Three Sinful Paths

Let’s say that you are a new Christian, earnest and eager to follow the narrow path and repent of sin and all its damaging consequences. Which is a good goal. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for sin mean to miss the mark. The mark being union with God. Since union with God is the full fruit of redemption and sin means missing that fruit, avoiding sin is a worthwhile goal. But how to do that?

Well, in general, there are three paths you can take. One will take you to God. One will take you destruction. And one will get you somewhere between the two. Allow me to explain these paths and you see if you can pick out which is which.

The first path is one favored by many in the church. It is to identify sin and target it for elimination. It may mean that you refrain from engaging in worldly activities like drinking, swearing, watching questionable movies, hanging out with friends who are up to no good and the like. Perhaps you get involved in a small group or pursue relationships with more mature Christians as a way of building accountability for yourself.

This path does have its uses, particularly for those who are new to the faith. When a person converts to Christianity, it means adopting a new identity and with it, a new way of life. If your old identity was grounded in being a promiscuous partier who was known for your outrageous antics, it may be necessary to swear off those old behaviors in order to make room for your new identity in Christ.

The danger of this path is that identifying and eliminating sin can become the way you live out your faith and the basis of your Christian identity. Those on this path are too often the public face of the church, defined by what it is vocally against. In fact, the church has no end of self appointed gatekeepers for whom a willingness to identify and target sin for elimination is synonymous with being a faithful Christian. They think they are protecting the church when really all they are doing is attempting to lock everyone in the nursery. Continue reading

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Addressing Sin the Biblical Way

When the subject of sin comes up – specifically other people’s sin – a lot of people have one go-to-verse/argument: “even Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to ‘go and sin no more’.” 

These words are particularly helpful when being confronted with something else Jesus said: “do not judge lest you be judged.” Unfortunately, when Jesus spoke those words, he neglected to add all of the necessary caveats. Fortunately, we have his words to the woman caught in adultery to make it clear that Jesus didn’t really mean for us to leave sin unremarked on and unaddressed.

Since people who depend on the words “go and sin no more” clearly desire nothing more than to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings and example, I thought it might be helpful to examine their proper, biblical application. I would hate for anyone to behave in a way that didn’t meet the biblical standard, of course.

So, first we must look at the circumstances in which these words can be understood to provide biblical cover for confronting or calling out sin. Based on the story of the woman caught in adultery, I have identified the following prerequisites:

  1. There must be general agreement that the person has committed a sin which must be addressed. Situations in which there is argument or disagreement over whether the behavior is, in fact, sinful, do not meet the biblical standard.
  2. The sin in question must be brought to your attention by others. So, sin which you encounter on your own is not biblically covered by Jesus’ words to the adulterous woman.
  3. The person who has sinned must be facing serious consequences and condemnation for their sinful behavior.
  4. You must be asked directly to weigh in on the sin.

Basically, if the sin is brought to your attention by others who are upset over the sin and who have a desire to ensure that the sin is condemned and consequences given and who are seeking to have you join in or give your approval to said condemnation and consequences, this situation meets the biblical standards. On the other hand, if you just happen to run across someone’s sin yourself or the person is getting away with sinning, consequence free or if the situation involves an argument and if no one has actually asked your opinion, the situation does not meet the biblical standard. The claim that “even Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more” does not provide biblical cover in such circumstances.

Once you have determined that the situation you are dealing with meets the biblical standards for telling the person to “go and sin no more”, you have certain obligations which must be met. Specifically these are:

  1. You must first devise a way to run off the people who are condemning and calling for the punishment for the sin. Figuring out how to do this can be tough. Even Jesus had to stop and think before saying, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But it is a biblical imperative that before you can address the person’s sin, you must first ensure their safety and well being. Otherwise you are just joining in with the crowd which is most certainly not biblical.
  2. You must have the patience to wait until the person who has sinned is no longer the target of wrath, condemnation and punishment. It is not biblical to address someone’s sin in the presence of those who want to punish and condemn them.
  3. Once you and the sinner are the only people involved in the controversy over their sin present, you must check to make sure that the sinner is no longer in fear of those who would condemn them. If they express fear that those who want to condemn and punish them are still seeking to punish or condemn them, now is not the time to confront their sin. You may need to go back to steps 1 and 2 before proceeding. If, like the adulterous woman, the sinner says, “there is no one left who wants to condemn me”, you can proceed to the next step.
  4. Assure the sinner that you do not condemn them and have no intention of punishing or otherwise holding them to account for their sin.

