On The Incarnation (1:5) Cancer of the Soul

This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.” (Wisdom ii. 23) When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment.

Here we find Athanasius addressing the interlocked doctrines of Sin, the Fall of Man and Human Depravity. These are touchy subjects today and many Christians shy away from openly preaching or discussing them. The Biblical word “sin” is replaced with less offensive words like “mistakes” or “imperfections” in an attempt to be less harsh and dogmatic. This is based on a misapprehension of these doctrines and a misguided assumption that the reality of sin is a negative and pessimistic view of humanity. After all, isn’t it better to simply call people to their higher, more spiritual natures without mucking about with sin and judgment?

There are good intentions behind this approach, because the doctrine of sin and human depravity has been misused by self-righteous religionists and now the subject is fundamentally misunderstood. When people hear the word “sin” today, they generally think we are talking about “being naughty” or just breaking rules. This assumes that God’s highest goal for us is to be good little rule-followers. No, God created us for abundant life and intimate relationship with Himself. Of course there are moral implications, but that morality is intricately linked with relational experience with God. Without that relational experience, the keeping of morality for its own sake is pointless and potentially harmful as it can lead very easily into spiritual pride and self-righteousness; the law-keeping religion of Pharisees. Unfortunately Pharisee-Religion is as prevalent today as it ever was, and it is practiced often in the name of One who definitively denounced it as devilish. So when we treat the topic of sin in a Pharisaical manner in the name of Jesus, we are teaching falsely.

Eve ate the forbidden fruit and that act was breaking a rule God gave them. That’s true. But what happened in the heart of Eve as she was deluded by the serpent is where the real damage was done. Eve was made to mistrust the heart God and the act of eating the fruit was an act of self-glorification. Eve felt she could no longer trust God to do what was best for them, even after He had put them in such a lush and extravagant garden with a rich variety of fruits for their pleasure. God’s generosity was called into question and Eve began to see God as miserly and withholding. When she believed this untruth and acted upon it, the fabric of reality was forever changed. It was an act that could not be undone. Adam and Eve were suddenly thrust into the cruel, harsh godless world of their own making. They were deeply wounded by their misapprehension of God, hiding from Him and from each other. From now on, fear and shame would be the prime motivators in their lives.

Tim Keller, in his excellent book “The Reason for God” gives what is probably the best treatment on the subject of sin for today’s ears. Keller knows that the term has been misused to manipulate and control, but realizes the problem is an all-too superficial view of sin as rule-breaking and general naughtiness. Keller’s definition of sin is, “the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.” This shows both sides of the mirror-maze: sin is all-out rebellion against God through self-destructive behavior and apathy toward the good of others, BUT sin is also attempting to find an identity in being seen as religious or spiritual. Jesus spent more time angrily denouncing the latter, because it’s much more devious and duplicitous than the former. The former is mere carnality which one can be shocked awake from; but self-righteous religious pride is almost a perfectly air-tight hiding place from the very God that one is pretending to know and worship. This is a glimpse of how depraved humanity is. We really have no hope apart from a savior. We will either choose one of these two extremes or settle down somewhere in the middle in which we can alternate between them.

Sin is, at its core, an identity issue. It is seeking to create our own identity with whatever raw materials we can manufacture on our own. Whatever we are good at or gravitate towards, we can make sinful by hiding behind. Or whatever group we want to be accepted by (sadly Christianity included) all one has to do is learn the lingo and fit in. When we find our identity in what we do or who we mingle with, we are attempting to create an identity that is bound to be revealed as a hollow mask, sooner or later. We cannot create an identity, we can only be given an identity; and there is only One qualified to give that gift. So here we see, as A. describes, “the plight of man.” We were created to bear God’s Image and this is a high calling. Yet we fell into corruption and are now under the power of death. Athanasius sees God’s Image as His presence literally. We were given a share of “His own life by the grace of His Word.” When we fell, we lost that share of His own life in us and now our core is empty. Sin is the attempt to fill that emptiness with anything other than God Himself. Yes, there are certain acts that are sinful acts, but our condition is much worse than bad behavior; we are hopelessly self-destructive. We don’t need candles, crystals, self-help books or red rock vortexes: we need a savior – each and every one of us.

Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness. Even crimes contrary to nature were not unknown, but as the martyr-apostle of Christ says: “Their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature; and the men also, leaving the natural use of the woman, flamed out in lust towards each other, perpetrating shameless acts with their own sex, and receiving in their own persons the due recompense of their pervertedness.” (Rom. i. 26)

Sin is not static. It progresses like a cancer. If we read the first third of Genesis, we will see that which began with the plucking of a fruit ended with cold-blooded murder. What began with cold-blooded murder progressed into endless variations of depravity and perversion.

This is completely against God’s heart for us. This is to go backwards, into hiding. This is to fall more and more into a self-centered life focused around mere survival and immediate pleasures at the cost of long-term peace and joy. God did not create us for a miserable existence, He created us to be citizens of Paradise and agents of Paradise in His creation. He created us to journey through life with Him as our Father, Shepherd and Companion. He wants us to discover our true identities in Christ (our share in His own life by the grace of His word). God did not put us here to eke out a dull existence of tedious rule-keeping nor did he put us here to implode on ourselves spiritually and take in everything without a filter. He created us to truly live and to know His love experientially. More than anything, it is that lack of experiencing His love that leads us out into strange directions in an attempt to find the love we were created for.

Yes, Athanasius ends this passage by quoting Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1. The Bible teaches in various places that homosexuality is against our God-given nature, and I also believe that. However, it is a sin and a temptation I have never struggled with. We need to read Romans 1 realizing that Paul is springing a trap on the self-righteous (it’s amazing how often this passage is quoted without reference to that). At the beginning of Romans 2, Paul reminds the reader that he or she is no better than anyone who has been referenced in Romans 1. Paul opens Romans 2 by saying: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” He lists some obvious carnal sins in Romans 1 to get the spiritually prideful all riled up and then he turns the entire thing around on the self-righteous. “For in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself…” Yes, we need to take sin seriously, but if we pass judgment on other humans (ascribe worth or worthlessness based on performance, while communicating those judgments in our actions and behavior) we condemn ourselves, because this goes against the very grace of God we are hopefully growing in. The way we judge certain sins is also quite telling. It is easy to condemn homosexuals in our churches because they are an outsider group. It is more difficult to use equally condemning tones when speaking of divorce and remarriage since that strikes closer to home, even though Jesus speaks definitively about divorce in the gospels and never once mentions homosexuality personally. I believe we must show grace to both homosexuals and divorcees and humbly (not condescendingly) serve them, leading them to Christ. I believe it is possible to be truthful about what the Bible teaches and patient at the same time, realizing that it is a real person in front of you who needs to be healed by God. We need to speak truth without making the person God loves feel hopeless and condemned. God wants us to repent, but repentance isn’t a mere shift in performance; it is quite literally a change of heart. And if we pretend it was easy for us to repent, we are hypocrites. We recieved grace when it was hard for us to repent; God was patient, and we need to pass that grace on.

So sin is a major theme in the Bible and it needs to be addressed. There are two ditches we can fall into on this (and many) subjects. One is failing to address it altogether and to pretend that all humanity needs is improvement, not redemption. The other ditch is judgmental condemnation. Sin is a common wound we all share. Sin is a cancer of the soul, eating us alive. We need to be loving and patient when confronting those in obvious patterns of sin and offer hope whenever we preach or teach on sin in general. Paul says as much, in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, even if someone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Confronting sin is for the spiritually mature, who are able to do it gently with caution, the spiritually mature know they are not immune from falling themselves. Confronting sin should never be undertaken in a harsh, judgmental manner by someone who acts as if they are above it. I’ve tried to convey the spirit of Galatians 6:1 in my treatment on sin so far, and in real life situations when I’ve had to confront someone. Gentle, humble and loving is always the way to go.

Yes, sin is bad news, but its better news than any other explanation for the human condition. It’s better news than saying we are merely evolved animals acting on instinct. If we are mere evolved animals, this is as good as it gets. If we are sinners, than this isn’t what we were meant to be; there is a possibility of a better existence, which thankfully, we will move on to in subsequent passages.

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~ by shardsofeternity on December 7, 2011.

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