Sin isn’t the cause of all the bad or counterproductive things we do.
And blaming it on sin does harm.
When you have the wrong diagnosis, you’re going to have the wrong solution. And that can actually compound the problem.
One of the issues with Christianity over the ages is that we’ve never had a thorough understanding of the problems of the human condition.
We tend to blame everything on “sin” and lack of faith or lack of trust in God.
Yesterday my husband and I got into a conversation with someone after church about Augustine’s Confessions, and we got talking about the famous “pear” episode, from which “worm theology”, the thought that we are all helpless sinners and can do nothing else, really derived and got its start.
Augustine wrote his Confessions around 400 A.D. He was a prominent Christian scholar in what is now Algeria, and had converted to Christianity after quite a promiscuous lifestyle. He never married, but became one of the fathers of the faith, his writings very influential.
Here’s what happened wtih the pears (and I’m doing this from my memory, so I may be a little off):
Augustine and some friends climbed the fence into a neighbour’s orchard and stole pears and ate them. They did it not because they wanted to eat the pears–there were better pears in their own garden–but because they wanted to destroy the neighbours’ pears. They did it for the thrill of doing something wrong.
What this episode drove home to Augustine is that he is a a terrible sinner, since he desires to sin for sin’s own sake–not even to get the benefit of the pears, but just to wreak havoc. His base desires are sinful, and therefore humanity’s base desires are to destroy. We are fundamentally, in our nature, sinners, and we have to fight against this.
This is quite compelling, and it’s a great illustration.
But what if we look at it from another angle?
We know that adolescent males tend to gravitate to risk-seeking behaviour. There’s something about hormones combined with brain development at that time that makes teen boys do stupid things.
We also know that people crave adrenaline rushes–it’s why we skydive and bungee jump and even go on upside down roller coasters.
So what if Augustine’s and his friend’s desires to get the pears is less about an innate desire to do evil, and more about developmental risk taking that is channeled in the wrong direction, along with a desire for adrenaline rush?
Both of these things–risk taking in adolescence and desire for adrenaline rush–are part of the human condition, and are not, in and of themselves, sinful. They can be channelled in sinful ways, but they are not, in and of themselves, bad.
Another example: the desire for a relationship.
What if you really, really want to get married, but you don’t have any prospects? You’re actually quite desperate for a relationship. You feel lonely. You think about marriage all the time. You’re sad. You try to keep yourself busy and not think about it too much, but the fact is that you’re not happy single.
And you go to church and you hear that this is a form of idolatry. You are placing your desire for a spouse ahead of your desire for Jesus, and you are failing to consider Jesus enough for you. This is a lack of trust in God. You don’t think that God is enough for you. So you don’t actually love Jesus enough.
But is this true?
After all, God designed us for relationship and said that it wasn’t good for us to be alone. He made us with a desire for marriage and a sexual relationship and companionship.
And many of us have things in our pasts that make us really gravitate towards a relationship, and feel incomplete on our own. Maybe we had insecure attachment to our parents. Maybe we grew up alone, in the foster care system. Maybe we have trauma in our backgrounds and we’re desperate for love.
Does this feeling of sadness because we’re not married mean that we don’t trust God enough? Or does it mean that we have wounds that are making singleness even more painful for us than it would be for other people? Does it mean that we’re just sad that something which God designed us for doesn’t seem to be happening in our case?
Or let’s consider the idea of laziness–and not feeling motivated.
Let’s say that you have an idea of what you’re supposed to accomplish in a day, and what the people around you need from you. You need to keep the home organized and relatively clean, and everyone fed. You need to keep stuff relatively under control–organizing the calendar, figuring out any birthday parties that are coming up, figuring out gifts, figuring out doctor’s appointments. You’re supposed to be working on some courses online. You’re supposed to be exercising.
And you have no energy for anything, and at the end of the day, all you can think of is everything that you didn’t get done. You weren’t diligent. You didn’t persevere. You were just lazy. You wasted time that you will never get back. You can’t seem to get your act together, which means that you’re not trusting God enough. You’re letting your responsibilities go, so you must be a selfish person.
But what if you’re just overwhelmed? What if you’re not sleeping well? What if you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in six years because of the kids not sleeping through the night? What if you’ve got mild depression and sometimes you feel like you have no energy?
You get the picture–I could go on and on and on.
When we end up doing things we don’t want to do, or we feel things intensely that we don’t want to feel, we blame it on sin.
The human heart is wicked and deceitful and is always pulling you away from God, you know. So if you have depression that won’t lift, it’s because you’re not focusing on the joy of the Lord (not because you actually have a chemical imbalance). If you have a bad habit you can’t stop, it’s because you’re not disciplined and you’re not saying that God is enough for you (not because you learned unhelpful self-soothing techniques in your childhood and adolescence). If you have a bad relationship with your grandparents, it’s because you’re failing to love and having a bad attitude (not because you were forced into the adult role at age 10, told that you need to initiate all phone calls and communication, and it was too much to put on a child).
Not every bad thing in our lives is caused by a sinful desire.
Sometimes it’s caused by our own trauma in our background. Sometimes it’s caused by hormonal changes. Sometimes it’s caused by being put in impossible situations. Sometimes it’s just the limits of our own endurance.
But when we over-spiritualize things and call it all sin, then when we are at our weakest point, we can’t go to God for help, because God is the source of condemnation, not consolation.
Sure, He may forgive us. But if we do it again tomorrow, and again the day after that, are we still going to feel close to Jesus? Or are we going to feel like we spend our lives disappointing Him, trying to figure out how we can make it up to Him? Are we going to feel like what He asks of us is just too much?
What if part of the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus understands?
The Incarnation has so many purposes, and we tend to focus on only one: He came to be the perfect sacrifice.
But what if it’s more than that?
- What if it’s that He came to show us what God is like?
- What if it’s that He came to show us how to be fully human?
- What if He came to show us that He understands our hormonal changes; our grief; our exhaustion; our disappointments; our longing for something else?
How would that understanding of Jesus change our faith?
What if we could approach so many of our issues not as sin issues and attach shame to them, but instead as part of the human condition? We all have baggage from childhood, and some of us have truckloads that is much heavier than others. That doesn’t mean you’re more sinful; it means that you have much to bear, and Jesus sees that and knows what that looks like. If some of us have harder times with motivation and with mental health, it doesn’t mean that we’re more sinful; it means that we’re more prone to these issues, and Jesus understands.
I think Augustine was wrong about the pears.
I think that he had an adolescent desire for an adrenaline rush, and it was channelled in the wrong direction. But that desire for an adrenaline rush was not, in and of itself, bad.
Being human isn’t a sin. Dealing with the frailties of the human condition does not mean that we are sinning.
Yes, sin is real. But not everything bad or uncomfortable has our own sin as its root.
What if we could focus on Jesus as the Healer rather than just Jesus as the Saviour? What if we could focus on Jesus as the Friend and not just Jesus as the Forgiver?
What if we could have more compassion upon ourselves?
I’m looking ahead and planning the podcasts up until Christmas break, and I think this theme is going to keep coming up, again and again. What if we can see trauma more clearly? How do we find true wholeness? How can we put aside shame and embrace freedom and love?
I hope the church can get there, because there have been far too heavy burdens put on people’s backs, as we’ve blamed ourselves basically for being human.
What do you think? Has this idea that everything bad is because you’re sinning hurt you and your relationship with God? Hurt you and your healing? Let’s talk in the comments!