My husband says I fixate on ideas or pieces of conversation for a while, and I can’t stop thinking about them. And I don’t purge the ideas. I process them by talking incessantly and writing. In the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about holiness, and how it relates to my life. I ask myself, “Have I been very good at it?” And the answer is, “Probably not.”
If I went back to the origin of the thought, it started about six months ago. Last Christmas, I was in Ohio running around my husband’s neighborhood. (Why that’s important, I do not know, other than I find it interesting that I’m always thinking about God when running or taking walks. But I won’t waste time trying to draw a metaphor here. It’s too cliché.) I thought about how the contemporary church likes to point out the problems of the heartless Pharisees and praise the humility and willingness of the sinners to repent of their misdeeds. Pastors will draw comparisons to “churchy” people pointing fingers or turning aside from those in need, and it’s easy to agree with them because it’s an obvious problem within a community of believers when people can feel alienated because they’ve made mistakes that everybody knows about and they don’t know about throwing on some costume jewelry and mildly frumpy clothing or they have too many tattoos to hide in order to make themselves a little less noticeably different from the lifelong church community.
Judgment of others in the church certainly pervades many congregations, but I see a really deceptive message that sneaks into a gospel of grace and forgiveness. Most people in churches probably know that grace isn’t Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card so you can keep racing around Boardwalk without giving sin or self-examination another thought. But I worry about giving too much credence to having had it hard or elevating past sins as necessary to get “where you are.” What is even worse is assuming that because one person may have sinned greatly that somehow they are deeper or better (yes, let’s admit we compare ourselves to others in how we view their “walks of faith”).
What happens then? The prostitute and tax collector become Pharisees of a new kind. They are counting the coins they toss into the box, showing everyone that there are only two, and the prostitute becomes prone to telling the virgin that she knows little of the world and the true nature of man. The reality is that sin, in any manifestation, cripples individuals and ripples out from one act to hurt others. Although God can use anything for His purposes, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences or that we and others affected by use would have been better off had the sin not been committed.
Because I’m writing to process, I suppose I can switch to this thought: perhaps we’re still tripped up on law, and that’s why this inversion happens when we try to respond to the teaching. If Christ meant what he said when committing adultery meant looking at a woman with lust or that it is not what goes into a man’s mouth but what comes from it that makes him unholy, then we’ve got to quit separating sluts from Sadducees.
Quantifying and qualifying sins because some are more visible than others creates the us-versus-them problem. Christ was looking for wasn’t lewd or greedy people to set straight. He was looking to save those willing to be saved; and telling someone to “go and sin no more” has less to do with behavior modification and far more to do with correcting the position of the heart in admitting that the relationship between God and humankind must be restored. Anymore, Pharisees of the world aren’t necessarily the law-abiding citizens. They’re any of the people who think they’ve got it covered with their own sets of morals and theories about how to live.
As for who to define as sinners? That’s just an easy way to address everyone.
Sin isn’t an easy word to digest because we don’t like to be told we’re innately “bad.” That’s the way it’s been taught for centuries—almost as if we bear children with murderous thoughts just curling inside their newborn noodle brains. It’s taken me awhile, but I don’t think that’s how it starts. Our nature is to be one with God, and if that is so, we are not by design “evil” as much as we choose to do evil by living outside the will of God.
My husband can describe this in more philosophical terms with historical context, but if the focus weren’t getting our behavior right and were more about glorifying God, then maybe the rest would follow a little more logically because Christ wasn’t a miracle worker for the sake of making good society or nice people. Redemption isn’t safety or good habits or kindness. It’s getting close to God because we’ve admitted we need Him and want Him back, acknowledging that there’s a claim and call on our lives to reflect Glory.
If that is the goal, the self-centeredness of legalism or hedonism shouldn’t even appeal to us. In consequence, holiness might lose some of the stigma it is associated with in more popularly used (and unnecessarily promulgated) words like religiosity and churchianity if people could see that spiritual purity germinates in a state of mind* that presents itself in lives that strive to honor God, reserving the judgment of others for the God who judges them too as well as living lives that please Him.
*Use heart or soul if that makes you feel more comfortable, but I don’t draw the distinction unless I’m referring to a philosopher’s definitions.