the 'escape strategies' by
which you avoid the hardness of life.
If you centre your life and identity on relationships and approval,
you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus
always losing friends. You will fear confronting others and
therefore will be a [poor] friend.
If you centre your life and identity on a 'noble cause',
you will divide the world into 'good' and 'bad' and demonise your
opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies.
Without them, you have no purpose.
If you centre your life and identity on religion and morality,
you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be
proud, self-righteous and cruel. If you don't live up to your standards,
your guilt will be utterly devastating.
An identity not based on God can lead to deep forms of addiction. When good things are turned into ultimate things we take our meaning in life from these things, and we become enslaved to them – we have to have them. The good things that enslave us are good things that deserve to be loved. But when these good things become ultimate things then we fall into patterns of life that are not unlike substance addiction. Our love for and trust in God is pushed aside. And, as in all addiction, we are in denial about the degree to which we are controlled by our god-substitutes.
Isn’t this the meaning behind the words of the Apostle Paul we heard read tonight? For Paul the ‘Law’ was the god-substitute he, and other ‘good’ people, were addicted to.
“...we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
...and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2)
In the person of Jesus Christ we are shown God’s love, and enabled to live in the fullness of God’s love.
Coming back to Kierkegaard’s definition of sin, where sin is not simply doing bad things, but putting things in place of God, then we can see that God doesn’t just want a part of our lives, he want our WHOLE lives. We cannot substitute a true identity in God with a quota of good deeds each week, let alone an avoidance of doing any bad things. Sin in the world flourishes when good people do nothing.
Changing our behaviour doesn’t prevent sin, only a reorientation and re-centring of our whole heart and life in God – and this is not just a one-off thing, but something that we need to do constantly.
C. S. Lewis said:
“The almost impossibly hard thing is to hand over your whole self to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all tying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call ‘ourselves’ – our personal happiness centred on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, despite this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you cannot do.”4
“Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life’, whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfil you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.”5
What do you observe people building their identities on?
Do you agree that every person has a “Lord of their life”?
What do you make of the Christian message of hope in a world of sin?