April Fooling Ourselves
Last week we hosted Sam McKim as he preached on the glory of God. Now you're back with me, and I'm continuing our series on human sin. Whoo? Again, this isn't a how-to guide—I imagine we're too good at that already—but rather an survey of various Biblical understandings of sin and how such Biblical insights can help us better resist temptation, endure any evils done to us, and give thanks to the Lord for Easter's promise of deliverance from evil. As a refresher, thus far we've seen how the most common Biblical word for sin literally means “to miss the target,” as in missing the goal of perfection God has for our lives. We then studied how the Bible describes sin as a slaving dictator, a tyrant wanting more and more power over your life until it—not you—controls your mind and actions. And we saw how the Bible describes sin as a debt, a moral owing that can be due both to evil things we have done... and good we've left undone, a debt that even if forgiven requires someone to pay the cost lest the reality of evil's horrors be unjustly ignored. Today we explore another common Biblical model for sin: sin as delusion, the idea that evil... is dumb... and that if we do evil things... we're just fooling ourselves.
Prophets existed in the Old Testament not so much to predict the future but to declare God's will. Most prophets were unpopular, because when things were bad enough God had to send someone to say, “Hey! Cut that out!” ...usually at that point God's people were in denial, didn't even want to admit what they were doing was wrong. God through the prophet Jeremiah, in our first scripture today, lays out how stupid God's people are being in their sin. The Lord lists all the ways he helped them in the past, things the people have forgotten, and it culminates in verse 7. “I brought you into a plentiful land / to eat its fruits and its good things. / But when you entered, you defiled my land / and made my heritage an abomination.” They were given a beautiful gift... and promptly soiled this sacred thing. And lest any excuse themselves by pointing the finger at others, the Lord systematically goes through the holiest and mightiest of his people in verse 8 to highlight how even the greatest have blinded themselves to the truth of God's goodness... how though none of them would admit their sins, priests and prophets and kings all turned away from God and went after “things that do not profit.” In short, the people gave up God, thinking they were getting a good deal, and got nothing in return. Our Jeremiah reading ends with God lamenting in outrage: “My people have committed two evils: (1) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water... and (2) they have dug out cisterns—that is, desert water wells—have dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” In essence, God in this Jeremiah text is pleading: “Why are you trading me away for idols? You're insulting me and getting nothing for this betrayal!” God's people in this text... deluded themselves into thinking good is bad and idols fine... and have tricked themselves into thinking all this is allowable, that everything is still okay despite the clear crisis Jeremiah depicts. Jeremiah's outrage here is a revelation that, no, things are not okay, that God's people were lying to themselves in their sin. If they want to repent from their sins, step one is admitting reality.
I turned 30 this weekend but also realized I've gained too much weight and don't fit into all my pants from just a few years ago. I'm not unhealthily big, just a little heavier than I'd like. And don't tease me about it lest I joke back. But regardless, I don't fit into all my old clothes. I could explain why: at age 30 my youthful metabolism finally wore off, my exercise routine needs boost, that “just this one time” desserts can add up to a lot of “one times” over time, that I was storing up for winter hibernation, and so on. But when I say this reality of not fitting into my old clothes, usually people lie to me. They say pleasantries that, while polite, don't change the reality that my belts don't fit like they used to. Only owning up to my mistakes and buckling down to eat better and work out more will fix it. Denying the problem exists will only make me need new pants sooner. But I imagine many folks—even hearing me call it lying—will lie to me about my weight after worship, saying polite nonsense to make me feel okay, when in reality my current feeling of not-okay motivates me to get back in shape. Most pastors belong to regional groups of clergy, who band together for mutual prayer and cooperation. I've belonged to three to five in my career so far, depending on how you tally it. And I've noticed: we pastors are great at pointing out the sins of people... outside our congregations. I hear all sorts of talk about how we need to go fix other people, whether it be political rivals or nonbelievers or the youths of today. Very rarely do we pastors—and I very much include myself here—rarely do we have the courage to honestly talk about actual moral failings among our own people. Because in an era where, if you annoy someone they can just go down the street to a brand new megachurch, why would you tell them a painful truth they don't want to hear? Or more often, we pastors are equally guilty of such sins as our congregations and so equally blind to their existence. We waste energy condemning others for sins that aren't hard for us, while ignoring the crucial repentance needed in our own lives and churches. Much like the priests and false prophets whom Jeremiah condemns, sin deludes us into thinking things are fine when the world's on fire, into ranting about splinters in others' eyes when our own eyes look like Home Depot's lumber yard.
