Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-III here.
R: Before we start talking about sin, though, I want to make a couple other points. One, our created purpose as human beings, our highest good, is to know, love and serve God, which means in part to serve others and to care for his creation. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the founding documents of the Presbyterian churches, puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” John Piper, a Minnesota pastor and author, has put a bit of a twist on that, rephrasing it as, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever”; he captures the idea that true pleasure is only to be found in following God.
A: Pleasure? Since when does Christianity care about pleasure? It’s all about duty and self-denial and giving up pleasures because they’re sinful.
R: I’ll admit there are Christians who’d make you think so, but that’s not the truth at all. Remember, God created everything, and he created us as physical/spiritual beings; he created physical pleasures, from the smallest to the greatest, and he created them because he likes them. He’s a God of love, and of joy, and the pleasures of food, drink, sleep, sex and all the rest are gifts he’s given us for our enjoyment.
A: Sex? You’d better watch out, or your Puritan ancestors will rise up and throw you in the stocks.
R: Pure slander. The Puritans have been thoroughly distorted by later generations; you’d be surprised to see what they had to say about marriage. Yes, sex is a gift of God, one of the deepest. He created us as sexual beings—Genesis 1 tells us that he created us in his image, male and female—and that’s not merely a physical reality. I know there are people who argue that gender is socially constructed, but I have to disagree; our maleness and femaleness goes right to the core of who we are. It’s a way in which we represent the diversity in God. And sexual intercourse itself is more than just a physical act, which I think is a lot of the reason it’s so pleasurable; it really is, in a way, two people becoming one flesh, as Genesis 2:23 says. It’s our little experience of the unity in diversity that is God.
Which is why it’s so important that sex be handled rightly. That’s the problem with homosexual sex: it unites two people of the same essence, if you will, rather than bringing the male and female together as one. And that’s the problem with sex outside of marriage. The sexual union, to be what it is supposed to be, needs to be defended from invaders, for one thing; and because we’re human and imperfect, it needs to be supported and nurtured, to become a deeper and truer unity over time. Sex without that support—well, it’s like trying to put an anvil on a table, it’s going to do damage.
A: A doctrine of sex; I would never have thought to hear such a thing. I don’t know if I buy the argument, but at least I can see how you stand where you do.
R: I think much of it follows logically from taking human sexuality seriously. But you can see, though, that God’s strictures on sex aren’t born out of a desire to squelch our pleasure, but rather out of the desire to make that pleasure as full and deep as he created it to be. In general, that’s true. As C. S. Lewis put it in the essay “The Weight of Glory,” our problem isn’t that we want too much but that we’re too easily satisfied, that we settle for thin, weak imitations of pleasure; in his image, we’re like a child that wants to go on making mud puddles in a slum because it cannot understand what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. When we take the easy way—whether with sex, or food, or sleep, or drink, or whatever—we don’t just debase ourselves, we debase the pleasure. You can see that most clearly with recreational drugs like cocaine and heroin, which are imitation pleasure in its purest form.
A: It seems to me that you’ve come back around to the question of sin.
R: True; but then, you can’t talk about human existence for very long without dealing with sin. There is one last thing that needs to be said about human beings, though: we are free, self-determining moral agents, and this is how God created us. This is the root of our moral responsibility, for clearly if we were not free to act we could not be responsible for our actions. But we are free to choose, free to say yes or no to God, and so our actions are our own—and thus we may be judged for them.
A: But I thought you said that God is in control of everything. Wouldn’t that logically mean that he determines the choices we make, and thus that we aren’t free?
R: Yes and no. If I go out and order a hamburger, for instance, two things are true at the same time: I ordered that hamburger because I chose to do so, and I ordered it because God willed that I do so.
A: But if God wills it, then your choice is fixed and thus cannot be free.
R: That’s not necessarily true, actually. Did you make any choices yesterday that you regret?
A: Actually, yes—I bought a hot dog at the game. It gave me indigestion.
R: Sorry to hear that. Why don’t you change your mind and buy something else instead?
A: Huh? That’s the past, it’s done—I can’t change that, obviously.
R: So that choice you made is fixed. Does that mean you did not freely choose to buy and eat that hot dog?
A: What does that have to do with this discussion?
R: I’m just trying to show that it’s logically possible for an action to be both fixed and free—because that describes every action we’ve ever taken in the past. Now consider my point earlier that God is outside our time stream—both our past and our future exist for him in the same way that our past exists for us—and the analogy I used to the author of a novel.
I don’t know if you know many writers; I have several good friends who are well on their way to completing novels, and one thing that’s true of all of them is that their characters are real people to them with minds of their own. My friends created those characters, but they aren’t puppets to be manipulated around the stage. Rather, they act out their own intentions according to their natures, sometimes doing things that their author didn’t expect, creating the story as they do so. And yet, it is the mind and hands of the author that produce the story, and the author who is completely in control. So in some sense, you see, everything that happens in the story is the product of two wills, of the author and the character; and authors will talk about their books that way, taking credit in one breath for writing a line of dialogue, but in the next crediting the character’s wit.
Now, this is only an analogy, and it’s limited; but I think it shows intuitively how it is possible for an action to be the result both of our will and of God’s will. God is outside the story of creation, while we are within it. From within, we are free agents, willing our own actions; from without, he is the author, writing every scene as he chooses. And after all, as free agents we are acting out our characters—and he is the one who created our characters.
A: I’ll have to think about this some more. I take it, then, that your explanation of human evil is that it is the result of human freedom?
R: More or less, yes. Adam and Eve, the parents of our race, chose to reject God. They alienated themselves from him and fell from the state of grace in which they were created; their actions left them guilty of sin and corrupted in their nature, and that is the nature their children inherited from them, and that the human race continues to inherit. Even in this, God was sovereign; he did not decree their fall in advance, as if he desired it, but he was still sovereign in their decision to rebel, though it grieved him. As Pascal said, he allowed us the dignity of causality, so that we might be truly in his image as free persons. In our fallen state, we are still free in the sense that our actions are not coerced by anyone else, but we are slaves in another sense: we cannot get free of the corruption in our nature, we are bound to it, and so we are slaves to sin. In everything we do, even at our best, sin is at work. This is what theologians call total depravity, that we are incapable of any action which is completely free from sin.
A: So you’re saying that we inherit our tendency to evil, as if it were in our DNA somewhere. Is that what the phrase “original sin” means, I assume?
R: Yes. We are born with our desires and motivations twisted and crippled, and this is the root of all the evil we do. It’s nothing we can fix or cure, because the damage runs all the way through us; only a radical change in our hearts can remove it. You might say that we need to start from scratch, to be born all over again.
A: Ahh, yes—“born again.” I’ve heard that phrase before.
R: It’s a phrase Jesus used in John 3, and it really is an apt description of what needs to happen if we are to be free from sin. It is, obviously, not a change which can happen through our own efforts, but only through someone else: Jesus Christ. I said earlier that God chose to respond to evil through self-giving love, and the coming of Jesus to earth was that response. The Father sent the Son, and the Son came willingly, and it is on that fact and its consequences that everything turns; T. S. Eliot called the cross “the still point at the center of the turning world,” and he was right.