The Normalcy of Sin
"Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God." I memorized that answer, produced by the Westminster Assembly, to the question, "What is sin?" when I was a boy. I taught it to my boys, and I have quoted it more times than I can count through the years.
I believe it is true. Sin is any failure to live up to the requirements or any violation of God's law, not only in our words and deeds but in our nature, character, thoughts, and desires. But it is also a rather "clinical" definition of sin. The answer is consistent with the objective theology of the Westminster Standards, which may be contrasted with the "I" answers and more personal devotional theology of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Lately I have wondered if sin can also be defined as systemic, chronic SNAFU.
SNAFU - situation normal, all messed up. A National Guard radioman may have invented the term just before World War II, but it became standard, if unofficial, military jargon during the War. It was an apt description of reality as soldiers and marines experienced it. Supplies and equipment did not get where they were needed when they were needed. Battle plans went awry. Stupid orders were issued. Men found themselves in desperate situations. Usually the "human element" was in part or whole responsible. Military men came to expect mess-ups as normal.
I came across this description of sin last week:
What I and most other believers understand by the word I'm not saying to you (sin) has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to (mess) up. Or let's add one more word: The human propensity to (mess) things up, because what we're talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and (mess) up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It's our active inclination to break stuff -- "stuff" here including moods, promises, relationships we care about and our own wellbeing and other people's, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.
There it is. We mess up. It is not just that we mess up, as it were, by accident or because things just tend to go that way. Rather, we have a propensity to mess up - to mess up ourselves, others, everything we touch.
Last Spring I quoted in the Blog I'm Not Swimming the Tiber, but...a professor in the U.K. who explained why had become and remained a Roman Catholic:
Catholicism is a community of sinners seeking grace, taking strength in each other’s company – a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for screw-ups. As such, I've never known an environment more compassionate and comfortably eccentric.
Things go wrong, hope is lost and it feels like Jack Daniels is the only man who understands me. But something wonderful always draws me back. A few weeks ago, I visited my favourite priest in his rectory. I saw the light glowing under his kitchen door, tasted the smell of Marlboro Reds on my tongue and heard a babble of mad voices discussing what’s wrong and what’s right about this Argentine Pope. I opened the door and walked in to love, knowing that I was returning home to my tribe. The tribe of screw-ups.
I observed why I think Christians who have struggled with alcohol abuse may find more fellowship in AA than in the church:
I have discovered that one of the reasons (and it is only one) that some conservative Presbyterians find more fellowship in AA than in church is because everybody in AA is a mess-up, and you can talk freely about about your being a mess-up, while in church you have to keep up appearances. The cliche-ridden, ultimately Christ-denying fellowship of AA is no substitute for genuine Christian fellowship, but it is for many better than no fellowship or fellowship based on pretense when it comes to the truth about who you are.
More recently I wondered:
Here is a question: why does Flannery O'Connor, a Roman Catholic laywoman, speak to me in a way few, if any, Reformed preachers do? Similar questions have come to me as I have read the spiritual-themed poetry of John Donne and John Berryman, as I finished a few weeks ago the last book of short stories written by Episcopalian John Updike, and last spring as I read Roman Catholic, Brennan Manning's memoir, All Is Grace. Or, for that matter, the songs of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
What I am getting at is this: The world is messed up. People are messed up. You are messed up. I am messed up. Or: The world is fallen. We are all sinners. We sin against God. We sin against the created order of things. We sin against others. Others sin against us. And sin is not just about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's also about pride and meanness and self-righteousness. This is true of us as Christians. We are miserable offenders. There is no health in us. And,in this present age it is normal.
I do not mean it is good, or acceptable, or to be minimized. I do mean it is not surprising. I do mean it is a reality that has to factor into our understanding of ourselves and of others and of the church.
I think I understand the problem the "obedience boys" have with the "grace boys." It is that the "grace boys" can seem to teach grace in such a way as to make people indifferent to sin: "Sin is not such a big deal. It happens. No need to get all worked up about it. Just accept that you are a sinner and that God loves you no matter what. Bask in the knowledge you are a child of God." I get the problem the "obedience boys" have with the "grace boys." As far as taking exception with that portrayal of the life of grace goes, I agree.
What I don't think the "obedience boys" get is how normal sin is. Perhaps they really do not know this reality in terms of their own experience. It could be that for them there is a regeneration-created night and day before and after story. Or, it may mean that there has been a steady upward trajectory to their sanctification without harrowing nosedives into sin or wearying discouragements of slow or no progress. Or, it may be that they do not know themselves very well. Or, it may be that their theological understanding of regeneration and conversion does not allow them to acknowledge that believers can have messy lives - chronic struggles and frequent defeats. That believers can by their messy lives inflict great damage and hurt on other believers and can be badly damaged and hurt by the messy lives of other believers. That the church is a messy place where messy lives are intertwined with and sometimes disillusioned by other messy lives.
And it's because we mess things up that we so need grace. A grace that puts up with us, that does not give up on us, that keeps us despite ourselves. Yes, grace disciplines. But not as we deserve and usually not with the rigor others mess-ups may apply. The grace that loved us when there was nothing at all to love about us does not love us now because are lovable. If God did not love us despite ourselves, he would not love us at all.
One of the reasons some people find grace within the Roman Catholic tradition is that, at least in some of its manifestations, despite its works righteousness and uncertain salvation, it is able to deal with sin as a reality better than conservative evangelicals often do. I do not think that should be so, but that it can be so I do not doubt.
The normal situation in this present age is messed up. Sin happens. Grace deals with it.