In any extended discussion about theology, there comes a time when one must talk about morality. It's important - moreso than any of the other oft-discussed topics on this blog - as it lies at the heart of the Gospel. That time is pretty much here for this blog: in the future, I will occasionally post about what is right, what is wrong, and what we are to do. But before I can start, there is this bit of preliminary to go through:
I am a sinner.
I confess that I fall utterly short of God himself, who is the sole source and standard for morality. This is, I'm quite sure, the first correct step to any sound thinking about morality. That is why I have taken it, and declared my own sinfulness. But perhaps I'm wrong about this being the first step, despite my certainty: I am, after all, only a sinner.
(Incidentally, that last disclaimer - "I am, after all, only a sinner" should be attached to everything I say about morality, in this and all other posts. To make that explicit is one of the purposes of this post. But, for the sake of clear writing, I will almost always omit it in the future.)
Insofar as confessions go, I'm afraid this one is going to be pretty boring. I'm sorry to disappoint you if you were looking for salacious details. My sins are, I think, mundane. They're nothing you haven't heard of from the culture at large. To describe them in detail would be embarrassing to me and not particularly edifying to my readers. But my intent in saying this is not to trivialize or dismiss them: it is rather to explicitly acknowledge them, hopefully without having to spell out all the specifics. If you're confused, just pretend that I'm a murderer or something, without all the drama that would imply.
Again, I'm not trying to minimize my sins by calling them mundane or boring. Sin is sin. Just because I regularly commit them, or because everyone else also does the same, does not make them okay. The proper measure of my sinfulness is not against my personal baseline, or against my cultural background: it is against the standards of God himself. The fact that I've been acclimatized to sin does not make sin less sinful; if anything it only makes my situation more dire.
I'll not say that I'm "no better than anyone else", or that we are "all equally sinful". I have no means of measuring that - I am, after all, only a sinner. As far as I can tell, some of us are actually better or worse than others, but that's not particularly important. That's like a bunch of students who all failed a test arguing about who's smarter. To say that "we're all equally smart", or "nobody is better than anyone else here" in that situation may or may not be accurate. But if those words were actually spoken, I would strongly suspect that the speaker's motive was actually to alleviate their own feelings of inadequacy, or to deflect the accusation that they thought they were better than others, or to make everyone feel better by establishing failure as "normal". None of it would be an accurate assessment of the students' condition, which the statement purports to be. The true, accurate assessment, which the students need to hear but do not say, would be "we've all failed".
So my purpose in confessing that I'm a sinner is not to show that I'm no better than anyone else, or to deflect some possible accusation about being "holier than thou". The fact is that I have no idea if I'm better than anyone else (because I'm a sinner), but I do sometimes think that I'm "holier than thou" (because I'm a sinner). And that - the fact that I'm a sinner, before God - is far more important than any silly comparison that I can make with other people.
So you see, I ended up talking about other people, even as I was saying that this is about me and God. I'm not even sure if that's what I meant to do. Such are the pitfalls of being a sinner and trying to talk about sin: God's standards are perfect, and yet I must somehow talk about them in my sinful state.
Some would call that hypocrisy - to speak of God's standards, while still being a sinner. I'm not sure that this is a good definition of hypocrisy. Some have taken "hypocrisy" to mean something like "not practicing what you preach", but this is not the proper meaning of the word. "Hypocrisy" originally comes from the Greek word "acting", and it is actually the pretense of having a virtuous character that one does not actually possess. So, if I were to pretend to have met God's standards, then I would be a hypocrite. But if I admit that I have fallen short of them, while holding that these standards are good things that I ought to strive towards, then I am not a hypocrite.
Now that the definition is cleared up, which one applies to me? Doesn't admitting that I'm a sinner at least make me less likely to be a hypocrite in the second, more accurate sense? Ah - but I am guilty of hypocrisy in both senses of the word. For on the one hand, I always fall short of what I believe: I "preach" (or believe) what is good and right - God and his perfect righteousness - and yet I am a sinner. I feel no additional guilt over this beyond the fact that I am already a sinner, because it is good and right that I should believe in God and his righteousness. Given that I'm a sinner, it is better that I at least believe in the Perfect Good, rather than abandon that belief to lower my standards down to my sinful actions.
And on the other hand, I am also a hypocrite in the second, more accurate sense, of pretending to be more righteous than the sinful sinner that I actually am. For at times, I mislead people into thinking that I'm better than what I know myself to be.
But what I am not is the perfect man: one who lives up to the perfect standard and doesn't pretend otherwise. Again, this is the most important facet of this discussion; the exact nature of my hypocrisy is merely a footnote to the much more important fact that I am a sinner, period. I am not the perfect man; I have utterly fallen short of God's standards.
Apart from these "everyone does it" or "at least you admit it" excuses above, there is another part of me that tries to justify my sins, by saying "well, you can't help it". But that's a lie. The fact of the matter is that there were plenty of times when I could have chosen differently, when I knew I had the power to choose good rather than evil, and yet I still actively chose the wrong thing. In those times I did not fall short in physical willpower or sufficient knowledge, but rather in moral character.
There is also the argument that says "well, sometimes you make a mistake. Some accidents are bound to happen." But some of my sins are not "accidents". They are not something that just randomly happens because of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. At times I planned to commit some sins then executed the plan. I chose to commit these sins. I am a sinner. I don't just occasionally mess up; I AM messed up.
But then again, another voice whispers "well who can blame you for merely choosing what's easy or natural or pleasurable?" But this is also a lie. Some of my sins have consisted of deciding to sin explicitly in the face of knowing that it will bring me pain and hardship. It was completely irrational of me, from nearly any perspective. The only explanation that I have is that I am a sinner.
And lastly, because the Devil is nothing if not nauseatingly repetitious, he whispers "well at least you're not like THOSE people, the ones who are REALLY sinful". But I don't know that. I'm pretty sure that I'm capable of great evil. The circumstances just have to be right. Under a different moon, who can say whether I might have been a convict rotting in jail, and another person teaching Sunday school in my stead? I only know that greater events than that have been decided on a minuscule turning of circumstances.
All that, then, is my understanding of my sins. May God have mercy on my soul, for I've decided to talk about his perfect morality in spite of all that.
I need Christ.
You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Merry Christmas! And happy one year anniversary for this blog!
Another post, from the table of contents