You are not God.
That is the declaration that sin makes, yet somehow we seem to have lost that concept. Modern understandings of sin tend to fall on or near one of two extremes.
The first extreme is growing in popularity but is still the most easily dismissed. That is the view that there is no sin. This view is usually held by people who are more “progressive” or “liberal,” labels which they carry proudly. They tend to view sin as an archaic concept from an ancient time of absolutes. Adherents to this idea tend to argue that “good” and “bad” are relative. However the hypocrisy and ultimate defeat of this theory is that even the staunchest “live and let live” liberal has in their mind a list of sins, some of which are unforgivable. Examples may include oppression, pedophilia, rape, etc. I have still yet to find a person who truly holds to this view, even if they idealize it.
The more insidious misapplication of sin is when people think of sin as a heavenly list of dos and don’ts. This view is often held by self-identifying “conservatives.” These people believe that committing one of these forbidden acts earns a person a one way ticket to Hell. Conversely, there are things that one must do in order to avoid hell. People create lists which they believe are universally applicable in all places and every situation. Ironically, these lists vary from one person to the next, casting doubt on the legitimacy of any particular list. Often using the Bible as source material, they tend to handpick certain “sins” (to outsiders this will appear random in nature) and elevate them to special pinnacle of evil. The sins chosen for this tend to be plucked from the Bible without any regard for historical or cultural context, yet tend to conform more to the culture and context of the modern individual creating the list. Nuances such as “good and vs holy and common” or “biblical Israel vs all peoples,” tend to never even be considered. Examples in the United States include Christians’ opposition to Capitalism in the 19th century, and seeming reversal to opposition to any hint of Socialism in the 21st, the mid 20th century war on racial integration and mixed-race marriage. and most recently the obsession with what civil rights should be granted or withheld from homosexuals. In every aforementioned instance, biblical verses were found to support their position, and verses that opposed such views completely dismissed.
Both of these views have something in common. Both are used to declare that the self is God. Let me explain. In the first view, the self is allowed to view the entirety of the world and declare that there is nothing morally wrong (please remember I stated that I don’t believe anyone actually holds this view). In the second view, the self is allowed to declare what is and is not acceptable, and clothe that list in divine authority. In both these instances, humility has been removed and there is no room left for the divine.
The Christian Bible does not speak of sin this way. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and detractors that human effort is never sufficient and often the most religiously “law-abiding” people are the ones furthest from God. See how Jesus condemns the publicly righteous man who “thanks” God he is so able to be sinless, in favor of the humble sinner who recognizes his need for a savior. One man judges himself as only God can, and judges himself great. He has deluded himself into believing that he is divine, that he is perfect. The other man is humbled by sin, does not condemn others because he knows he has earned plenty of condemnation himself.
After Jesus, the Apostle Paul speaks of the universality of sin, placing us all in the same “celestial boat.” James, the brother of Jesus, reminds the church that if they break one part of God’s Law, they have broken it all, because the same God who gave one law, gave us the other. Yet today the glutton condemns the adulterer, and the greedy condemns the thief. In their minds their sin is of lesser severity. The trouble is only God can make that judgement, and they of course are not God.
Jesus said the whole Law of God is built upon the command to love God with your whole being, and love everyone else as much as yourself. All sin is a failure to do this. To use the concept of sin to degrade others is to sin against the very law you are invoking.
Sin has one purpose, and that is to loudly declare that we are not God. We are far from perfect. We often fight against perfection that we encounter. Sin is powerful in that it affects every person on earth. You cannot rank sinners. Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler are not worse than you, they just had more opportunity and motivation.
To walk around as if you are better than anyone is to declare to God that your sins don’t count as much as the next guy’s. To make that declaration you must be only one of two things: God or an imposter. You are not God.
You are not God.
After spending a weekend with only a thin nylon tent protecting me from rain, hail, snow, lightning, and freezing temperatures I drove myself and my wife home from an otherwise pleasant getaway with friends in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About halfway home driving through California’s Central Valley, we approached the freeway off ramp that leads to the small town of Shafter, where I led my first mission trip to minister among the migrant farmers who populate the fields for much of the year. As my mind began to swim with warming memories of that trip, I was soon jarred back to the present time as the car in front of me began to swerve wildly across our lane and the next. I focused intently on the car as it meandered from one lane to the next. I proclaimed to wife, half-asleep from the journey, that he is surely drunk. He began to decelerate and I found my car quickly gaining on him.
