Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Worst Sin

In my last post, I wrote about "deal breaker sins" and the story of David and Bathsheba. That post is background for this one. The summary of that post is this: There are sins, whether we like to admit it or not, that we consider "deal breakers", sins like homosexuality, adultery, murder, illegal drug use, abortion, etc. But... If I have the same evil desires that David (or anyone guilty of a deal breaker) has, then why do I think my sins are not as bad as his? Can we classify sin at all? If we can classify sin, what is the worst sin of all?

I've heard and I've believed and taught that all sin is sin is equal. When I believed that, instinctively and intuitively, it just didn't seem right. Also, the fact that most consider "deal breakers" to be really bad indicates that this belief isn't really easy to accept. I know that my instincts and intuition and behavior are not standards for truth. However, when something clearly violates these, it does give me reason to pause, consider, and re-examine. I've discovered that sins are not equal. It's obvious to most anyone that all sins are not equal in terms of consequences and in terms of their effect on other people. So, I won't deal with those two senses of inequality in this post. This post will focus on what the Bible says and what Jesus taught about the inequality of sins.

So what does the Bible say? Are some sins worse than others? Let's begin by establishing that Jesus does, at least once, point out that not all sins are equal. Pilate had freed a guilty murdering, thieving rebel named Barabbas (Mark 15:7; John 18:40) . Then, he brutally beat an innocent Man nearly to death (John 19:1). After this, Pilate is demanding an answer from this bloody, bruised, humiliated, dying Man and threatens Him with his power. Jesus replies, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11)

From this passage, it seems reasonable to conclude that not all sins are equal. Judas (or Caiaphas, not sure which is being referred to here) had a greater sin than Pilate. If the sin of handing Jesus over was greater than Pilate's abuse of power, cowardice, brutal beating, and murder, then the sins that are most repulsive to me may not be the greatest sins.

When you couple this statement of Jesus with His statements that it will be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom in the judgment than it would be for Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24), it seems that even the punishment for some sins is more severe. Seem impossible? Then what is the point of Hebrews 10:29? Some sins deserve and will receive a more severe punishment. Consider also Lamentations 4:6. Some translations say "the punishment for the iniquity of ... my people ... is greater than the punishment of Sodom". Others say "the iniquity of ... my people ... is greater than the sin of Sodom". I can't make sense of all of these verses without concluding that some sins are greater than others.

Having looked at some passages that deal directly with this, let's now approach this logically. A few months ago, I wrote about weightier matters of the law. Logically, if some parts of the law are weightier than other parts of the law (Matthew 23:23), does it not follow that violating the weightier commandments is worse than violating the ones that are less weighty? Please don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting that we can ignore the less weighty matters. I'm not suggesting that any sin is "not so bad". Just as all of God's word is pure and right, all sin is corrupt and wrong and evil. But, just as not all of Scripture is equal, not all sins are equal. I think I've more or less known deep down all along that they're not equal, but I've classified them all wrong. What are really the greater sins?

What are the weightier matters according to Matthew 23:23? Faith, justice, and mercy. What do those have in common? They are heart based virtues. They are qualities that are cultivated inwardly and are not easily observable or measurable. What are the two greatest commandments? Love God and love your fellow man. If these are the greatest commandments and sin is disobedience, then does it not follow that the greatest sins are to disobey these greatest commandments? To lack love, faith, mercy, and justice?

Following Christ is a matter of the heart. This is the essence of "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Following Christ isn't about prettying up the outside. It isn't about just avoiding the deal breakers. It isn't about obeying laws for the sake of obeying laws. It's about cultivating virtues in your heart. It's about allowing Christ to dwell in you and take away your evil, selfish desires and to replace them with perfect graceful character traits. It's about cultivating those virtues to maturity. It seems to me that this is the point Jesus is making in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-48. Rather than simply avoiding murder, you should avoid anger and keep vengeance out of your heart. Rather than simply avoiding fornication, you should remove lust from your heart. Rather than loving only your neighbors, love everyone, including your enemies. Following Christ is a radical inward change.

Still in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses hyperbole to show that some sins are greater. In Matthew 7:1-5, He talks about a splinter and a beam. If I'm right about what I've written in these two posts, then this would imply that correcting others faults in a merciless, unjust, unloving way is exactly what Jesus was talking about here. Having evil desires, lust, pride, laziness, injustice, being unloving, being unkind, being unmerciful, those are beams. I admittedly have beams in my eye. When I'm perfect in my faith, mercy, justice, and love, when I have conquered laziness, lust, and pride, then I'll feel like I'm qualified to judge others. Until then, I'll follow Jesus instruction to "Judge not." Right now, I'm too busy working with Christ to remove my beams to be picking at splinters in others' eyes. God alone is judge.

I have seen and participated in my share of unloving judgment and condemnation of others. If the greatest commandment is to love, then it follows that the worst sin is to withhold love. Who is the worse sinner, the murderer, homosexual, adulterer, addict, etc. or the one who hates the murderer, homosexual, adulterer, addict, etc.? When I shun and avoid and berate and gossip about and slander those who are struggling with sin, when I fail to show them the love of Christ (Christ who loves me and reaches out to me while I am a sinner), I am guilty of the worst sin, even worse than the deal breakers.

