Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Amateur Theology of Sin and Grace

With graduation, smiles, and happy things happening all around me, it's a little odd to be writing on such a sobering topic as sin. And truthfully, "sin" is one of those words that is somewhat "sticky" in the sense that biases are easily attached to it. In many secular circles, the very mention of "sin" is an instant turn-off, a religious word that incurs judgement and guilt. Interestingly, in many Christian circles, it becomes something of the opposite: bland and weightless. We say blithely, "Oh yes, I am a sinner saved by grace!" but perhaps have not truly experienced or contemplated what that means.

As I have studied recently, one thing in my walk with God that I have begun to see more crisply is the degree to which sin has devastated all things. It is a deep and vicious cancer, an inescapable disorder, a deathly disease that has afflicted the best and worst of us alike. We are strangely victims of it and perpetrators of it. If you will walk with Christian theology for a moment and consider the idea of "the devil" deceiving mankind into choosing themselves over God, think about it as an act of sabotage, a definitive war move, an attack. And if you imagine the worst of human atrocities, the depth of human sorrow, every hateful act that has unfurled since the beginning of time, does it make you angry that such a reality was sought after, hoped for, and worked for by an enemy that hates us only second to his hate for God? It should. And it should hopefully give you a clearer picture of Satan than some harmless pitchfork-bearing creature in spandex. 

That doesn't put us off the hook though. We, too, have bought into sin. We have bought into the repetitive and cyclic lie that we are the most important thing in our lives. We continue to reach out for the forbidden fruit. There is blood on our hands, on the blades of our speech, in our actions and our lack of action. There is no avoiding that we are sinful, broken, hurting and hurtful beings. So yes, we are victims of sin in that we have a very real enemy who has the worst for us, but we are also perpetrators of the system we have been born into as we continue to deny and reject God for our own physical, emotional, or intellectual pleasure. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed Timothy Keller's description of forgiveness, because it acknowledges that the cost of any wrongdoing must be born by someone. He uses the example that if somebody drove their car through your fence, someone - whether you or the driver - would have to bear the cost of fixing the wall. Remember in economics class when you learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch? I'm afraid this is a very deep spiritual concept as well. To make something right, someone must pay. And that goes for economical costs, emotional costs, physical costs - all cost. 

People often ask why Jesus had to die - why can't God just forgive everyone? Doesn't this make him so vengeful and cruel? But think about the wall example. You can forgive the person who drove through your wall, but that means that you instead of they will pay for the wall's repair. Someone has to pay. Now think of the deep and horrendous cost of sin, a cost that not you, not I, no man or woman that has ever lived can bear. That is, except for Jesus Christ. We are marred, broken, sopping wet in the despair of our actual spiritual condition: that we are sinners, trapped and confined and yet equally trapping and confining. We are guilty, we are hopeless. We hurt one another, we scorn being hurt. All for sin. And that is a tremendous cost. A cost that Jesus, to rescue us, bore. 

There is a deep beauty in this reality. Sobering, certainly, but releasing. Think about suffering. We often throw the suffering of ourselves or others in the face of God and say, How can you exist? How can you be good? I contend that we misunderstand that we suffer because we still live in a system that is ruled by sin. Sin, even when we are saved by Jesus, is still part of our bodies, our minds, our very hearts. By his death and resurrection on the cross, Jesus abolished sin's hold on us. But we live the rest of our lives letting him teach us to release our hold on it. And in any system where sin - where self - prevails, so will pain, suffering, and hardship.

An anonymous woman is quoted by Timothy Keller as saying,
If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with "rights" - I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace - then there's nothing he cannot ask of me.

Does that quote scare you? Rub you the wrong way? The truth is, bad things happen. We live in a fallen system, and it's going to hurt. This does not change the sovereignty of God. And when we choose to throw ourselves on the grace of Christ, when we accept the beauty of his sacrifice, this is freedom and liberty for our hearts, but we cannot expect to suffer less because of it. If anything, sometimes our greatest deepest liberty and freedom is found in very trying circumstances. And these circumstances may come about from sin, from a sad and at times harrowing reality of the world, but God still brings the best out of it. Or sometimes he asks us to go places where we will rub very painfully against a world that wants nothing to do with him. But God is still good, and He is on a rescue mission to save the world.

