A colleague at work was talking on the phone with a friend the other day, and I heard him remark that R.C. Sproul was right, that he was much happier in the normal sense before he became a Christian. What he meant, I think, was that non-Christians often live without much though about who they are meant to be, and what they were meant to do. It’s kind of like the student who is never stressed by the deadlines of term papers, assignments, and exams, because he does not understand why the grade is important. In certain religious debates, I have even read arguments from people who actually, honestly, believe that they can argue God is at fault for any and all of their failures, that they personally have no accountability for their own character or the things they have done. The Christian, however, is compelled to face the hypocrisy of his life, the futility of trying to do thing son our own strength and merit, and the damage done by all the sins we commit. Our eyes are opened, and yet we cannot do good works as well as we wish, even when we no longer desire to sin. Trying to live, really live, as a servant of God, is no picnic sometimes.
Nobody’s perfect. That trite saying is used, in one form or another, all around the world. Even atheists often accept that we are imperfect, that we screw up even when we want to be better. There are forces at work which make it hard to do the right thing. A Christian would call them temptation, a sociologist would call them contributory environmental conditions, and other kinds of people would find still other names, but almost everyone recognizes that intentions are pretty useless against bad habits and a lack of personal urgency.
Acknowledging that we are not perfect, however, is quite different from calling someone ‘evil’. Evil is the sort of word reserved for a particularly, well, inhuman sort of malice. And of course we tend to think of ‘inhuman’ in humanistic terms. Take someone who cuts you off in traffic, for example. Has that person done something wrong? Most of us would say yes they have, but we would expect a limited sort of consequence for it, like the driver getting a ticket from a traffic cop conveniently posted nearby, not being consigned to hell alongside the likes of rapists and murderers. Similarly, people generally assign differing degrees of responsibility for differing acts, as well as a range of punishments considered appropriate. One of the most common complaints against the traditional concept of damnation, is the apparent injustice of eternal punishment for a finite sin, no matter how offensive. The argument continues to complain against absolute punishment for actions people would consider to be relatively less wrong. For example, Jesus said that if a man merely desires in his heart to commit adultery with a woman, then so far as God is concerned that is precisely what he has done. The extension of that judgment is reflected in other verses, such as the one which warns that calling someone an offensive name is to risk hellfire. While theologians warn that God’s standard is perfection, and so anyone who fails in the slightest degree fails completely, in human terms it is difficult to explain why someone who becomes angry and thinks about murdering someone, but restrains himself from actually doing so, is somehow equally guilty as the one who thinks about the murder then carries it out. Moral problems like that make it difficult indeed for the Christian to defend the faith in discussion and forums, as we are charged to speak as emissaries of the Lord, and such apparent ‘flaws’ in Christianity are used to paint us as intolerant and judgmental. Such claims are made all the worse, when a person who is in fact judgmental and hateful claims to speak for the faith. That problem, the imposter evangelist, goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Church.
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I must remind the reader at this point, that I am no credentialed theologian, and that far better minds have left this challenge be, because it is a difficult task and one easy to trip up a believer. But I think, hopefully without hubris, that I may be able to illuminate God’s position in some positive way. The first step is to leave off the legalist position regarding God’s law. The reason for that, is because in our whole existence we can none of us claim a perfect life. True total goodness is the province of God. You may ask, then, why would God demand what He knows we cannot produce? The answer there, I think, is threefold. First, the law as humans know it is imperfect, just as we are. Look at any one of a hundred cases in modern news. Does it not seem that good people are harmed and punished, while bad people get away with all kinds of wrong? How then shall we expect true justice in this world, or for a person to successfully live a perfect life in such conditions? It is true that such living is actually possible, but in all of human history, only one man has ever done it. That said, there are others who have been perfect in a way that has nothing, nothing at all, to do with the law. Enoch and Elijah, for example. These two men are remarkable, because Scripture tells us they did not suffer death, but were taken up into Heaven. There are interesting possibilities as to why this happened, especially given other Scripture which warns that all men must die, but clearly these two men pleased God. Scripture also warns that no mortal man is good of his own work, so we are again faced with a hard riddle – why should some people be pleasing to God, and others not, when the standard is a perfection we cannot attain on our strength, and all men sin? The key, again, is in Scripture, specifically that we are told that Enoch walked with God. God leads, we follow, and when we do this, all is possible. It is that simple, that difficult, that important.
Everything we have and know which is good, comes from God. Our lives, our souls, our identity and purpose, our tools, skills, opportunities, and all that may be good, comes to us as a gift from God. It should not surprise anyone, then, to understand that the only way to please God and serve Him perfectly, is simply to follow Him and, well, to walk with Him.
The next reason is that the greatest human sin is Pride. Were a mortal man to live perfectly in his works, he would surely note how well he does compared to others, and stray from considering himself a man who must answer to God the same as anyone else, and start thinking of himself as a moral authority in his own right. We see this all the time where men hold great power or have attained great fame; they hold the law and their duty in contempt so often, that for most of us it were a great blessing that we understand we cannot be all that we imagine we have become. Certainly we are none of us truly self-made men. We all owe thanks not only to our gracious Lord and God, but to the many other people who help us along the way, so often without notice or thanks. A good man blesses those around him, not least because he succeeds with their help.
