Thursday, March 23, 2006

On Sin

Mwahahahahaha! It's Lent, time for Sin-Talking!

Just kidding. But it is Lent, a time for contemplation and sacrifice (okay, giving up Coke is not a real sacrifice, but let's play along). Plus, my wife said I had to post about something, and this is pretty much what's been on my mind for the past week. So, here goes.

For some odd reason, I've been reading Richard J. Foster's A Celebration of Discipline. The link is to a new, 25th Anniversary Edition. The one I'm reading is an older edition that I "borrowed" from my in-laws' house a few years ago (see, we're already talking about sin). It's a tiny book, just 170-something pages. After a few weeks, I'm on page 63. Pitiful. (Aha! self-flagellation; it is Lent, after all.)

Even having gotten only so far, probably the most important thing I've read was in the first chapter. Titled The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation, I read most of this to my wife the other night, and she stayed awake. So there's hope.

Basically put, Foster says that sin is a disease, that we cannot cure it ourselves, but that we are not allowed to passively sit by.

Okay, thanks for stopping in.

Seriously, though. Citing Romans, Foster calls sin "the slavery of ingrained habits." It is something that affects every member of the human race (Rom 3:18-19) and that controls each one of us completely (Rom 7:5ff). It is not just actions that we do (which we can quit anytime we want to, honest). It's a disease, it's habitual, it's slavery, it's part of our very nature. Rough stuff.

Here's where it gets interesting. Foster says that there are two basic ways that we (as Christians) usually go about trying to stop sinning. The first is to muscle through it, or, in his own words:
Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on our willpower and determination. Whatever the issue for us may be -- anger, bitterness, gluttony, pride, sexual lust, alcohol, fear -- we determine never to do it again; we pray against it, fight it, set our will against it.

And there you have a description of the past 20 years or so of my life (okay, not so much with the alcohol). It's a hard struggle. Noble, possibly, but foolhardy. Because it doesn't work:
It it is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse yet, so proud of our external righteousness that "whitened sepulchers" is a mild description of our condition.

Ouch. Try, fail, try, fail, try, try, fail, try, succeed, get haughty, fail, feel miserable, try, fail, try, fail, etc.

Foster writes more about this (I really should have just transcribed the chapter), and ends with an explanation why this method doesn't work,
The will has the same deficiency as the law -- it deals only with externals. It is not sufficient to bring about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit.

Great stuff, right? In writing this, I remembered a study we did a few years ago (in Galatians?). As usual, most of it flew over and around me, but I remember one idea. We did not save ourselves (Justification), why should we believe that we can now fix ourselves (Sanctification)? It had a big impact on me at the time. I must have forgotten it.

However, or, as Pee-Wee Herman said "Everyone I know has a big but." Here's the big but: we can't do it ourselves, but we can't just sit back and expect God to fix us while we sip mimosas. Foster says it better:
The moment we grasp this breathtaking insight [that righteousness is a free gift] we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do. If all human strivings end in moral bankruptcy (and having tried it, we know it is so), and if righteousness is a gracious gift from God (as the Bible clearly states), then is it not logical to conclude that we must wait for God to come and transform us? Strangely enough, the answer is "no."

Ironically, I've been doing both of these things at the same time for years now. I'll be gritting my teeth, mumbling, "Resist, resist, resist," while at the same time praying, "God, just fix me, change me, break burn, mold . . ." all the while tumbling down the wrong path. It's hard on the stomach, and it doesn't work. Here's why:
The analysis is correct: human striving is insufficient and righteousness is a gift from God. It is the conclusion that is faulty, for happily there is something we can do. We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness.

You're tapping your toes now, aren't you? Come on, Mr. Popiel. What's it gonna take?
God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.

What? I must admit, at first I was a little dismayed by this. There was one, brief, "Remember to drink your Ovaltine?!?" moment.

I had picked up this nice little book out of a sense of duty. Praying, reading your Bible, etc., are things that we're supposed to do. There may be secondary effects: God actually listens to prayers and apparently changes the world because of them; reading your Bible turns into knowledge which (through difficulties) becomes wisdom. But mostly you do these things because you're supposed to. Fasting and meditation are for weirdos or ascetics, right?

Apparently not. Apparently, these disciplines are activities that enable us to accept God's righteousness (that allow us to accept God's righteousness?). Maybe that's a poor choice of words. An analogy would help, and Foster's is best:
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of the grain. He puts the seed in the ground where the natural forces take over and up comes the grain.

So we're the farmer, our lives are the grain, God is the "natural forces", or possibly the ground? Bah:
The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines do nothing; they can only get us to the place where He can work within us and transform us. They are God's means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek [i.e., not sinning] is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we are placed where He can bless us.

Now, this is both freeing and terrifying. It's freeing in several ways, but primarily because it means God hasn't been ignoring me. I pray to be changed, no changes come. Yet now it turns out that I haven't been placing my self (via the disciplines) where He has been sending His beam-o-righteousness. This changing light wasn't pointing to my bed or to my computer chair where I play games. It's pointing to the couch where I sit when I read my Bible and pray. D'oh.

It's also freeing in the old, staid, conventional, happy sense that I'm not changing myself. I can't, I won't and I don't have to. God grows me, I just have to get out of the seed bag and into the ground.

But it's terrifying because it means I have to get out of bed, or hop off the computer and actually do these things. Gotta pray, gotta read the Bible, gotta study, gotta fast, gotta serve, gotta worship. Ok. At least He promises to help us do that, too.