Tag Archive | sin

Training ground

Isabelle et Gaston d’Orléans avec leur fils Pierre d’Alcantara
Karl Ernst Papf [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t going to post about this.  I’m long past the stage of parenting little ones, and I had in mind to write about something else today.  I couldn’t hold back, though, especially after seeing this over at Naked Pastor.  It’s an excellent visual representation of what I think of the lousy belief that small children are sinful and manipulative.

Remember the online battle some weeks ago over teaching our children that they are “deeply broken”?  This is just a continuation of the same mentality.  It’s all part of the unhealthy teaching that we are born sinful and that there is nothing good in us apart from what God puts there when we believe.  What a disgusting view of humanity!  The worst part is that it’s not even “biblical.”

Sure, one could find some justification from a particular unnuanced reading of the New Testament.  It’s not what it says, though.  When God made people, God called us good–just like everything else God created.  The view that we are born bad and are in need of constant reminder is a gross misrepresentation of God’s view of us.

A huge part of why this angers me so much is that I have kids who don’t always behave in predictable ways.  I want to be as far from any of those teachings as possible.  Recently, I had a run-in with someone who tried to explain away my daughter’s behavior as being caused by being homeschooled–she apparently hasn’t been in enough social situations or hasn’t had to “discipline” herself to behave properly.  It was all I could do not to just let the woman have it.

It turned out that the problem was that something she was doing in a group setting at the beginning of the day was triggering her sensory issues.

I can’t imagine how it would have gone if I’d listened and decided this was a matter of needing to dig out her underlying “sin.”  Instead, I removed her from the activity in which she wasn’t participating and spent a good twenty minutes processing with her why she was struggling.  I was reminded that it’s these very situations that have pushed me to continue homeschooling her; I have no idea how she would manage all her sensory needs for a six hour day in a classroom.

Not all very young children have the same struggles as my children.  They do, however, have one thing in common:  They aren’t old enough to know how to handle situations like adults.  They may not be old enough to speak the words about their frustrations.  They certainly aren’t old enough to think through and identify what bothers them.  That’s why they need us–not to help them learn about their “sin” but to help them learn as they grow how to manage and express their feelings in healthy ways.  That means that they require the freedom to express themselves without being afraid of their own emotions or of adults’ reactions to their emotions.

Don’t misunderstand me–it’s not necessarily the method of parenting or disciplining that’s bad.  I’ve seen very loving parents do things vastly differently.  It’s the underlying motivation that isn’t right.  If you begin parenting with the basic assumption that your children were “born bad” or are “deeply broken” or have underlying “sin” causing their behavior; if you believe that babies learn to “manipulate” their parents by crying; if you think the healthiest thing you can do for your children is to break their wills or bend them to yours, then you are sorely mistaken about the aims of parenthood.

The goal of raising children isn’t to weed out all their sins so that they grow up to be mistake-free adults.  That assumes there’s such a thing as perfect people and that through parenting we can create them.  That’s a lie, and a damaging one at that.  By trying to shape children into perfect beings, we teach them that there is a state of sinlessness that they can achieve while simultaneously promoting the idea that they will never, ever reach that goal.  That’s a recipe for a lot of shame and guilt.

As I type this, my children are collecting their belongings for a trip out of town.  I know I can trust them to pack what they need not because I’ve taught them not to “sin” by disobeying my directions but because they are experienced travelers who have learned over time how to pack.  Most of the skills they have come from watching their dad and me, from talking it through, and from making their own mistakes and learning.  That doesn’t just apply to filling a suitcase; it’s in other things, too.

Do we get frustrated with them?  Of course.  I don’t always handle my anger very well, and I make all sorts of other mistakes as a parent.  I’m learning how to be a mom just like my kids are learning how to navigate their world.  What’s important is that we’re doing it together, without the layers of shame attached to their behavior.

I’m off for vacation tomorrow, and I’ll be gone for a week of unplugged bliss.  I’ll catch you all after the new school year starts!

You are loved

In case anyone missed it, many of us have been participating in an ongoing conversation about sexuality and sexual ethics.  There have been so many brave people sharing their stories with honesty and dignity.  Collectively, we all seem to need to move away from the shame and fear that have permeated conservative evangelical teaching.  This is an incredibly beautiful, brave venture and I’m proud to be part of it.

But.

After one of the first posts went up, Sarah Bessey’s wonderful I am damaged goods, I began to notice something that disturbed me.  Rather than understanding Sarah’s use of the phrase “damaged goods” for what it was in the context of her post, others were appropriating the term and using it to mean something very different.  I lost count of the number of times I saw someone post or tweet something like this:

We are all damaged goods.

I understand what they meant.  I, too, am a product of the doctrine of total depravity (that we are born without any goodness in us and our only worth comes from God).  While I no longer hold that view, I certainly respect those who do.  I also understand the sentiment to be a paraphrase of “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  That isn’t my primary concern here.

The phrase “damaged goods” breaks my heart not only for women like Sarah Bessey who have been told that their sexual histories have ruined them but for all of us.  We are not “damaged goods.”  Not one of us.

Words mean things.  “Damaged goods” is something we should use to describe a bruised banana or a dented can of tomatoes or a package of frozen peas that split open.  Damaged goods are unsaleable throw-aways.

Call us sinners, if you believe we are.  Say we make mistakes or that we sometimes hurt each other or that we need forgiveness (from people or God).

But don’t call us damaged goods.  Human beings are not ever damaged goods.

