A Bit on Sin

This post is connect to the slowly emerging theology thing that I’m up to…

One of the deeply formative parts of growing up Lutheran was the weekly use of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness out of the Lutheran Book of Worship. Most every Sunday of my theologically aware life I heard 1 John used as a call to confession: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The reflection caused by this verse on human sin, our recognition of it and our practices of deception are at the center of my theological anthropology. One of the enduring marks and capacities of human sin is our astounding ability to deceive ourselves.

We commit some of our greatest sins under the steadfast conviction that we are right and that we do the will of God.

We can conceive of the most ingenious ways to absolve ourselves of wrong. One of the most chilling books I read in seminary was The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide which looks at how doctors—some of whom were personally kind to the inmates intheir death camps—were psychologically able to do what they did in the name of medicine.

Based on this text, the works of John Cassian, the sayings of the  Desert Fathers and my own life experience, I’ve come to the conviction that the intellectual mind is not and cannot be relied upon as an objective judge of motives.  Given the time and the desire, we can justify almost anything to ourselves.

We need checks and balances, and that means a live community that is not enmeshed in our own reasoning processes. Even written guides are not entirely sufficient. Only real people will do—hence the Tradition’s insistence on a confessor and a spiritual director, people who—while they might be as enmeshed in their own deception as we are (though we hope not)—are not enmeshed in ours.

A preponderance of people, of course, is no guarantee that self-deception is not going on. Organizations don’t transcend human nature, they concentrate it. Organizations can be both much better than the people involved or much worse (or anywhere in between) due to this concentrating power. Organizations can perpetuate systems and logics of self-deception in the same way that individuals can. We’re all familiar with how this works through history’s familiar refrain: “I was just following orders.”

11 thoughts on “A Bit on Sin

  1. Christopher

    But also in the Church we have someone who comes to us who is Other than ourselves, who binds us up as well as confronts us. I hold out hope that this One in the end will out.

  2. John-Julian, OJN

    Oh, Derek, that’s all so very, very Lutheran!

    You treat sin as though it were a ding on sich — out there floating on its own as though it were an actual quantity in and of itself. But it isn’t! As Julian puts it, “Sin hath no substaunce”. It is not a “thing” that I do without intending to do it! I can break rules, ignore laws, offend against traditions or customs, but I CANNOT SIN WITHOUT CHOOSING CLEARLY TO DO SO!

    If I “fool myself” regarding my motives (as I well might do), so what? God knows about that — and God knows that I have made the “mega-choice” in God’s favor — and along the way I shall screw up regularly, daily, even hourly — but that simply doesn’t matter. That’s redemption! One’s excuse-ridden sin is already forgiven — so we need merely to recognize it and then forget about it.

    Please, go read my translation of Julian’s 51st chapter. There’s no blame; there’s no judgment; there’s no punishment — there’s this fairly foolish dope who basically meant well, and screwed up on the details — and not only screwed up but spent so much time and energy worrying about the screw up that he never even saw the loving Lord behind him who looked at him with “pity, not with blame” — and who decided he should even have extra reward for having suffered the sinning!!!!

    That great shadow of constant self-accusation is an intolerable atmosphere for a Christian spirit — it bears all those tinges of dualism and Calvinism and the refusal of both creation and resurrection.

    Sorry — forgive the preachment. It’s just that I hear this self-distrust so often, and it is so, so off target.

  3. Lee

    Well, I certainly hope, with Christopher, that grace gets the last word, but this Lutheran thinks you’re onto something Derek.

    And is it really true that there’s no judgment, Fr. John-Julian? Dame Julian was undoubtedly a great saint, but Jesus seemed to imply otherwise.

  4. Robb (LP)

    The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

    Self-delusion (especially willful self-delusion) seems to be what we are in a constant struggle against. Yes, we are redeemed, but that does not change our capacity to self-delusion. Otherwise, what is sanctification?

  5. Christopher

    I’m afraid Fr. John-Julian that having experienced the self-delusion of community and particularly of the Church and its effects on my life, I’m less inclined to be so rosy about sin and resulting evil. That coupled with walking through Bergen-Belsen reminds me that our theology must deal with those who are not simply nice chaps who screw up.

    Derek’s words sound mildly Augustinian. As MacQuarrie notes, Anglicanism on the whole is semi-Augustinian. Sin and sins are not quite the same thing in such terminology. Sin may have no substance, but it has the power of sway and we must resist in Christ.

    Anglicanism has admitted the Church errs. In their phenomenal study, The Spirit of Anglicanism, Booty et al note that a part of our ethos is the prophetic-lay tradition, a tradition that would not be necessary if the Church and members of it were not prone to self-delusion.

    Again, what Derek writes here does not sound Calvinist to my ears, but it could resonate with F.D. Maurice–no friend of Calvin, while still recognizing the beauty and confluence of creation and reconciliation in Christ.

  6. Eric

    I too grew up Lutheran and remember the same words. I appreciate your comments on sin as it seems a good starting place for a discussion about systemic/societal sin and the difficulties in properly discerning it and doing the work of reconciliation.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, it’s Lutheran and therefore this acknowledged “little bit” is only one part of my understanding of sin. There is a system of grace and sacraments that goes with it.

    What I’m getting at here is that personal certainty and even organizational certainty that we know and do the will of God is not always the same as knowing and doing that will.

    Should we always be striving for this? Absolutely!

    Will we always succeed? Of course not!

    Can we screw up when we think we’re doing the right thing? Scripture, Tradition, and Reason say yes indeed.

  8. Eric

    I completely agree. We should always strive to be perfect, never forget we are imperfect, and repent for our errors along the way.

  9. Matt Gunter

    I think one of the most profound and disturbing lines in scripture is Paul’s observation in Romans 7, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” It was precisely his zeal for what he “knew” to be good that got him knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus.

  10. Steve Sylvester

    Count me as one who deeply accepts our tendency toward self-deception. That tendency is all over the Adam and Eve story, who are not satisfied with their creatureliness and decide to cover those procreative parts of themselves that remind them that they are not God. A simple fig leaf, but it suffices: like botox suffices to deny age, like deodorant suffices to obscure odor, etc., etc. Sin is not “that stuff we do or don’t do”. It’s being out of relationship with God, others and the world. So we make God a moral or ritual pedant, we limit our definition of neighbor (next door, yes, perhaps to the end of the street… unless to couple in that house are of the same gender) and we use conveniences to distance ourselves from a creation that we understand ourselves not to be a part of (excuse the dangling, please). That’s denial. Some unconscious, some willful. And that’s sin.

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