It was early summer 1995. The days were growing warmer. It was a naturally happy time of the year, not the season for a crisis. I had been a pastor for a dozen years already, and was now more than three and a half years into the establishment of my first church plant. Our little community was just beginning to hit its stride when we collectively found ourselves face to face with the dark side of human life and experience. We entered into a season of tears. I will not tell you what transpired for that little community because there is the need to protect privacy still. If I am frustrating your curiosity, so be it. Perhaps you can call to mind some painful passage from your own experience, a moment when sin crashed the party and you realized that life carries the dark possibility. Perhaps the failure was your own. Perhaps someone betrayed you or let you down. Perhaps there was a combination of both realities.
I can tell you this: as the leader of that new community I was seriously re-oriented to what it was we were doing together. We were finding grace in the deepest valley. And we were learning that Christian faith does not allow us be naive about ourselves or each other.
Sure we were startled with what had happened, startled and unnerved. And then we were disappointed (gut-wrenchingly so). And finally we were confused. What are we as people? And what are we capable of? How far down does the gospel go? I wanted to understand. I needed to understand. What was this destructive force that had rushed into our community with such overwhelming intensity?
I wanted to understand sin. I use the word deliberately: not mistake, not dysfunction or brokenness. While there is a place for such concepts, they inevitably miss the heart of the matter. Sin proposes that our dark side is a theological issue, that is, an issue with God. Sin has to do with our relationship to God. In the same way that loving God is expressed on the level of our human connections (love your neighbor as yourself), so it is that estrangement or rebellion against God has social consequences. But what we do to each other we first do to God.
That summer I was deeply troubled: was it possible to understand sin? I looked for help. I prayed and mused a lot. I talked to friends and mentors. I read. I read this:
One item that has become clear in the course of my study is this: sin is not clear. It cannot be. No matter how much effort we invest, sin and its accompanying evil will always remain unexplainable. Why? Because of the lie. Because of the deceit. Inherent in sin is the denial of the truth. We cover over our unwholesome motives and violent acts against others with a veneer of goodness. We sugarcoat our garbage. Everyone has a stake in hiding the truth of sin. This makes uncovering the mystery of how sin works difficult, because wherever we dig, lies rush in to fill the hole. Perhaps an objective or scholarly approach to the truth of sin is foredoomed from the start. Perhaps the only way to get at the truth of sin is through confession. [Ted Peters. Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society. 1994. p. 9]
That summer, as I tried to help the people I served as pastor, the theologian Ted Peters became one of my counsellors. Peters talked about the irrationality of sin, how “self-destructive and world-destructive” this aspect of our nature actually is. Our community knew what he was talking about when he said there is no real good reason for being this way. When all is finally said and done, said Peters, there can be no good reason for destroying the good imprint of God on our souls, the good purposes of God for us and creation, the good of community and the people we love and are responsible for. We cried about our loss as we held on to each other, confessing our sins, finding the grace of God reaching us right where we were.
So here is what I would like to say as we begin a new series: the good news begins with the bad news. Before we realize the full power of the gospel, we first realize some part of our capability to hurt and fail each other. Not that we will understand human sin fully. We can’t. But in confessing our sin we step towards the transformative grace that is ours in Jesus.
Next week I want to tell you about the second book I found that same summer: Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s book, Not the Way Its Supposed to Be. It helped me see what the essence of human sin really is: a breaking of the peace. The Hebrews called it shalom, the divinely intended flourishing of human life. Sin destroys shalom (peace), working against it in a thousand different ways. Shalom is what the gospel reclaims for us: peace with God and peace with each other (and perhaps peace with ourselves too).
But let’s begin by escaping our naiveté: there is a dark side to human nature. There is a dark side to my nature and your nature. Which makes the grace of God all the more glorious and necessary.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]