Once you have followed the above biblical procedures, you are free to address sin as Jesus did. Based on Jesus’ words, when you address the sin, you should:

  1. Make sure your words are forward and not backwards looking. This is not the time to ask for an explanation of past behavior or to run through an account of past sins committed.
  2. Resist the urge to lecture or give advice. Keep it really short.
  3. Don’t offer (or threaten) to hold the person accountable for their future behavior. Leave it up to the person to find his or her own way forward. If they need help, they will ask someone they trust for help and you may well not be that person.
  4. Don’t hold the fact that you just rescued the person over their head. Do not imply that they owe it to you to behave differently going forward.

Really, you can’t do much better than Jesus’ words, that we all love so much: “go and sin no more.”

After you have biblically addressed the sin, you must continue to follow the example set by Jesus. You should never speak of that person’s sins again. The sin should not become fodder for sermons or rants or blog posts. Nor should it be a topic of conversation with your friends. Also, do not seek to maintain contact with the person (unless they seek you out, of course) in order to see how they are doing. Once you have followed the biblical procedures and methods for dealing with sin the way Jesus did, your job is done.

Hopefully this explanation for how to biblically confront sin the way that Jesus did has been helpful to you. Dealing with sin like Jesus is the source of a lot of confusion. Perhaps the next time you encounter someone using the explanation “even Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to ‘go and sin no more'” in an unbiblical way, you can direct them here. Because we do want to be very biblical in our approach to such things, do we not? 😉

Being Light to a Darkened World

This week we’ve been talking about our dark side and why we don’t need to fear or reject it. Yesterday we talked about bringing our dark side to God. Today, we look how doing this is the key to being able to fulfill our call to be the light of the world.

We Christians have a real problem dealing with the sin and darkness of the world. Quite often we cast loving and standing up for truth in the face of sin as opposing calls which we must somehow learn to balance. We struggle to remain in relationship with people who are engaged in behaviors we see as sinful. We strive to “speak the truth in love” only to end up alienating those we purport to love.

One of the things that happens when we bring our own darkness to God is we get to see how love actually deals with darkness. We see that love doesn’t condemn. We see that love calls out what is good. We see that love recognizes and illuminates the fear and hurt which lay beneath the sin and nastiness. And we see that love’s first impulse is to deal with the fear and hurt rather than confronting the sin.

It’s like Jesus said: “seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be added unto you.” When we seek what is good, when we seek to dispel fear and heal hurt, the rest follows. Condemnation and confrontation rarely work because they bring the power of darkness to bear on the problem. And darkness is not where power is found. Light is.

So when we go out into the world after allowing God to illuminate our own darkness, we have some idea of how to do the same for others. We know that when we see sin and darkness, our job is not to find the right balance between loving and speaking truth. Our job is to shine light on the darkness.

So instead of cursing the dark, we seek out the good power that’s buried in the dark and illuminate it. Instead of seeing sin and hostility as an affront or being repulsed by it, we recognize the fear and brokeness which is driving it. And instead of confronting or condemning the sin and darkness, we simply set to work on the fear and hurt. We seek to relieve fear. We offer solutions to the problems people face. We offer empathy and compassion for the hurt. We do what we can to lighten their load.

And over and over we seek, we see, we affirm and speak the truth of the good which God has planted deep in the heart of each of us. We water those seeds with the water Jesus offers – life, love, compassion, forgiveness. And we shine the light of Christ over them so that one day, should the seeds buried in the darkness begin to sprout, they will seek after the light as well.

Don’t believe me? Think I’m being naive? Then test it. Bring your darkness to God. See what happens. Then go and do likewise for those around you.

Facing Our Dark Side

Yesterday I wrote about how denying and suppressing our dark side turns us into hypocrites in the ancient Greek sense – ie play-actors at life. Using Godly actions to cover and suppress our dark side turns us into white-washed graves. This was the problem which Jesus criticized the religious rulers of his day for.

Today, I want to discuss why we don’t have to be afraid of our dark side. Some of you will strongly disagree with what I’m going to say, but that’s OK. Take it or leave it as you see fit. But there’s life here for those who are willing to listen and consider it.

To understand why we don’t need to be afraid of our dark side, we need to go back to the beginning. Christians have generally taught that prior to the fall, man was perfect. In fact, our dark side is usually seen as the result of the fall – evidence of what is wrong with us. But the text itself doesn’t support this idea.

