An excursion into a universal experience.
I find myself following a train of thought into the Lenten season of discovering why churches have found this time before Easter ideal to talk openly about- Sin. And like the sacrament of confession, to do so together, as a spiritual family.
So, after we just had a very public “apology” for infidelity by one of our fallen sports heroes, and just before the first Sunday in Lent, I went looking for a serious, in-depth treatment of this thing we call Sin. I found much more than I was hoping for in Paul Tillich’s book, The Eternal Now” (Scribner’s Sons, 1963).
In Chapter 4, entitled “The Good that I will, I do not”, taken from the Apostle Paul’s statement in his Roman epistle :
“ For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”
I think Tillich just about hits the Biblical image of Sin and what Christians must understand if they in turn are to fully appreciate the “good news” of what God has gifted us with in the New Being. Here are some of the better thoughts. I hope you will take time to read them all and receive the intended blessing.
“ In these and countless other cases, we experience a power that dwells in us and directs our will against itself.
The name of this power is sin. Nothing is more precarious today than the mention of this word among Christians, as well as among non-Christians, for in everyone there is a tremendous resistance to it. It is a word that has fallen into disrepute. To some of us it sounds almost ridiculous and is apt to provoke laughter rather than serious consideration. To others, who take it more seriously, it implies an attack on their human dignity. And again, to others — those who have suffered from it — it means the threatening countenance of the disciplinarian, who forbids them to do what they would like and demands of them what they hate. Therefore, even Christian teachers, including myself, shy away from the use of the word sin.”
“ We know how many distorted images it can produce. We try to avoid it,or to substitute another word for it. But it has a strange quality. It always returns. We cannot escape it.It is as insistent as it is ugly. And so it would be more honest — and this I say to myself — to face it and ask what it really is.”
” It is certainly not what men of good will would have us believe — failure to act in the right way, a failure to do the good one should and could have done. If this were sin, a less aggressive and less ugly term, such as human weakness, could be applied. But that is just what sin is not. And those of us who have experienced demonic powers within and around ourselves find such a description ludicrous. So we turn to Paul, and perhaps to Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov, or to the conversation between the devil and the hero in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. From them we learn what sin is. And perhaps we may learn it through Picasso’s picture of that small Basque village, Guernica, which was destroyed in an unimaginably horrible way by the demonic powers of Fascism and Nazism. And perhaps we learn it through the disrupting sounds in music that does not bring us restful emotions, but the feeling of being torn and split. Perhaps we learn the meaning of sin from the images of evil and guilt that fill our theaters, or through the revelations of unconscious motives so abundant in our novels.”
“ It is noteworthy that today, in order to know the meaning of sin, we have to look outside our churches and their average preaching to the artists and writers and ask them. But perhaps there is still another place where we canlearn what sin is, and that is in our own heart.”
“Paul seldom speaks of sins, but he often speaks of Sin — Sin in the singular with a capital “S,” Sin as a power that controls world and mind, persons and nations.”
“ Have you ever thought of Sin in this image? It is the Biblical image. But how many Christians or non-Christians have seen it? Most of us remember that at home, in school and at church, we were taught that there were many things that one would like to do that one should not. And if one did them, one committed a sin. We also remember that we were told of things we should do, although we disliked doing them. And if we did not do them, we committed a sin. We had lists of prohibitions and catalogues of commands; if we did not follow them, we committed sins. Naturally, we did commit one or more sins every day, although we tried to diminish their number seriously and with good will. This was, and perhaps still is, our image of sin — a poor, petty, distorted image, and the reason for the disrepute into which the word has fallen.
The first step to an understanding of the Christian message that is called “good news” is to dispel the image of sin that implies a catalogue of sins. Those who are bound to this image are also those who find it most difficult to receive the message of acceptance of the unacceptable, the good news of Christianity. Their half-sinfulness and half-righteousness makes them insensitive to a message that states the presence of total sinfulness and total righteousness in the same man at the same moment. They never find the courage to make a total judgment against themselves, and therefore, they can never find the courage to believe in a total acceptance of themselves.”
‘It is dangerous to preach about sin, because it may induce us to brood over our sinfulness. Perhaps one should not preach about it at all. I myself have hesitated for many years. But sometimes it must be risked in order to remove the distortions which increase sin, if, by the persistence of wrong thoughts, wrong ways of living are inevitable.”
“I believe it possible to conquer the dangers implied in the concentration on sin, if we look at it indirectly, in the light of that which enables us to resist it — reunion overcoming estrangement.
“ Sin is our act of turning away from participation in the divine Ground from which we come and to which we go. Sin is the turning towards ourselves, and making ourselves the center of our world and of ourselves, Sin is the drive in everyone, even those who exercise the most self-restraint, to draw as much as possible of the world into oneself. But we can be fully aware of this only if we have found a certain level of life above ourselves. Whoever has found himself after he has lost himself knows how deep his loss of self was. If we look at our estrangement from the point of reunion, we are no longer in danger of brooding over our estrangement. We can speak of Sin, because its power over us is broken.”
Perhaps Tillich’s words may sound a little strange, his vocabulary isn’t exactly what evangelicals, for example, are used to hearing. But when he talks of “reunion overcoming estrangement”, he is speaking of the Christian Gospel, of what the New Testament writers all witness to. That God was ” in Christ, reconciling (re-connecting) the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them… For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”.
This is the direction that I am taking in these 40 days of Lent and I will try to blog about what I discover.
(Read more of Tillich’s essay)
see also Francis Schaeffer’s TRUE SPIRITUALITY-”Law of Love”
A related excursion, Richard Sibbes on “The Conflict of the Soul“