This is as true of you as it is of me. Sin wants us to think everything is fine, because if we notice sin is at work, we'll turn back to God and change our ways. Sin wants to be like my belts not fitting, something that goes unnoticed for far too long. In our Lenten Tuesday night soup and C.S. Lewis series, we enjoyed two chapters from The Screwtape Letters, Lewis' book on spiritual warfare. In the book, the devils we Christians are supposed to fight say their best tactic is to never reveal themselves... that their goal is to keep Christians ignorant of sin and our spiritual danger... that they don't want atheists to truly philosophically prove God doesn't exist because—in searching for truth—a non-Christian might find God along the way instead. In the scene that got the most chuckles that night, one devil remembered a victim who nearly turned to the Lord amid deep spiritual turmoil but who—right as he was about to realize their must be more to this life—was informed by the devil that a bacon sandwich lunch would really help him sort through this God question. And in shopping for a sandwich, the man promptly forgot his wonderings about God... and thus lost his soul for a BLT. Sin doesn't want to be seen. Sin wants us to delude ourselves, to accept the comfy answer that everything-is-fine, no-need-to-worry... instead of the harsh but holy answer of repentance, of picking up your cross to follow Jesus. Far too many Christians these days content themselves with “not being in the KKK” or “not addicted to heroin” as holy enough for Jesus. Such “good enough” answers make us feel good. But they don't make us good. In fact, such pat answers trivialize goodness and corrupt the very idea of good, turning it from a sacred, perfect ideal into a cheap, tawdry, useless thing. Not even Gandhi was “good enough” to match the divine perfect holiness we are called to. Such sinful delusions led the people of God in Jeremiah's day to trick themselves into pretending dusty dry wells could replace the living water of God, to deceive themselves into assuming that their sacred law-handlers could persist without the Law-Giver himself, to delude themselves into thinking that idols of wood held power, while the Lord who made all things on earth did not. Sin is stupid, and sinning makes us stupid too. But if sin is lying to yourself, how do we own up to the truth? If sin involves fooling ourselves, then how can we fools overcome it? I pity the fool.
The solution to the problem of sin-as-self-deception lies in 1 John. Verse 6 declares that sin and evil cut us off from God: “If we say we have fellowship with God while we are walking in shadow, we lie and do not do what is true.” But then we get verses 8 and 10: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us... If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God's word is not in us.” So sinning-while-Christian is right out, verboten, forbidden. But we as Christians also cannot say we don't sin, since everyone clearly does, as you'll see in any newspaper. It's a paradox, a Catch 22. You must not sin as a Christian, but you must not say you don't sin either. What are we to do? The resolution comes in verses 1:9 and 2:1-2: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness... If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” In short, you are going to sin in this life. Pretending otherwise is only lying to yourself and God. But as Christians we need to be free from sin. So the solution is to confess our sins to God, to ask for forgiveness, justice, and love at the Lord's throne of mercy. In this way you can walk this life in humble self-awareness that doesn't deceive itself, confessing that yes you are a sinner. But at the same time, you can walk with confidence, hope, and joy, knowing that your sins are forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ.
So how does all this do us any good? How does this knowledge change your life? I'm reminded of a quote by John Newton, the British slave-trader-turned-abolitionist who later wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Looking back on his life, Newton remarked, “I am not what I ought to be. Nor am I what I wish to be. Nor am I what I hope to be. But I can truly say I am not what I once was. And by the grace of God I am what I am.” This is how you all are called to live as Christians. “I am not what I ought to be...” That is to say, I am a sinner when I ought to be pure, loving, and holy. Newton knew well his sinfulness, both from his days as a slaver as well as the common temptations every Christian faces. “Nor am I what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be...” That is to say, Newton longed to be better, to grow in purity, love, and wisdom. And Newton hoped that by the grace and power of God he would indeed become such. But then, having admitted his sins, having confessed his imperfections, Newton shifts: “But I can truly say I am not what I once was.” God's grace has not only forgiven him but transformed him. While I cannot say whether his good works as an abolitionist could ever outweigh the evils of his slaver days, I can at least say Newton's conversion was for the better, both for him and our world. And lastly, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” And that is to say that all this—my recognition of my sin, my desire to be better, my hope that I will indeed be perfected in the life hereafter, my knowledge that God has already made me a little better already each day—all of this comes by the grace of God. As a former slave trader, Newton easily could have spent his final years in guilt, lamenting the evils he did but doing nothing to fix them. Or he could have said, “There's nothing I can do to fix this, so why bother?” Or he could have spent his later years denying he ever did anything wrong, pretending I-was-just-following-orders was a good excuse. But instead, Newton rejected the self-righteous delusions of sin. And he walked his earthly days as best he could as a sinner touched by grace, devoting himself to righting his old wrongs by becoming an abolitionist. And Newton ultimately died mere months after the slave trade was outlawed across the British Empire.
We all are sinners. From sloth and greed to bigotry and pride, I would wager we each share in nearly every vice. There's no use denying our sin exists, for such denials are only lying to ourselves and calling God a liar to boot, pretending that dusty wells are full of water. Instead, confess your sins to the Lord in prayer... that you might know forgiveness. When temptation still dogs your heels, admit to a trusted friend you have a problem and need their help, knowing that we all are sinners saved by grace. When you are tempted to assert “No, I am righteous: that sin is not in me,” instead pause and reflect how you might indeed be called to repent of this thing too. In knowing you are a sinner—yes—but saved by grace, you are given a serenity that blends holiness with humility. Sin wants us delusional, in denial that it exists. So do not deceive yourselves, and in honest self-awareness, then turn back to the Lord who loves and forgives. Amen.