April is the cruelest month, wrote T. S. Eliot. It certainly seems to be. Terrible things have happened in April. The Waco Massacre, the Oklahoma City bombings, the Colombine shootingsthey all occurred in April. Holocaust Remembrance Day usually takes place in April, as does the Armenian Genocide Memorial (April 24). April this year was not even a week old when three horrific incidents occurred in the United States. A gunman shot thirteen people to death in Binghamton, New York, another killed three police officers in Pittsburgh, and the bodies of five children, probably victims of their own father, were found in a home in Graham, Washington.
Whether or not there is anything wrong with the season, there is certainly something wrong with us. Humans can’t seem to avoid destroying themselves. Yet the very fact that we find such things outrageous tells us something, too. This is not the way we are supposed to be. We know we were meant for better thingsfor life, generosity, and compassion. And so, there is an enormous fissure that runs through the middle of human existence. There is a tragic discrepancy between what we are and what we are meant to be, between our essential humanity and the way we actually behave. This brings us to what many believe is the most profound, if not the most complex, biblical concept, namely, the concept of sin.
According to the Bible, humans are not only creatures in the image of God, we are also sinners. We are aware of the good, we are capable of doing good, but our behavior always falls short of the ideal. Sin is therefore both inevitable and inexcusable. And its influence is irresistible. As Ellen White states,
Not only intellectual but spiritual power, a perception of right, a desire for goodness, exists in ever heart. But against these principles there is struggling an antagonistic power. The result of the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is manifest in every man’s experience. There is in his nature a bent to evil, a force which, unaided, he cannot resist. (Education, 29)
There is something else disturbing about sin: its effects are comprehensive. As the classic expressions “total depravity” and “original sin” indicate, sin not only touches us all, it touches all there is of usphysically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. This means that even our best efforts and our loftiest motives are tainted by sin. There is nothing about us that escapes it. As my children grew up, for example, I sincerely wanted the best for them. I wanted them to be healthy, happy, popular with their peers, engaged in worthwhile and rewarding pursuits, successful in all they did. At the same time, however, I had to admit that there was an element of self-interest in all of this. Having successful, well-adjusted, popular children brings a lot of personal satisfaction, and it does a lot for a person’s reputation.
The key here is to notice that our motives are always mixed. They are seldom purely good or evil. They always have elements of both. According to one reading of Paul’s famous description of the sinner’s plight in Romans 7, this is even true of our desire to keep the law. Of course, we should keep God’s commandments, that is a given. But to view our success in commandment keeping as a basis for salvation, to think that we can improve our standing in God’s eyes in this waythat’s a terrible mistake. In fact, it is one of the most insidious forms of sinto take pride in your own virtue. The problem with legalism, then, is not that it just doesn’t work, that we can never get good enough to earn salvation. The problem is that it rests on a false assumption, namely, that we were ever supposed to do so. No wonder Paul described legalists as “wretched.”
As Ellen White’s statement indicates, sin diminishes us, but it does not destroy us. Even in sin, everything essential to our humanity is still presentwe are still creatures in God’s image, with spiritual and moral faculties. But even though sinful humans are fully human, we are not fully human. Everything about us is damaged. Like broken-down automobiles, we may have all our parts, but they no longer work together. Creatures in sin are creatures in conflict.
At its most basic level, this conflict affects our relationship to God. When Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). Although humans are essentially related to God, they find themselves out of harmony with his will. They would like him to leave them alone.
The most obvious conflicts that beset us involve our relations with each other. As social beings, we need companionship. But if life alone is not worth living, life together is extremely difficult. The clearest example of social dis-ease is the perpetual unrest that engulfs peoples and nations. In the twentieth century, humans arguably made more technological progress than in all previous history, yet we killed one another at a rate that defies comprehensionby the tens of millions, in two global wars and dozens of other ones. In fact, mass destruction is the most conspicuous legacy of our time.
The conflicts and rivalries that take such tragic and vivid form in war are universally at work in human relationships. Sin prevents us from seeing the true worth of humans, our own or anyone else’s. We typically exaggerate our own importance at the expense of others, and, as feminist thinkers emphasize, we sometimes exaggerate the importance of others to our own detriment. Either way, sin isolates and alienates us. And because sin distorts our perspective, we view other people as threats, and we instinctively act to protect our own interests.
The most pathetic manifestation of our brokenness may be the fact that we are in conflict with ourselves. In Man Against Himself, Karl Menninger asserts that there is a self-destructive tendency in all of us, and it takes many different forms. “Each man has his own way of destroying himself,” he says; “some are more expedient than others, some more consciously deliberate than others.” This tendency can lead to voluntary death, but it can also lead to things like self-mutilation, purposive accidents, and organic illnesses.
The concept of sinits portrait of conflicted human existencegives us a way to respond to those who reject God because of the terrible things that people do in the name of religion. There is no question that people misuse religion. But then, there is nothing of value that humans haven’t misused. Food, family, love, loyaltythe list of good things that somebody somewhere uses as a pretext for doing something awful is endless. But it is the misuse that’s wrong, not the things themselves. What the category of sin provides is a basis for condemning this misuse without condemning the value itself.
Our lessons this quarter emphasize the personal aspect of religion, so let’s conclude this look at sin on a personal level. When it comes to sin, there are two things we need to remember. One is the fact that sin will always be with us. Until Jesus comes, we will never need to stop praying the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us.…” The other is that there is a power greater than sin. Christ can lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil.
Richard Rice teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.