Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sin and Woundedness

There are two very different ways of describing what is wrong with the human condition that are common among Christians. (Actually there are more, but I want to focus on these two.)

Many, especially doctrinal traditionalists (e.g. traditional Catholics, conservative evangelicals) say the problem is sin - that we do things wrong and the attitude of our hearts is naturally away from God. This finds one of its clearest expressions in the Reformation doctrine of Total Depravity, which says that every aspect of who we are is tainted by sin. It doesn't say we are as wicked as we can possibly be (that's a bad caricature). In this case, our fundamental need is forgiveness / reconciliation. The root of that belief goes back at least to Augustine in the 400s.

Many others, especially those who are less scared of doctrinal innovation (e.g. charismatics) prefer to say that our main problem is fundamentally our woundedness or brokenness - it stems from the ways we have been treated by those around us who in turn are acting as they do because of their woundedness. We are then unable to relate to God as Father properly, for example, because we have had difficulty trusting our own human fathers because they were only human. In this case, our fundamental need is for healing / restoration. This belief seems to date back at least to Rogerian psychology.

Of course, what I have written above is a vast over-simplification. Traditionalists would not deny the importance of healing for abuse and charismatics would not deny the importance of forgiveness for sin. What I am discussing is primary emphases, and even then many whom I have said fall in one camp actually fall in the other.

Both of these descriptions are actually models - they simplify reality to make it easier to talk about. Both of them are popular, I suspect because they are actually Scriptural models - they are ways that the Bible talks about the human condition. Jesus is the one who forgives sins and who binds up the broken-hearted, and who proclaims release for the prisoners. And I think both are in some ways helpful and in some ways unhelpful - if we only use one model in our own thinking, we will get drawn into thought patterns that are not so Biblical.

For example, if we only think about sin, there is the implicit assumption that we are all free agents, whereas actually we are slaves to sin and our sinfulness is bound up with the sinfulness of others. This tends to lead to a lack of love and compassion for sinners. I suspect, for example, this lies behind why charismatics are much better than conservatives at prison ministry. I think the more that we see sin as something corporate rather than just individual, the more this model becomes helpful.

On the other hand, if we only think about the need for healing and restoration, we tend to forget about notions of guilt and wrath, which are very much there in the Bible. Jesus's death becomes less meaningful. Hell becomes merely our normal destiny which some people fail to escape. And the question of how the first people came to become wounded becomes more pertinent. We lose track of precisely what Genesis 3 is doing there. There is the implicit assumption that we are born good, but it is society that has made us sinful, which is straight out of Rousseau, not the Bible.

The same could of course be said about other conceptions of the problem with the human condition - Irenaeus's idea of immaturity, for example, which is especially popular among the Orthodox. It is a Biblical model which is often helpful and sometimes dangerously incomplete on its own.

We need to remember that our sinfulness leads other people into sin too, that we often need healing from the wounds of others' sin as well as forgiveness for our own. But we also need to remember that many of our wounds are self-inflicted and self-worsened, and that we are culpable for many of them and for the consequences of them.

Against this background, Jesus stands alone. He is the one who was sinned against and wounded, but those wounds did not lead him into sin, and yet he kept on loving and showing compassion for those who were wounded and enslaved themselves. He is the one whose perfection shows up something of the depth of our imperfection.

We need to stop thinking like our models are actually exhaustively true.

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