Tag Archives: Sin

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?

First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.

Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.

Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:

(1)    Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.

(2)    The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.

(3)    Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.

Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.

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What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.

A.W. Tozer on the Veil of Self

I can’t think of a more vivid description of the “crucifixion of the flesh” (Gal 5:24, Rom 6:6) than that provided by A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God.

In a chapter entitled Removing the Veil” Tozer offers an explanation for why the experience of God is so often hidden from us. For Tozer, what prevents us from knowing God’s presence is a “veil” of sin. Just as Christ’s death tore the veil in the temple, signifying that we have access to God’s presence through faith once-and-for-all, the experience of that presence is hindered when we fail to deal with sin in our lives.

Tozer describes the veil in this way:

“It is the veil of our fleshly fallen nature living on unjudged within us, uncrucified and unrepudiated. It is the close-woven veil of the self-life which we have never truly acknowledged, of which we have been secretly ashamed, and which for those reasons we have never brought to the judgment of the cross.”

These “self-sins” are “self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-admiration, self-love, and a host of others like them” which manifest themselves as “egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion.”

As an aside, it is striking to me that Tozer describes “self-confidence, self-love, and self-love” as sins of the flesh. In our society these are lifted up as the highest of virtues.

Tozer continues:

“Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us… We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us.” -Click to Tweet

So what does this “deadly work” look like?

“Let us remember: When we talk of the rending of the veil we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is poetic, almost pleasant; but there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experienced that veil is made of living spiritual tissue, it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole being consists, and to touch it is to touch where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die.”

Tozer concludes his chapter with this prayer, which I think is a fitting close to this post as well: “Lord, how excellent are Thy ways, and how devious and dark are the ways of man. Show us how to die, that we may rise again to newness of life.”

Book Recommendations
The Pursuit of God

The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life

Reconciling Hebrews 4:12-13 with my experience of it (Part 2)

Part 2 of “Reconciling Hebrews 4:12-13 with my experience of it

Second, understand that the function of the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 has more to do with objective reality, than with experience. Once again, it is easy to simply read the “it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” as describing the personal experience of the hearer. I believe that phrase includes that interpretation, but is not limited to it.

First, it includes the experience of being “cut to the heart.” Consider these examples from Scripture. When the residents of Nineveh heard the word, they repented. The Israelites wept when they heard Ezra read the law. After Peter’s sermon the people were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized. Paul says that an unbeliever who comes into a church where the word is being spoken intelligibly (in this context, through prophecy) might be “convicted of sin and brought under judgment … as the secrets of their heart are laid bare” (1 Cor. 14:24-25).  If you have personally had a conversion experience, you have experienced the convicting, penetrating, powerful experience of the Word of God in your own heart.

The primary function of the Word, however, is not simply to produce in us the experience of feeling convicted, but to actually hold us accountable – to actually convict us of sin, whether we experience the feeling of conviction or not. Note where the passage goes: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

In Hebrews the call to persevering faith remains the same, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” but there are two responses: respond in faith, or harden your heart. Was the word ineffectual because the Wilderness generation rejected the word and refused to go into the land? No, it was effectual even for them because their rebellion resulted in their just judgment, wandering in the desert 40 years.

Hebrews 4:13 says “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” The imagery here is of a patient whose neck is bared before the surgeon’s knife, or the wrestler who has just been overpowered by a superior foe. We’re helpless, naked, exposed, and overpowered by God and His Word. We may not always experience that reality, but it doesn’t make it any less true. To His Word we must give a “word of account.” Before the judgment throne of God we are judged and held accountable to His call.

And so, one tension is resolved but another is uncovered. The tension of my experience is resolved when I understand the Hebrews 4:12-13 is more about the reality of the Word of God than my experience of it. But the new tension arises: In myself I am ill-prepared to give my own word of account before the overpowering Word and call of God. Thanks be to God, this second tension is resolved in priesthood of Christ. At the end of Hebrews 4:12-13 the reader ought to be left with an appropriate sense of the fear of the Lord, which ought to help us grasp with even greater joy the good news, that Jesus gives a word on our behalf.

Reconciling Hebrews 4:12-13 with my experience of it (Part 1)

This Sunday I will be teaching on Hebrews 4:12-13. This well known text powerfully captures what theologians call the “efficacy” of God’s Word.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

God’s Word is alive, active, sharp, and penetrating; a dividing sword. That is some powerful imagery. However, if I’m honest, I must admit that if you take this text as it is often interpreted – that Scripture cuts to the heart those who read it – and my day-to-day experience of reading the Bible, I have a serious and disturbing disconnect. The reality is, sometimes I feel the piercing and dividing cut of God’s Word and sometimes I am struck as I read or hear the Word proclaimed but often I am merely attentive to the words, and sometimes not even that.

And so, I am stuck, it seems, with a dilemma. On the one hand, these verses compel me to believe that God’s Word is effective in its work and, on the other hand, my personal experience often tells me otherwise. How do I resolve this? As I’ve studied I believe I’ve come to a better understanding of the text which, on the one hand, helps me resolve the above tension, but also raises a more serious one.

How might you resolve the first tension?

First, understand that the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 is both more broad and more narrow than just the Bible: In Hebrews, the “Word of God” is the word spoken through the prophets (1:1), especially Moses (3:5). It is the living Word, the Son, who is the radiance of God’s glory (1:2-3). It is the Old Covenant, spoken through angels (2:2). In the most immediate context it is the word spoken by the Holy Spirit, which was a word from David to the Israelites (Psalm 95) which the author of Hebrews appropriated as a word to his audience (Heb 3:7) and is a word for us. The word is the “gospel” given to the Israelites by Moses (4:2) and the even better “gospel” which is offered to us in Jesus. Certainly this list includes the Bible (the “today” of Psalm 95 is relevant for us, just as it was to the Israelites and the early Christians) but it is not limited strictly to the Bible, per se, and indeed finds its culmination in Christ Himself.

But the usage here is also, in another sense, more narrow the whole of Scripture. The specific call in Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13 is a call to persevere in the faith. It is a warning against unbelief, against rebellion, and against falling away. The intent of this particular word (“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”) is to convict us of our hard hearts and turn us to Christ. It’s a call to repentance, if we have a need to repent. But, not every verse of Scripture is a call to repent. Sometimes it is a call to comfort, or simply a guide to godly life, or it serves some other function. Not every part of Scripture cuts like a sword. Sometimes it refreshes, or binds up a wound, or simply informs the mind.

Check tomorrow, for the second way this tension is resolved, and for the greater tension that is created.

G.K. Chesterton on Human Nature

It is an observable reality that there is good and evil in the world, and that that good and evil resides within each single individual. When confronted with this reality many people come to the conclusion that we are either not-that-good, or not-that-bad, depending on how you view the proverbial glass. We are really not that noble, and we are not really that ignoble. Our goodness offsets our badness and our badness offsets our goodness. The less spiritually minded will say simply that we are animals, and merely animals, no better, but no worse than any other animals. Christianity takes a different view, which leads me to (another) quote from G.K. Chesterton (emphasis added).

In so far as I am Man I am chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humanity that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny – all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.

His point is that. Christianity doesn’t view humans as not-so-bad-but-not-so-good but as both unimaginably valuable and irreparably broken. The two don’t balance each other out, they are true at the same time. Chesterton continues (emphasis added):

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

Denying the cat

G.K. Chesterton (from Orthodoxy) on denying sin:

“[The ancient masters of religion] began with the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no a man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. …

“The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions.

“He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do.

“The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”