I said to my wife, “We should call the police once we get away from him.” I cautiously crossed two lanes to give myself a buffer of space and began to overtake him, my thought being that if he crashes and we are behind him, we may not avoid a collision. As we were passing the car I looked over to see that he wasn’t visibly drunk, but was texting on a cell phone he held to his side as it was plugged in to a charger. I became enraged, proclaiming how selfish he was in endangering everyone else on the road. It still seemed prudent to pass him, as he was clearly a danger to us. I did so carefully, giving him a wide breadth of space. As he was in the far right lane I was forced to use the right one, committing a faux pas for sure, but done to prevent a greater danger. As we had just cleared him we approached a bridge, and as we passed under the bridge I sank in terror. A patrol car from the Highway Patrol sat on the backside of the bridge pylon, hidden from earlier view. I immediately abandoned my effort to escape the mad texter and slowed my car, but it was too late. I watched in agony in my rearview mirror as the patrol car started to lurch forward, gaining speed on me until he was directly behind me, flashing his lights and commanding me to pull over.
The patrolman approached the window of the car and told me, “I saw you going a bit fast when you were passing that other car.” He paused and added, “on the right,” as if to further accuse my driving habits. Without a chance for explanation, he whisked himself away to his car with my documents, and returned with a completed summons to appear in court. I saw that he marked my speed as 10 miles an hour over the posted limit. I became even more confused, imagining that 10 is not even fast enough to warrant a citation. After signing it I drove away upset at the injustice I perceived against me and the thought of having to pay money I do not really have.
Upon theological reflection, I realized this event to be a perfect picture of the world’s system. A man chose to disregard the well-being of others, denying them the love that Jesus commanded people to have for one another. In fear for my life and the life of my wife, and with little time to make a decision, I took an action that while technically illegal, I believed to be the most adventitious to promote the well-being of my family. I barely exceeded the legal limit of speed, but broke a law nonetheless. As I slowed and allowed the officer to catch up with me, the even more emboldened texter zoomed by, my experience in law enforcement reminding me that when two cars are speeding, the easier one to catch is almost always the one pulled over. The officer found me guilty and offered no chance of defense, other than to appear in court 150 miles from my home in front of a judge, where the officer can easily say that there is no excuse to go even one mile per hour over the limit. And he would be right. I was guilty.
Because of sin, I feel that I was forced into a situation where my own sin was the only way to escape. Even with the benefit of hindsight I am at a loss for what I could have done differently other than stay behind the car and risk collision. But that thought offers no comfort to a man who know he broke the law and will now be punished for it. The world is so corrupted that to survive in it through our own strength we must sin. I sinned because I did not know of another way out and in the moment of decision could not muster the faith to find another option.
The Bible speaks about this in the book of Revelation. Jesus proclaims that a time is coming that in order to participate in the world, to buy or sell anything, one must have “the mark of beast on his head and hands”. This warning is not some attack on bar codes or a prediction of a tattoo of allegiance, but an image familiar to those who know Scripture. Believers in the Old Testament were commanded to have the Law of God attached to their heads and their hands, the symbolic value being that we must think as God wants us to think with our head, and do as God wants us to do with our hands. We now live in a time where it is increasingly easier live life thinking and doing as the world does, guided along by the power of darkness, than to think and act as God would have us. And it is only going to get worse.
Given another example, when a HR manager does not check out the validity of claims on employment applications because of their own sloth and the insurmountable workload thrust upon them by a company who abuses its workers for the sake of profit, the honest man has little chance against those who lie, thus he is forced to lie or starve. If he is righteous he knows he will be rewarded by God in the end, but he must endure the terrible trials on earth now, being forced to choose between earthly success or failure.
Like a car driving recklessly and threatening to harm your family, the world will always make it easier to sin than to be righteous. Jesus encourages us to remain faithful to God no matter how hard it is to do so because in the end we are pleasing to He who created us. How do we know we be blessed in the end? Faith.
I just wish Jesus would go to traffic court with me as my advocate.