(I have so much more to say about this! But this is a good stopping point for today.)

On a less heavy note, here are some pictures of the colors in Tucson. :)

Saturday, December 3, 2011


My mom asked me to write this post. :)

That said, I don't feel qualified in any real sense to broadcast my opinions about marriage, being so far from holy matrimony myself. But as a single person, I can sort of get away with it. I'm not dating anyone, so no one will be freaked out that I am writing such a post (although that would be highly amusing). But because neither am I married, I'm not implicitly telling everybody that I have found superior answer to theirs. I am a non-party in this whole thing, which permits me, in a strange way, to share my thoughts undisturbed. Consider these my reflections from having a number of happily married friends and mentors, in watching good friends participate in healthy long-term relationships, in conversations with my parents and with my brother and others, and in my own personal walk with God.

A child of divorce, I remember lamenting at a young age that so many marriages failed. The divorce rate was astronomical, and even among the married there seemed precious few that had a genuinely loving, strong, and beautiful relationship. I reflected often on how my own parents' marriage fell short from either side, and often heard both sides of the issue. I would thoughtfully evaluate where they each misunderstood each other and log it away in my collective reflections on relationship in general. Looking at culture at large, divorce or a poor marriage seemed like a disease, something that could sneak up on any couple. I can understand why many people in my generation have ceased to believe in marriage, choosing instead to be "safe" and live together, or to retain ambiguous future plans founded essentially in self-protection.

What might be surprising, however, is that even in seeing so many relationships fail, in seeing marriages fall, in seeing loved ones hurt each other or worse, grow indifferent to one another...I still believe very strongly in marriage. Why? Because I think most of us have it wrong.

Culturally, we treat marriage like a consumer. Marriage is something that will make us "better", "happier", and will generally complete us. Marriage is a goal. And because we treat marriage this way, we become disillusioned when it fails to meet our expectations, when people are (surprise) imperfect, when at the end of the day, marriage doesn't make us any "happier" in the long run. Ultimately, we treat marriage as if it is there to serve us, and that is a crucial misunderstanding - in my unmarried opinion - that destroys matrimony consistently.

But...and this may not be the popular opinion (and frankly I don't care), but we are all sinners. You are a sinner. I am a sinner. We hurt each other. We do dumb things. We are far from perfect. It is my firm belief that marriage is not ultimately for our happiness. Our happiness is certainly a byproduct of a healthy marriage, but happiness is always a terrible goal. Marriage is for our holiness, and by that I mean that it refines us, it sharpens us, it is meant to teach us how to sacrifice ourselves for our spouse. And, as you may have noticed, some of the most refining moments in our lives are not always the most pleasant.

Take running for example. You don't go running because your body feels physically great the whole time. In fact, in my own experience, I enjoy running in a strange sort of way, in that I acknowledge and embrace the discomfort, but am the most rewarded after the fact. Or think about raising kids. No one will raise their hand and say that raising children is a cakewalk, yet most people identify with eventually wanting to do so. It requires daily perseverance, consistency, strength, and patience, but we still sign ourselves up for it. Or what about eating well? I have found that even when I crave that something sweet, I know I physically feel so much better when I refrain. I find that there are so many examples in life that represent discipline and refinement, working hard and sticking with it. There seems to me a grand illusion about easiness in everything we do in life. Rarely are the easy thing and the right thing the same thing. Usually the easy thing creates a transient, mirage sort of "happiness" that melts away almost immediately, while the right thing works a lasting satisfaction and patience in us. Which would you rather have?

Bear with me: I think if there is one thing that will build up your marriage, it is serving your spouse. It is laying down your own needs and meeting theirs, and (newsflash), this will not always be fun or easy. Ultimately, I believe that marriage represents the union of God and His people, and how beautifully this is demonstrated in relationships where husband and wife continually lay down their rights, their gut instincts, their laziness, their pride, their sin, and love one another. Don't be disillusioned about marriage: recognize the beautiful hardship in it, recognize that it is a union of two sinners saved by grace, that forgiveness and service are the rule not the exception, and that in a consistency of dying to self, joy is found.

But what do I know? I'm just a twenty-something in a coffee shop.