In Genesis 3, we find Adam and Eve hanging out by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent approaches and asks, “did God really say that you cannot eat of the fruit of the garden?” Eve replies that it’s only the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which they are not allowed to eat. And then she adds: “nor may we touch it.” Which isn’t true.

God hadn’t forbidden touching the fruit, only eating it. Eve has just told a lie. Which means that even prior to the fall, man was not perfect as we conceive of perfect. Our dark side was part of us from the beginning. And yet God said man was “very good”, was pleased with his creation and willing to walk in the garden with them “in the cool of the evening”.

This may seem like an awful lot to read into this small detail in the story. However, look at the world around us. It’s not all sunshine and light. There’s decay and violence at every level of creation. And far from making creation bad, life and its goodness actually rely on these dark processes as well as the light ones to function properly. We are a part of creation and not immune from this reality.

Our dark side doesn’t make us bad or unacceptable to God. It’s part of being human. Trying to hide, deny and suppress it is damaging because it’s basically waging war on how God has created us. And presumably he created us that way for a good reason.

Let’s go back to the story of man’s creation and fall. The text makes a point of saying that the man and woman were naked and “they were not ashamed”. I have often wondered what this nakedness represents. Certainly there are sexual overtones. And there’s a lack of self-consciousness. But I’ve begun to think that it also represents humanity being wholly exposed – not hiding or covering any part of who they are. Including our dark side.

When we ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our first reaction was to realize that we were exposed – our dark parts were showing – and start trying to hide them. The text says that “their eyes were opened” when they ate the fruit. Which would mean that they were suddenly able to perceive what had been invisible to them before.

Perhaps, having only encountered approval up until now, they had been unaware of their own dark side. Maybe they had never considered that some of their ways – such as lying – could be seen as wrong before eating the fruit. Or they may have been unaware that those parts were exposed for all to see. It could be all three.

We see from Adam and Eve’s behavior that not allowing God to see them suddenly became a paramount concern. Covering our bodies doesn’t make them go away, of course. But it does restrict who can see or perceive them. And we were determined to keep God from perceiving them.* 

So, we’ve been engaging in this game of trying to cover and hide those parts of ourselves we think are unacceptable for a very long time. Clearly, this hasn’t made our dark side go away. And if our dark side is part of who we are created to be, making it go away shouldn’t be our goal anyways.

On the other hand, giving control of ourselves over to our darkest impulses isn’t acceptable either. In nature, death, decay and deformity unbounded by the forces of life and regeneration can stop the proper functioning of creation. It’s no different with us.

But what Jesus says is that the dark must be brought into the light. Since the fall, we have sought to hide the dark from the light. We don’t want it exposed. But this is exactly what Jesus says must happen.

For us, this means we must be honest. We have to stop hiding the fact that we do have these dark impulses. That we desire revenge, unbounded pleasure, slothful ease and, always, an easy way around our problems. Rather than hiding or denying them, we must pull them out and bring them to God. Bring them to the light of the world.

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ~ John 1:5

In my next post, we’ll look at what happens when you bring your darkness into the light. And how lighting our lamps helps bring light to other people’s dark sides as well.

*There’s an interesting discussion to be had regarding the roots of religion in the story of Adam and Eve’s coverings – first the ones they fashioned for themselves and then the animal skins God provided them. But that’s beyond the scope of this discussion, so I’ll leave that for another time.

Other posts of interest:

Why Was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden?

The Fall Wasn’t Our Fault

I Asked God to Hit My Husband With a Bus.

Why We Sin

800px-Salt_mirrorMany research telescopes have lenses made up of multiple mirrors. Each individual mirror must be pointed in exactly the right direction to focus the light they gather into a clear picture. By using many smaller mirrors, telescope lenses can be made much more economically and much larger than is possible with a single, large lens. The only drawback is that if one of the mirrors is a little off – pointing just slightly in the wrong direction – the image created has distortions and the whole thing is rendered useless until the wayward mirror is re-positioned properly. The mirrors each sit on their own little platform with its own little motor which can swivel it around to get it into just the right position. When all the mirrors are positioned just right, the result is a detailed, crisp image of objects around the universe which are unimaginably far away.

I wrote the other day about the fact that our identity as human beings is an “image of God”. As I explain to my kids, we’re a lot like mirrors meant to reflect God. Only like a poorly focused telescope lens, our mirrors are pointed in all the wrong direction. So we don’t reflect God, but all sorts of other things instead. The Christian walk is the process of allowing God to pivot the mirrors back into their proper position so that we reflect his image properly.

