We continue our series The Dark Side, our attempt to reconsider the question of what we could call the sin principle. Not that we can ever really understand sin. Paul called it a mystery (2 Thess. 2:7), meaning that there was something about this tendency, this power, that we could never really nail down. As I understand it, practically every philosophy and worldview, every religion and political system postulates that something is wrong with the world, that it is not functioning in the way it ought to. Call it sin, call it ignorance, call it injustice or a thousand other names, we somehow collectively know the world isn’t right.
In the 1991 movie Grand Canyon, a driver attempts to break out of a traffic jam by heading off into unknown streets. Things get darker and more strange until the predictably worst happens: the man’s car breaks down in a bad part of town. As he waits for a tow truck, five young street toughs surround and threaten the stranded man and his car. Before they can do damage, however, the tow truck arrives. As the driver begins to hook up the car he gives the trouble-makers a lecture in philosophical ethics:
“Man,” [says the tow truck driver], “the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way its supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything is supposed to be different that what it is here.” [cited in Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way Its Supposed to Be (1995). p. 7]
So begins Cornelius Plantinga’s book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, one of the most incredibly helpful and hopeful l pieces I have ever read on -- of all things -- the nature and effect of sin. How is it that one could write so well, so insightfully and engagingly, on this topic? Plantinga could, I believe, because he firmly held on to the Biblical vision for what was supposed to be, a vision of shalom.
Shalom is the Hebrew word translated as “peace”, but it is a much bigger and more comprehensive idea than the cessation of war. Shalom is more akin to what a previous generation called the “peace dividend”, the idea that at the end of the cold war we could now buy textbooks instead of guns (what happened to that promise?). Shalom is, then, the full effect of a peaceful reality, what Plantinga described as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight”. It means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight -- a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in who he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be”. [Plantinga, p. 10]
When put this way, we begin to realize that sin is not simply an arbitrary list of bad behaviors that gets God twisted out of shape. Sin is all the ways we do violence to what it is we are most in search of: our peace and joy, our connection and meaning, our relationship to each other and to God. Sin is the virus in our personal and collective human system, the virus we have all been infected with, the thing we most need to be delivered from.
Which reminds me of something Calvin Coolidge is alleged to have said. Coolidge, the 30th American president, was known for his brief monosyllabic replies. Returning from church one day, he was quizzed by his wife on what the pastor talked about. “Sin”, said Coolidge. Asked to elaborate, Coolidge replied, “He was against it”. The truth is that we fight against something we barely understand but completely feel the effects of. Sin is both inside of us and outside of us. Like beach sand, it just tends to get into everything so that there is no aspect of our human reality unaffected.
As we purpose ourselves to push away from shallow and insufficient thinking on this matter, the kind of thinking that reduces sin to a list of bad behaviors, we realize that we are moving towards a more dynamic view of things. Things get more complex and more simple at the same time. Yes, there are the easy classifications of what we mean by sin, the big common ways we break the peace. But have you ever read the Sermon on the Mount? I dare you to try (Matthew 5-7). You will see how deep the sin principle goes in us, how Jesus peered into the very heart of who were were.
Which means that when it comes to the question of sin, we ultimately we need a Saviour. There is no way we can think or manage -- or behave -- our way out of this predicament. We need personal attention of a unique kind. After reflecting on his own complicated heart, Paul said this: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25a, NLT)
More on that hopeful thought next week.