The apostle Paul spoke for everyone when he wrote, in his letter to the Roman church, “I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15 NET). Two things seem strikingly obvious from Paul’s confession, here:
- We human beings have depths of which we are not always consciously aware, and
- Sin often issues from those depths, again, without our conscious awareness.
“Most of what we fallen humans do is motivated by fear of some sort. Fear of death, fear of exposure, fear of abandonment, fear of pain.”
This is consistent with Jesus’ own words, from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NET). Jesus did not say that their lack of self-awareness excused their choices, if it had, they would not need forgiveness. To the contrary, just as those urging Christ’s death were without excuse, it is our responsibility to learn what we are doing.
Sinning Through a Glass Darkly
Sin is only occasionally conscious, willful disobedience of God. Much or most of the time, as Paul suggests, it comes from the depths of our hearts where we can hardly recognize it. As Paul acknowledged, we do not understand ourselves. We sin even when we want to please God. Though we open our eyes, sin deceives us with illusions.
Religious zealots and fundamentalists always gravitate toward a legalistic focus on external behavior. This drift is self-serving. If being righteous depends on meeting external behavioral criteria, there might, conceivably, be a possibility of leading a sinless life. One might aspire to say to Jesus, as did the rich young ruler: “These things have I kept from my youth.”( Luke 18:21NET) However, if righteousness depends on cleansing the depths of my heart, I will likely say, as did many who briefly followed Jesus, “this is too difficult.” Or, like his disciples, I will say “Who, then, can be saved” (Matthew 19:25 NET)?
“No one sins uniquely.”
Jesus crushes our hopes for self-righteousness. “Do you think you are without sin?,” he asks. If you have hated anyone, you are guilty of murder. If you have lusted in your heart you have committed the sin of adultery. If you have held back any little corner of your life from submission to God you are guilty of not loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. If you have judged a stranger passing you on the street, then you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. The implications are staggering. If these things are true, then we do not most need sermons or teaching or accountability or what Dallas Willard called “gospels of sin management.” We need spiritual formation; to destroy the subtle, and deceptive power of sin we must be transformed from the inside out.
Afraid of Death, Afraid of Pain: The Psychological Force of Fear
Most of what we fallen humans do is motivated by fear of some sort. Fear of death, fear of exposure, fear of abandonment, fear of pain. In his treatise on sin, Oswald Chambers proposed that the root of all sin lies in the suspicion that God is not good. We are vulnerable and dependent and in a corner of our hearts we always suspect that we might be safer if we took care of our own needs rather than depending on God. Sin, therefore, creates illusions to “protect” us from our fears.
No one sins uniquely. In fact, Paul reminds us that “no trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others” (I Cor 10:13 NET). However, just as individuals are unique in their history and experiences, we each craft a unique pattern of sinful illusions that is custom designed to alleviate our own personal inventory of fears. Although it is influenced by variables like family, culture, temperament and experience, this pattern of sins, like a fingerprint or a signature, belongs to each of us, alone.
Image Management or Exposing the Heart?
Contemporary Christians have grown accustomed to an external focus for spirituality, managing patterns of behavior with little appreciation for self-awareness which, in fact, is often considered an inappropriate focus of attention. There is often a disdain for discussions of the heart, fostered by defensive denial of sin unless it is glaringly obvious. Because the unconscious layers of the heart are difficult to plumb, and because of the culture of external image management, it becomes de rigueur to refuse to acknowledge the sins of the heart and to take on an attitude that “if I say that my heart is blameless no one can say otherwise, even if my works betray me,” Forgetting John’s exhortation that “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8 NET). It is rare for believers to acknowledge the secret sins of the heart. When they do so, they are often criticized or ridiculed, as was president Jimmy Carter when he—courageously, mind you—admitted, in a 1976 published interview, that he had often lusted in his heart.
“…[T]he most dangerous illusion is the illusion of objectivity: literally, the illusion that one is not hampered by illusions. “
Ancient Authenticity: Radical Self-Honesty in Christian Contemplative Spirituality
This eschewing of honesty and vulnerability is quite different from spiritual formation traditions, particularly exemplified by the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries, and the contemplative spiritual traditions which followed their example. They encouraged, in fact, a diligent self examination which Benedictine monk Columba Stewart has called “radical self-honesty.” The soul that desires truly to be righteous is not distracted by the illusions of pride, escape, and image management, but searches every nook and cranny of the heart for every closet that has not been completely opened and submitted to the lordship of Christ. Believers committed to a lifetime goal of being conformed to the image of Christ Jesus must embrace honest self-awareness as a worthy and Godly endeavor, because the most dangerous illusion is the illusion of objectivity: literally, the illusion that one is not hampered by illusions.