Third, when we step aside form the context of the courtroom and consider the Law of God in the same way that we might consider His more gentle laws in appearance, such as Beauty and Art and Grace, we find that hard and fast definitions are elusive, and frankly useless in describing what we mean. Consider music, for example. Through the history of human music, there have been many masters of composition and performance, but how does one define the criteria for such greatness? Even were we to agree on one type of music, let us say what is now called classical, who is really to say whether Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, or still another composer is the greatest? Who was the greatest tenor, let alone opera singer, let alone vocalist? The answer from any judge would be heavily subjective and a matter of taste, yet we also can understand the difference between someone with no ability, someone who sings well enough in a group, and one who is a virtuoso, even if the style is not to our taste. And so the same for Art, or for poetry, for novels, rhetoric, and so on. In every specific type of craft and art there is a way of greatness, but that same path both denies ranking and grades even as it demands perfection and constant improvement. If we apply this order of skill to the moral plane, how then does Judgment appear? Not so much the vindictive God of threats and retribution, but rather the mentor and teacher who wants us to be as good as we can be, this perfect coach who knows – even as we can barely sense at best – what we can accomplish if we put ourselves to that commitment. But ask anyone who has tried to become an Olympic athlete, to be a Valedictorian, to join an elite team in any profession .. or anyone dedicated to being as good a parent and spouse as they can possibly be, how hard the road is, that eternal struggle to find more within yourself, to beat odds which seem impossible, and to work for improvement well past the point that we once thought was ‘good enough’.
There is a scale to this moral path, which is why I titled this article ‘Error, Sin, Evil’. You see, as I said above, we all fail in our duty to be good, even when we most want to. It is a difficult thing to accept, especially living as we do in a world where we are brought to believe that we will be rewarded for good and punished for evil, and so we throw as much as we can into our mental ‘good’ tally, hoping to get a good grade. But as I said, there is no grade, at least not the way people expect it to happen. And as anyone should know, we are our own worst critic when we get down to it – we know, well beyond denial, what we meant and intended and wanted when we did, said, and thought certain things, and so we know what our works deserve. At least, if we judge ourselves according to the hard law we think is being applied. There is both very good and very bad news waiting for those folks. The good news, is that God is not looking for ways to send anyone to Hell, quite the opposite in fact. The very bad news is that some folks have decided to go there anyway.
This is where Sin comes in. At some point, we become aware that we have failed in trying to be perfect, we come to understand – or think we do – that we have to be perfect in order to please God, and we have failed miserably in that challenge, and we discover that we rather like some of the things we did wrong. I’m not talking about biology or personal idiosyncracies, but the nasty stuff. Like feeling glad that something bad happened to someone you do not like, being glad that you got away with a lie or a theft or a cheat, a funny feeling of being smart that you got off. Or discovering that disobedience is fun, whether to your parents or a teacher or someone in authority. A pleasure in rudeness and causing offence, a delight in causing loss or sadness for someone else. The difference between error and sin is that we choose to sin. The problem with that, is that we are all still guilty of sin, every one of us pretty much every day. The difference between error and sin is choice.
That leaves evil. Evil is much more serious than even sin. The Bible tells us that God will forgive sin, but there is no place where it says God will give evil a pass. God will destroy evil, be sure of it. The trouble starts, though, for us all when we consider that we are all of us evil. Yes, all of us. That is, we have become evil and can only be pleasing to God by renouncing evil. Sounds preachy, huh? But that warning has actually been around in various forms for all of human history. But it also seems a stretch to classify, say, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Ghandi, with Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. Or for the less political, to attach children to the same sort of person as Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper. The difference is real, of course. Part of that is the degree of evil we are talking about, how evil a person is willing to be and for how long. And whether a person renounces evil. The line, near as I can tell, comes when someone makes choices that oppose God. Another good way to express it I have heard, is when someone chooses to treat someone else like an object, to get what they want without concern for what it does to someone else. It’s deliberate, it is inhumane, and from what I can tell, it is extremely addictive. Evil becomes a way of life, though the person will probably not call it by that name if he can avoid it. A lot of us excuse evil as simply getting back at someone who deserves it. Someone cuts you off in traffic? Well then, it’s only fair if you cut him off later on. Someone lied about you at work? Well, then it’s only fair to start a rumor that gets them trouble, right? Maybe it’s more subtle than that for most people, but it’s very real, and to some degree it’s really corrupted us as people. Think not? Try going a whole day without saying anything that is not completely true, without once thinking about another person as an object, either of desire (lust, envy, anger, etc.) or a tool to get what you want.
Please don’t think I am trying to make you feel worthless; quite the opposite. Imagine someone with an ear for talent, who finds a natural virtuoso, but who has given up on singing, turned his back on it. He hates what he loves, and it destroys him from inside. OK, that’s hokey, but I hope you see the point. We are, all of us, made to be so much better than we are, and we can be that person if we accept the gift.
Oh, yeah. That sounds like a bad Amway ad, doesn’t it? And no, I am not going to try to tell you that you have to go to my church (or go to church at all), believe exactly what I do, and become some kind of moral clone to make me feel validated in my choices. I am just saying that the bad news is we really do need to be someone better than we think is even possible, that we cannot become that person on our own, but also that God knows this, and has made it possible for us to become that person by simply rejecting evil and choosing good. Sounds easy enough, but you have probably noticed that I am not excluding myself when I talk about folks sinning. I still do it, and so does everyone else I personally know. That’s part of it, though, the understanding that while we should do our best to do good works, to help other people, and that God is pleased by such efforts, that is not how we become better people, although it’s kind of an indicator how we are moving along the road. Knowing evil is real, knowing we have evil in our histories and choices and we tend to like it when it’s not hurting us, is a way that we can use that knowledge to resist evil, to hold to what we know is good, and to align ourselves with good by listening to God. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.