Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 5: The Wages of Sin

First of all, I would like to apologize to my husband for the delay of this post.  I've been caught up with Nutcracker preparations, baby-sitting, job-hunting, and um, Minecraft, for the last few weeks.  I'm continuing a series on basic Christian doctrine, using John Stott's book Basic Christianity as a reference, to summarize the core tenets of the Christian faith - beliefs that all Christians hold in common, although they may differ on the finer points and complexities.

So today's topic is the consequences of sin, a subject even less popular than the last one.  Sin has consequences; think of it as an extension of Newton's "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."  What goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, you get out what you put in - the concept of actions having repercussions is not uniquely religious; it is just common sense.

Individual sins have individual consequences, either as part of a legal system (you steal something, you go to prison) or part of the way relationships work (you break someone's trust, you damage or lose their friendship), but there are also more general consequences for sin in general.  Stott identifies three general consequences for sin, with three different objects:

- alienation from God
- bondage to self
- conflict with others

These three things are interconnected, but I'm going to talk about them separately.

Alienation from God.  Stott writes, "Man's highest destiny is to know God, to be in personal relationship with him.  Our chief claim to nobility as human beings is that we were made in the image of God and are therefore capable of knowing him."  Christians believe that our purpose on earth is not just to live a happy life, raise kids, have a successful career, help the planet, and make a positive difference on the people in our sphere of influence - although those are all really good things and I hope we all try to achieve as many of them as possible.  For Christians, there is a more eternal purpose, to know God, to love God, to enjoy God's presence and live in shalom (peace, harmony, wholeness) forever.  But because God is a person (already established), not simply a concept that we buy into or a state of mind that we are working to achieve, our actions can affect our relationship with him just as our actions can affect our relationships with other humans.  When we sin - be it against other people, ourselves, creation - we sin against God.  How does that work?  Because everyone we could sin against is a creation of God, and he takes that relationship very seriously.  Have you ever talked to an angry parent who thinks you wronged their child in some way?  As a ballet teacher I've been there, and let me tell you, it is terrifying.  When a parent feels like his or her child has been treated unfairly, they can turn into a mother grizzly bear, because they love their child and they will do whatever they think they have to in order to protect them.  That's why God is so serious about sin.  It's not because he's really uptight or a buzz kill or he just doesn't like humans, it's because when one of his precious children is being harmed, he won't stand for it.

But sin can affect our relationship with God more directly.  When we deliberately rebel against God, we drive a wedge between him and ourselves.  If you are married or in a close relationship of some kind, you've experienced this.  If you do something that hurts the other person - something selfish or insensitive or invalidating or demanding or manipulative or what have you - you're attacking your own relationship.  There's going to be a wall between you and the other person that is impossible to get past until it's dealt with.

Separation from God can manifest in different ways.  Many people experience an emptiness or feeling of yearning, or of distance from God, when they are not in relationship with him or when there is sin causing a rift between them and God.  Other people tune God out completely and never experience the joy of knowing him.  And yes, living apart from God on earth will result in being apart from him after death.  Christians may disagree about the nature of hell, its purpose, or what happens to the human soul there, but we all agree that you don't want to go there.  I don't want to start a discussion on the nature of hell so I'll leave it at that.

Bondage to self.  To quote Stott again, "Sin does not only estrange; it enslaves.  If it alienates us from God, it also brings us into captivity."  Sin is like a drug in that it's self-perpetuating.  Again, this concept is not purely religious; it's practically Newtonian.  Like water flowing downhill, human behavior tends to follow the path of least resistance.  Once you start going in a certain direction, it's easier to keep going that way than to turn around.  If you make a habit of being a bully in school, you will probably also be a bully at work.  If you get accustomed to lying to your parents, you will likely lie to your spouse.  It's not determinism, but you have to admit, once you've done something wrong once, it's usually easier to do it a second time.  We've all seen enough after-school episodes to be familiar with the paradigm of telling a lie to avoid getting into trouble, but winding up in bigger trouble through telling increasingly bigger and more complicated lies.

Christians disagree about whether humans are inherently good, inherently evil, or inherently neutral.  But I think everybody who's ever raised a baby can agree that humans are at least inherently self-centered and undisciplined.  A baby's only concern is itself, not because it's deliberately refusing to acknowledge the needs of others, or because it consciously wants to hurt others, but simply because that's all it knows.  This is what the Bible calls our "flesh," our basic mortal nature whose only priority is self-preservation.  As we mature from infant to child to adult, we can either feed this nature or discipline it.  It's okay for a baby to think only of itself; it's not okay for an adult, because they should know better.  But if all we do is feed the impulses of our "flesh," then we become slaves to our base desires by learning to put our needs ahead of every other priority.  A person like that can't love God because that requires acknowledging something more important that himself.  A person like that can't love others because that might be inconvenient or painful.  A person like that can't even truly love himself because what is good for him requires a certain amount of suffering and sacrifice.  If sin had a conscious agenda, it would be to turn us into this person.

Conflict with others.  This consequence is inextricably tied to the first two. As I stated above, God's design for humans is to live in perfect harmony and shalom with him.  If we did that, it logically follows that we would also live in harmony and shalom with each other.  But because we are separated from God's shalom, we live in conflict with others around us.  I really don't think I need to waste any words trying to prove this point.  Instead, I'll point out that to hate, resent, or otherwise be antagonistic toward a fellow human is by necessity to hate, resent, or otherwise be antagonistic toward God (the mother bear thing again).  Also, as sin enslaves us, the more we allow ourselves to give in to our natural selfishness, the more we will be at odds with each other.  You can't have a relationship or a community where it's "every man for himself."

We like to blame things like society, the government, and video games for the problems we have with each other, but really it boils down to what I said in my last post: we ourselves are the problem.  Our own sin - at the heart of which is our selfishness and our pride - pits us against others and prevents us from living in harmony.

If we want to fix this last problem, we have to fix the other two issues as well, because as we saw, they are inexorably linked.  And the only way to treat the consequences of alienation, bondage, and conflict, is to treat the cause: the fact of sin itself.  In my next post I'll discuss God's plan to do just that.