To be clear, if you interpret these posts to mean that I believe that murder, homosexuality, adultery, etc. are NOT sinful or are not so bad, then I have failed miserably to communicate my message. Those are sins. Period. However, withholding love is a greater sin than any of those. I pray that I will learn to show love to the guilty, more like Him.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Deal Breaker Sins

If you think for a moment, you probably can come up with a list of what many consider, but nobody calls, "deal breaker" sins. Your list is probably similar to my list. Deal breakers are the sins that one absolutely must avoid to be accepted by most Christians. Here's my partial list: homosexuality, adultery, murder, abortion, illegal drug use, etc. Congratulations to me. I'm avoiding the deal breakers.

To be sure, I've always heard and even repeated that a sin is a sin is a sin, but I have been guilty of practically categorizing sins while claiming to believe that they are equal. Oh, I'd never admit it, but I sure categorized them in my mind something like this... The deal breakers are really bad. The ones I'm guilty of are not so bad; they're just weaknesses. (I now believe and admit to believing that sins have different weights. More on this later.) I certainly want to press for the ideal of having no sins, but I am weak and stubborn and proud and end up sinning again and again. Somehow, though, I'm avoiding the deal breakers. I need desperately to realize that I'm avoiding these deal breakers by God's grace, not by myself.

I've never said this out loud, but if I'm honest with myself, I've thought it. Avoiding those deal breakers must make me a better person than someone who commits the deal breakers, right? Again, I never would have said or written that. Has it ever crossed your mind that you're a better person than a homosexual or a better person than a drug addict? And, a murderer? Surely I'm a better person than a murderer, right?  Am I the only one who has thought with hubris and righteous indignation when I hear that a man has cheated on his wife, "How could he do something like that?"

Then, it hit me square in the nose and I said it out loud to my wife, "I'm not a better person than David." David committed two of the deal breakers on my list. Please read 2 Samuel 11. How did David, such a good man and king, such a talented musician, such a respectful servant to King Saul, such a valiant warrior, such a great poet, such a faithful young man, such a loyal friend to Jonathan... How did David, a man with so many virtues, fall to the point of committing these deal breakers?

When I look carefully at this story and carefully at myself, I realize that I'm not above committing a deal breaker. I have the same evil desires in me that David had in him that led to his great fall. Look briefly at what led to David's fall.
  1. Laziness. Why did David stay in Jerusalem while Joab and his army went to fight? (2 Sam. 11:1) Perhaps I'm reading too much into this next verse, but why is David just getting out of bed in the evening? (2 Sam. 11:2) Has he been in bed all day or was he taking a nap?
  2. Lust. David, it seems, was walking about looking for something to fill his idle time when he saw Bathsheba. I don't see anything in the text that indicts or exonerates Bathsheba. Her role could have been anywhere from seductress to rape victim. The text does not say. The Bible presents this as David's sin, so let's focus on that. David inquired, sent for her, and took her (2 Sam. 11:3-4). He indulged his desire.
  3. Pride. Most of 2 Samuel 11 is telling of David trying to cover up his sin. David will stop at nothing to preserve his righteous appearance. He misrepresents the reason for Uriah's visit. (To report about the war?) He gets Uriah drunk. Then, he murders Uriah. This dishonesty, drunkenness, and murder were all attempts to cover up his sin, to avoid shame.
I confess that I have not yet conquered laziness, lust, and pride. In fact, I struggle with each of those most every day, among several other evil desires. The difference between me and David (or me and any adulterer or murderer) is that my evil desires manifest themselves in other ways that aren't deal breakers.

I'm tempted by laziness every day. Sometimes I'm distracted at work. Sometimes I look for shortcuts or plagiarize. I sometimes neglect to help those in need because it requires work. I indulge in too much TV. I sit idly far too often. I even seek idle time. Choosing idle time over productive time was the beginning of David's fall. 

We live in a sex-obsessed society that glorifies lust. We don't have to look for things to incite these desires; they find us. We will confront strong desires for the forbidden, and this isn't limited only to sexual desires. It happens to everyone. The desire for the forbidden is one of our enemy's strongest and oldest weapons (Genesis 3:6). It seems very dangerous to me to think that I have it conquered or that I can legislate away a desire for the forbidden. Most every day I notice things that are desirable, but that I shouldn't have. And those desires are both dangerous and strong. David was enticed by the forbidden, even though (or maybe exactly because) he knew it was forbidden.

Over and over I struggle with pride. Even my near automatic categorization of others' sins is ugly pride. My sins are weaknesses. Others' sins are deal breakers. How often do I paint myself white after a mistake? How often do I say something hurtful and then try to soften it by saying "I didn't mean it that way?" How often do I avoid apologizing? I want people to like me and think I'm good, and sometimes, my desire to make myself look good ends up in harm to someone else. David was willing to harm and even kill Uriah to avoid looking bad.

I hope my description of my own struggles with the same evil desires David had was foreign to every reader, but I suspect it was not. I have every one of those evil desires that David had, and I believe that David was a better man than I am. So why are my sins not as bad as his? The key difference between me and David is that my desires aren't manifesting themselves in the form of deal breakers. So, that brings me to the questions I want to ask. Are my sins really not that bad? Are others' sins really worse than mine? Can sins be categorized? If so, what is the worst sin?

Stay tuned. I'll look more into those questions in the next post.