The Psychology of Four Signature Sins: Lust, Greed, Sloth, and Fear
Contrary to simplistic pietistic notions that we should never think about ourselves, in Signature Sins I have laid out examples and exercises for this kind of self-exploration. The discipline of naming and confessing our signature sins and receiving God’s gracious antidote to these personalized poisons, can help us in our quest for the restoration of our lost intimacy with God. For the sake of introduction, I will summarize the book discussion of four common sins: Lust, Greed, Sloth, and Fear.
Perhaps the most prolific sin in our culture: Lust includes all forms of distorting and using our sexuality in any way other than that for which God intended it, traditionally including unchastity, immodesty, prudery, and cruelty.
We are created with an inherent drive toward sexual union both for procreation and for pleasure and, throughout the Scriptures, God uses lust and sexual immorality to illustrate our unfaithfulness to him and our selfish preoccupation with our own desires. As with all sins, one should prayerfully explore the deeper roots of the sin of lust in order to cooperate with the Spirit’s healing.
Do you primarily lust out of a fear of aging and death? Out of loneliness and lack of emotional intimacy? Out of a feeling of powerlessness and a desire to possess another?
If this is your signature sin it can be helpful to keep a lust journal. With radical self-honesty record the occasions and forms of lust in your life. Include the circumstances and your emotional state, especially preceding the temptation. If you have periods with little or no sexual temptation, consider what sets those periods apart in terms of tempting stimuli or emotional vulnerability. Prayerfully consider how your vulnerability to lust parallels an equivalent fracture in your relationship with God. Are you satisfying yourself with superficial forms of spirituality when God is calling you to deeper union?
Greed, avarice, or covetousness competes with lust for favored status in American culture. In a way, greed is simply lust expressed in nonsexual ways. It also competes with anger for the lengths to which we will go to rationalize it as good.
3. Sloth (or Acedia)
The sin of sloth is the last of the seven deadly sins. Sloth has come to be synonymous with physical laziness but, the original Greek word, acedia, has rather different connotations. Sloth, or acedia, is spiritual listlessness or laziness. This sin is the neglect of the greatest commandment: to love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Sloth, in the life of the monk, was the neglect of the spiritual duties. Since the lives of monks revolved around a strenuous schedule of worship and prayer, it is easy to see why spiritual laziness could also be seen as physical laziness.
We are slothful when we neglect anything that God asks of us, and when we don’t do what needs to be done. Jonah was slothful (among other sins) when he refused to go to Nineveh. Moses was slothful when he resisted God’s command to go and speak to Pharaoh. Peter was slothful when he tried to talk Jesus out of submitting to his destiny of dying on the cross. The disciples were slothful when they fell asleep at the garden of Gethsemane. I am slothful when I watch one more TV show when I should read a book or when I sleep a few extra minutes when I promised myself I would get up to pray or exercise. Depending on the context, and on one’s temperament, sloth can look like cowardice, idleness, apathy, contentment, gullibility, stubbornness, unimaginativeness, boredom, rigidity, restlessness, or complacency.
“Many times over the years that simple question of “I wonder what God has in mind for this” has calmed my fears and primed my attention to see God redeem my seemingly irredeemable circumstance into something good.”
We are slothful when we do not attend to our spiritual lives. In contemporary American Christian culture, I believe that sloth shows up most readily as superficiality. It is much easier—and thus, more comfortable—for example, to maintain a ghettoed dualistic worldview than to engage a complex pluralistic world.
Sloth is best addressed in relationship. We have difficulty honestly assessing our own level of self-deception. The traditional practice of spiritual direction is especially helpful here. While I may not be able to see my own sloth my spiritual director or other intimate spiritual companion, from an outside vantage point, can tell me where I have become complacent or resistant to change.
None of the traditional lists of the capital sins include fear, though it is acknowledged as a potential sin or as a source of sin. Aquinas and other early writers called fear mundane. Most fear, they acknowledged, is neither sin nor virtue. It is simply a rational reaction to danger or other unwanted possibilities. If it becomes inordinate and controls us it can lead to sin, otherwise it does not have moral implications.
I mentioned, above, Oswald Chambers’ notion that all sin stems from the suspicion that God is not good. In other words, all sin originates, in one sense, from fear. We sin, in this frame of reference, because we fear that we can’t trust God, despite all evidence to the contrary. The form of our fear defines the sin that we use to avoid the object of that fear. Fear, in this sense, is a sin. There are many facets to sinful and non-sinful fear which I address at greater length in
For years I have practiced a discipline that has helped, greatly with my own trust in God’s good intentions. Whenever something unexpected happens which is out of line with my sense of control over my life I try to remember to say, “I wonder what God has in mind for this.” This helps realign my awareness that God is weaving everything in my life together for good. Many times over the years that simple question of “I wonder what God has in mind for this” has calmed my fears and primed my attention to see God redeem my seemingly irredeemable circumstance into something good.
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