When I was in therapy with Joe Bauserman, from time to time we would get talking about sin. (Joe was one of the most integrated people I’ve known — not just a psychologist who happened to be a Christian, or vice versa; not just plastering psychology with Christian jargon, nor just applying Bible verses as psychological band-aids.) Sometimes he would tell me I wasn’t yet ready to talk about sin — too many misconceptions and too much baggage getting in the way of understanding. Sometimes he would talk about how, fundamentally, sin is about waywardness — as in Jeremiah 2:
5 Thus says the Lord,
“What injustice did your fathers find in Me,
That they went far from Me
And walked after emptiness and became empty?
6 “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’…
13 My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
That can hold no water.
In my parenting journey, I have come to think of sin in children quite differently than I used to, which has led to questioning the doctrine of sin in general. Conservative or traditional Christian parenting resources often talk about how kids are sinful from birth (if not before) and how their crying and testing of boundaries are evidence of it. I have come instead to think of crying as communication, and limit-testing as morally neutral as well as developmentally appropriate. I have come to think that, in general, kids do as well as they can in any moment — as one meme puts it, “I’m not giving you a hard time — I’m HAVING a hard time.”
What, if anything, does this imply for a doctrine of sin?
So, while sin is hardly a comfortable topic, I am rather looking forward to Father John’s Lenten sermon series titled “The Morphology of Sin,” which he introduced this Sunday.
Follow the link to read that introduction. Meanwhile, a bit of summary with a few thoughts:
The first paragraph mentions that desires are not always and automatically sinful. Some of us are tempted to think that way — that if we want it, it must be wrong. Not true. I suppose some fall into the other error, supposing the pursuit of all desires to be just fine and good. Equally untrue.
What is virtue? Anything working according to its proper nature. Vice, then, is anything not working according to its proper nature. Both involve not only our behavior and relationships on earth, but also our interaction with God — and either can be developed into habit. (Charlotte Mason would nod and smile.)
Here’s a sentence that deserves some unpacking: “Now some of the sin into which we fall is hardly our own fault.” Fr. John goes on to talk about a confusing world in which it is not always straightforward to know God’s will. And yet, how can it be sin if it’s not our fault?
There follows a section on the true self, a topic that was also dear to Joe, and has been important for me. It’s a lovely idea — that, with God, we are to be MORE ourselves, not less. It is also a very difficult idea — the false selves we construct are very compelling:
And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.
Fr. John goes on to describe how one might evaluate a desire — if it is out of proportion regarding need, reason, and charity, if it is not what we sense would please God, then it is sin. I am honestly not entirely sure about this statement. For one thing, disproportionate feelings usually point to something deeper and are not really about the surface thing that has triggered them. Disproportion is therefore not sinful in and of itself. Also, some of us have gotten rather under the thumb of reason and charity, in an overdeveloped sense of obligation. We could perhaps more easily argue ourselves out of pursuing a perfectly acceptable desire, always able to find reason against it or unmet needs elsewhere that could take priority, than argue ourselves into pursuing a sinful desire.
Returning to the ideas of vice and virtue, he says that those with a habit of virtue generally do well in moral reasoning, and those with a habit of vice generally give in to all desires.
The sermon series will look at the seven deadlies (how is that phrase meant in the Episcopal Church?) — less because of a do-and-don’t-do moralism, but more because, in a desire to have “a heart that is right with Jesus,” understanding how sin works can equip us to more effectively resist temptation. Throughout, we want to be neither flippantly complacent about sin and forgiveness, nor morbidly obsessed with plumbing the depths of our sinfulness. We also want to recognize that not all problems are sin-problems.
In closing —
He wants us to be ourselves. But we cannot be our true selves unless we understand his will for us and the kind of life he wants us to live. That life is a forgiven, renewed, liberated life. A life that is fighting against sin, yet, but even more, expending energy towards the prize of the Kingdom —- where Jesus’ life and love reign in the hearts of his followers and in the new age of the world.