In the Christian vernacular, the reason our mirrors are all out of alignment is because of sin. In the bible, the Greek word for sin is harmartia which is derived from an archery term. And it means to miss – like to miss a shot with an arrow. In the same way, the Hebrew word for sin is chet. It also comes from an archery term and means to miss or to not quite his the mark. Just like a mirror which misses the object it is meant to reflect. (I always think it is important to note that the damage of sin doesn’t just come from sinning – it also comes from being sinned against. See the Korean concept of Han, introduced to us by theologian Andrew Sung Park.)

The question I want to look at today is why we are so prone to be sucked in by sin. After all, if our true identity is that of the very image of God, then why is sin so tempting? To be clear, when I’m speaking of sin, I’m not primarily referring to rule breaking, not keeping the 10 commandments, or things that will make other Christians look askance at you. I’m using the word sin to reference our tendency to point ourselves at things which are not God. It could be a traditional sin like stealing or murder or it could be a sin of the heart like idolatry, greed or hatred. Or it could be self-destructive behavior like addiction, gluttony or co-dependence. In my estimation, it’s all sin – it all misses the mark of what we are created to reflect.

For our purposes, let’s pretend that we are one of those telescope lenses I spoke of earlier, with many smaller mirrors coming together to create a large lens. Each of those mirrors is supposed to reflect some part of God. Just as there are innumerable ways to sin, there are innumerable ways to reflect God. For example, there are self-worth, intimacy, abundance, purpose, courage, obedience, pleasure and peace. And let’s say that the larger lens, made up of all the little parts is Love itself. So when each part of the lens is properly focused, the lens will reflect back an image of Love.

Let’s go further and say that each little part – each mirror, if you will – is created to be drawn to what it is meant to reflect. There is an internal pressure, much like the little motor under each mirror, which draws the mirror into the proper position so it can reflect what it was created to reflect. So there is something in each of us which desires the Godly things we are made for – self-worth, intimacy, abundance, purpose, courage, obedience, pleasure and peace are our examples. Our desires for these things are Godly and are actually our primary drivers in life. Everything we do comes out of them.

Ideally, we would be born and in the process of growing up, our God-given needs/desires would direct us so that we would grow into ever sharper, more focused images of the Love which we are meant to reflect. However, there are two primary things which get in the way of this process playing out. The first is that we are surrounded by people who are improperly focused and instead of helping us, they hurt us. So from childhood on, our mirrors have been shoved out of focus due to the damage caused by other’s sin.

The second challenge, and the one I want to focus on today, is that we have this enemy. He’s our accuser and if you recall, his specialty is offering up false pictures and stories of real things. (I know that some people view Satan as a real, spiritual being and others believe its a personification of something in the human psyche. Whatever reality is, it’s irrelevant for the purposes of our discussion here. What I’m describing works either way.) He takes something God actually says – don’t eat the fruit – and offers an alternative explanation – an accusation – for the instruction: he doesn’t want you to be powerful like he is. He’s holding out on you. He sees Job’s faithfulness and says, “it’s only because you protect him” – he offers an alternative picture – an accusation – for what is.

Now, we all know (I hope) that “the devil made me do it” isn’t a legitimate explanation for our sin. But we are vulnerable to sin because the enemy, doing what he always does, offers us alternative versions of the Godly, real things we need. So we need self-worth and he offers arrogant pride. We’re drawn to it because it seems like a plausible way to meet this deep-seated need and drive we have for self-worth. We need intimacy and he offers sex without covenant love. Again, we fall for it because it seems to offer a plausible way to get a real need met. We are meant to be courageous so he offer recklessness. We need obedience – a direction to follow – so he offers legalism. We need pleasure, so he offers drugs or shopping or some other way to feel good. So on and so forth.

Of course, we are very complex creatures, so this can play out in innumerable ways. But the point is that at its root, every form of sin offers a counterfeit way to get a legitimate, God-given need or desire met. And each time we fall for it, we end up with that mirror stuck pointing at something which is not God.

