world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.

on guilt and shame

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption in modern western culture that guilt and shame are bad, unhealthy and unhelpful.  Most of the moral discourse is dominated by statements that flow directly from these assumptions.

I can relate!  Who wants to feel guilty?  Who enjoys shame?  Not only that, both guilt and shame are shot through and warped with all kinds of unhelpful messiness.  Like power, sex, or money, they can easily be used poorly and people get hurt.

But are these concepts entirely worthless?  Is there any worth or value to them?  Here are some thoughts…

Good Guilt?

Guilt can be good.  As Auckland theologian Neil Darragh points out, guilt can be enabling guilt, in that it helps us to recognize and face our wrongdoing (or sin) and to seek and receive the help and grace we need to change and grow morally.  There seem to be two opposite extremes we can and do go to here.  One we might call false guilt or what Darragh calls ‘disabling guilt’.  Here the accusation is worse that the behaviour, or there may be no wrongdoing at all that matches the accusation.  At the other extreme, we have what we might call false innocence, or ‘getting off Scot free’.  Here there is an absence of an accusation (from others or from self), but a presence of wrongdoing or sin.  Both extremes fail to give us any help at ethical growth.

Good Shame?

Some of you might be thinking right now, “OK Dale, I take your point about guilt, but shame is another matter, it’s always bad…”  Perhaps, given a certain definition, that is correct.  But let’s try and get behind the word to the idea, and then we can think about what is the best word to use.  Hear me out :)

Some people, quite helpfully I think, have distinguished between guilt and shame by saying that guilt says what I did is bad, and shame says am bad.  That kind of shame is at best incomplete and distorted, and at worst crippling and harmful.  Another way to think about shame is in a relational sense.  When a society, community or family shares certain values, as they do, certain actions and behaviours will simply be in conflict with those values.  When a person does any of those certain things, they will naturally feel various kinds of shame, depending on how many people in the society, community or family know about it, and how much they know, etc.  This kind of shame seems to me to be natural and unavoidable.  And I’m willing to suggest here that it may even be helpful.

Having said that, I think a Christian influence on society, community or family will engender not just values concerning what actions cohere with those values, but also values concerning how to relate to people who act in ways that conflict with those values.  A Christian community, in this sense, has both standards and an impulse to restore those who break those standards.  In the remainder of this post, I’d like to suggest that the shame which seems unavoidable can serve a good purpose only in a community characterised by restorative discipline.

Restorative Discipline

As the two terms suggest, there are two dynamics are at work, I reckon, in how a Christian community deals with someone who breaks what they understand as Christian values.   One (discipline) has a necessarily negative posture, and the other  (restoration) is necessarily positive.

The positive dynamic is that of gentleness and restoration.   Galatians 6:1 says that when someone is caught in a sin (imagine all the dynamics involved when this happens… and imagine how it often plays out…) “you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness.”  As usual, Paul is writing these instructions as a corrective for what was happening.  In this case, it seems that some of the spiritual leaders at Galatia were not being gentle or restorative when people were caught in a sin.  Gentleness is appropriate because people whose sin is being found out are scared and defensive.  Restoration is the goal because God wants healing, community and forgiveness rather than brokenness, isolation and enmity.

It’s much harder to deal with the other more negative dynamic.  What words might we use?  We have all kinds of understandable discomfort with words like ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’.  I think a good deal of our discomfort here flows from times where the ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’ was seen to be disproportionate to the (mis-)behaviour.  But on the other hand, surely various forms of corrective action are appropriate for various kinds of misbehaviour.  Sometimes we need consequences to change.

At this point, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the need for a balanced view of human nature.  We can err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically good’ or err on the side of viewing them as ‘basically evil’.  The tendency to think we don’t need corrective discipline (in appropriate forms) may flow from a belief that humans are so ‘good’ that they will quickly recognize their sin and repent of it.  The reality is that we are too often stubborn, dishonest, fearful and prideful.  Sometimes loving discipline (again, in helpful forms) is the only thing that can help someone come to terms with their sin.  This is the best context in which to understand Paul’s command to expel a member from fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Of course the other side of the coin is to err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically evil’.  The belief that humans have little good in them may lie behind disciplinary actions that seek to force someone to repent.  God does not bring us to repentance through discipline that is over-powering, intimidating, harsh or insensitive.  Rather, it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance, as Paul seems to have needed to remind some ‘strong leaders’ at Rome (Romans 2:4).

Summary

Tying these threads together, I am basically suggesting that both guilt and shame, understood the right way and in the context of healing community, can be helpful and necessary.  We may have a thousand stories or personal experiences of why “they made me feel so guilty” or “that church heaped shame on me”, and many if not most of these could sadly be accurate indictments of leaders acting from control, fear, anger and power.  But I am daring to suggest here that if our community and the discipline of our community is characterised by love, honesty, truth, healing, then guilt and shame may just possibly be necessary wounds en route to repentance, reconciliation and growth.

ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

human sin: an example

The sinfulness of humanity is nothing I am ‘proud’ to believe in.  Sin is tragic.  But, rather an illustrate this with a list of actions that are easily diagnosed as harmful, it’s more interesting to give an example where sin may not be so obvious.  Whether it’s an Olympic opening ceremony, a corporate philosophy or a debate over gun legislation, I am continually reminded of how easy it is to forget how deeply flawed we all are.  Human history and nature, business goals, or one’s ability to handle immense power are not as flawless as we may be tempted to imagine.

One simple example is giving a gift.  How selfless, generous and wonderful, right?  But, speaking honestly about my own experience of giving gifts, our motivations can be very often quite mixed.  Giving a gift can be motivated, partly or even mostly, by a desire for the benefit of the other.  However, other motivations can settle in among this, including but not limited to: being the best (generous/lavish), being the most (creative), being first, being included (“people like being around people who give gifts”), etc.

Our motivations tend to show up when our gift is refused, disregarded or otherwise received in a way we did not expect.  I recently found myself giving something that I’d hoped would be received and recognized in a particular way, and when it wasn’t, I had to check my motivations in giving it.

It can be confronting to face our mixed motivations, especially if/when we take pride in being a ‘good person’.  Of course, the point of this reflection is not to deny that we have any goodness, but that the very  notion of human sinfulness, particularly in the Christian theological tradition, is that we are not only flawed in obviously ‘bad’ ways, but even our ‘good’ actions and characteristics can be hindered, blunted and shaped by the influence of sin.

And if you don’t know me well, you need to know that my understanding of sin (from Scripture and theology) has less to do with us feeling constantly like a failure for breaking a significant amount of a very long list of specific actions which are ‘wrong’, and more to do with us being beautiful-and-broken all the way down to our motivations and identities.  And more importantly the great thing about the Gospel of Jesus is that God has eternally decided to love and work on, in and through us anyway.

May this work of transformation be something that we surrender to and collaborate with.

development in divine dealings with sin

Progressive revelation is the theological understanding  for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change.  The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.

I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it.  It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin.  I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:

Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out

First, the response is seek them out.  This is key.  In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them.  God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.

Before long, the next response is wipe them out.  This is severe.  Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil.  It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery.  Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.

Soon after, the response becomes spread them out.  This is unexpected.  The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens.  Taking God’s place.  Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth.  It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out.  This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.

Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out.  Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’.  I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent.  I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.

Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out.  The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out.  This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.

One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on.  The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden.  God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.

the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.