The farther out of focus we are, the easier it is for us to fall for one of these counterfeits. If one of our “mirrors” has been knocked completely out of alignment, the distance it must travel to sweep back into alignment is greatly increased. Which means that the journey from where we are to where God is has plenty of space for the enemy to insert one of his counterfeit answers to our needs. At the same time, that little motor driving us back towards God is working especially hard, meaning we want and need that good thing from God that we are seeking even more. So we’re more vulnerable to wanting the counterfeit to be the answer to our need. And if we’ve been knocked completely out of alignment, that part of ourselves may never have gotten so much as a glimpse of the real object we seek – what God offers. So we may not even be sure that there is a better answer to our needs than the counterfeit version the enemy offers us.

This is why people who have experienced trauma – which can knock us completely out of alignment – tend to be more prone to falling for the enemy’s temptations. Thus a child who grows up in a controlling environment where his right to self-determination is repeatedly violated may develop a will to dominate others. The need for self-control is valid, but the counterfeit answer he grasps onto causes harm to himself and everyone he encounters.

Let’s add in one more factor which not only makes us vulnerable to these counterfeit version of what we need, but causes us to cling to them. That is fear. The bible says, “perfect love casts out fear”. If we have fear, we can be certain that we are not in alignment with God. There’s no room for fear in perfect love. (Many people claim that fear can be a good thing that keeps us safe. A fear of death keeps us from walking in front of a speeding car, for example. However, I have no fear of death what-so-ever and I don’t go walking in front of speeding cars. Because I don’t desire the outcome of walking in front of a speeding car. It would hurt for one. I would leave my children motherless for another. That’s not fear; it’s a rational decision.)

But fear keeps us stuck. We have this deep, God given need and drive towards things like self-worth, intimacy, courage, pleasure, abundance, etc. But we end up clinging to a counterfeit answer to our needs out of fear. Often we can even see that our counterfeit answers are hurting us (and others), but can’t bring ourselves to let go because we are afraid that without them we will have nothing. Thus a person in a destructive relationship may remain there because they are afraid that if they do they will never experience the intimacy that they need. After all, something is better than nothing, right? So fear keeps us hanging onto things which are inadequate to our needs and harmful to ourselves and those around us.

What is needed to overcome sin is to figure out what legitimate need you are trying to get met through the sin and seek that in God. Beating yourself up, trying to be “good” or to fix yourself won’t work. Even if you manage to overcome one manifestation of sin, you’ll just transfer it to another. (This is why a person who stops drinking often becomes a dry drunk or takes up some other vice like gambling or shopping. They’ve dealt with the behavior, but the underlying need the behavior was trying to meet hasn’t been dealt with.)

I read this yesterday on facebook:

An African tribe does the most beautiful thing.

When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him.

For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness.

But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help.

They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected:

“I AM GOOD.”

I don’t know if this is actually what some tribe in Africa does, but there’s deep wisdom here. When we sin, it means that we are out of alignment with our true identity – and are not pointing back to God. So often we respond to sin with condemnation and punishment. Such things can sometimes bring a particular sin or behavior to an end. But they cannot fix what caused us to fall into the sin to begin with. They simply substitute one counterfeit for another.

The only way through this obstacle course of sin and temptation is a determination not to settle for anything other than God. Jesus said, “seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be given to you.” Condemnation can’t fix sin. Neither can judgment. Trying harder can’t. Religion can’t. Fighting our needs and desires certainly can’t fix sin. God fixes sin. Pointing ourselves to God and nothing else fixes sin.

One Sermon*

preacher3In the minds of many people, the story of Christianity starts at the fall -with sin and our need for a savior. But that’s not true. The start of the Christian story is the secret of our true identities. We are image bearers. Before we are sinners. Before we need a savior. We are a people who bear the very image of God as our identity. When we skip over this truth and go straight to our sin, we allow the work of the enemy rather than the work of God to define us.

Too many Christians participate with this deception of seeing ourselves primarily as sinners. Perhaps this is because sin is what is easiest for us to see from the outside looking in. In scripture sin is usually spoken of in terms of being unclean, dirty, filthy. Sin obscures that core of who we were created to be – images of God himself. But sin can’t change it or take it away. Think of it like a diamond that gets left in a tide pool and becomes encrusted with mud, bits of shells, plant materials, maybe even eaten and crapped back out. The diamond is still there, unchanged. But it has been completely encrusted with filth until there is no remaining visible sign of it’s existence.  There are many verses in scripture which speak of our sins being washed away. We are washed in the blood of Christ. And once those sins are washed away, what is revealed? Who we really are – images of the God who created us.

This is what salvation is. Continue reading