We are not spoiled, ruined, useless, or worthless.

We are beautiful.

We are precious.

We are valuable.

We are loved.

You are loved.  I am loved.  Let us reflect that love that no one will ever again believe he or she is damaged goods.

Semi-radical Grace for Some

Warning: Some of the content of this post may be triggering for survivors.

If there is a phrase uttered by conservative evangelicals that I never want to hear again, it’s this: “radical grace.”  Because (let’s be honest) no one really means it.  There are a number of other things implied, though:

  • Grace, if you’ve said the magic words and promised that you’ll never do it again
  • Grace, but only for those we deem “repentant”
  • Grace for certain people, but not others
  • Grace if you’ve committed one of the sins on the “ok” list, but not one of the Big Bad Evil Sins
  • Grace for the powerful at the expense of the weak

I know that it doesn’t seem that way.  Well-meaning people will keep on insisting that the really, truly do mean grace for everyone.  But that’s not how it plays out in the real world.  It’s why we have fools spouting off about how “changed” they are, all the while continuing to victimize others, who are allowed to continue to serve in ministry—to the very people they have abused.  It’s why we have extreme punishments for people for the mistake of being human, punishments which far exceed the “crime.”  It’s why an adulterous spouse is eligible for membership and leadership, while the one who remained faithful is vilified (yes, this really happened).  It’s why boys are told they should try to control their urges, but we understand they can’t if a girl is dressed a certain way.  It’s why a thrice-divorced single parent is welcomed in, but a married gay person isn’t.  (Not trying to condemn the single parent here, just pointing out that we pick and choose which is okay and which is not.)

Those aren’t examples of this radical grace of which we speak.

This problem is two-fold.  First, we misapply grace.  There is a mistaken belief that grace means that there are no consequences.  I once listened to a mom relating a story about the wrongdoing of her teenage daughter.  She explained that rather than punishing her behavior, she chose to let it go and didn’t confront her.  This, people, is NOT grace.  Grace would have been forgoing the punishment, while explaining to the daughter that she still had done wrong and that the trust they once had in her is gone.  Grace would have been expecting that the daughter would show better judgment next time.  Grace would have been expecting the daughter to earn back her parents’ trust.  This is consistent with God’s grace.  We may be forgiven and free, but we will still be judged.

The second problem is that we misplace In a misguided attempt at keeping the peace, we fail to hold the right people accountable.  One of the worst things I heard in the last few weeks was in regard to Trayvon Martin.  One of my friends said that we can’t make a judgment about whether Zimmerman was wrong because “we don’t know the whole story.”  Well, yes, actually, we do.  We know that an adult white man shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.  (And if we’re honest, we know that had the races been reversed, or if both were black or both were white, he’d have been charged immediately.)  There are not two sides to this story.  There is one, and it’s Trayvon’s.  There are not two sides to a rape, there is one—the victim’s (no matter how she was dressed, how drunk she was, or what her profession).  There are not two sides to an adult molesting a child.  There are not two sides to spousal abuse.  When one person victimizes another, that person is always, always wrong.  Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that we need to forgive the abuser and simply move on.  If he or she says, “I’ve repented!  I’m changed!” we’re supposed to overlook past flaws.

Which leaves no grace left for the victim.

Victims are told (by the church!) all the time that they need to “forgive,” “show grace,” “let it go,” “move on.”  Those who have been abused and find people or situations triggering for their trauma are told that it’s their problem and they need to deal with it.  Those who have been abused and wronged by family members are nearly always told that they need to “reconcile” with the abuser because cutting off a family member is “unhealthy.”

I don’t often speak of some of the things that my father has done to hurt our family.  One reason is that this is exactly what I get.  The whole you-need-to-forgive-because-it’s-only-hurting-you pile of crap.  As a matter of fact, I have forgiven him.  But I don’t need to subject myself to ongoing abuse.  I don’t need to call him and have him harass me about who I am and attempt to frighten me into believing his bizarre conspiracy theories about how I care for my body.  My children do not need to have a relationship with a mentally unstable person.  Extending grace doesn’t mean that I return to the same foolishness over and over.  (And before even one person tries to make it sound like I’m being petty, please do not go there.  You didn’t live my life, and I haven’t given enough detail here for you to know even a fraction of this story.)

This kind of misapplied and misplaced grace only leads to further hurt.  Where is the grace in that?  I am all for forgiving people and giving them a chance to make a new life.  I’m not in favor of doing that in such a way that anyone is traumatized.  Just because someone is ready and willing to turn his or her life around does not mean that trust should be given freely.

Additionally, we need to be more aware of the difference between sinning and victimizing.  A couple engaging in premarital sex may be sinning according to the church, but no one is being abused if the sex is consensual.  A man raping his wife is one person victimizing another, even though it still involves a sex act (of sorts) and even though they are married.  There is a world of difference.  To call a man “abusive” for the first and then punish him severely is an outrage.  It’s equally outrageous for the second man to claim he’s changed and then be allowed to serve unchecked in the church because he’s “repentant.”

How can we reconcile radical grace with appropriate accountability?  I don’t have the answers.  But I know that we need to start by listening to those who have suffered.

My sin, not in part but the whole

First, I should apologize for my absence last week.  A combination of family vacation and illness derailed me.  Ah, well.  It’s back to real life, though.

Today’s stimulating topic: Sin.

Have you ever noticed that people who live by a rigid list of Things I’m Not Supposed to Do are almost never happy?

I’m not suggesting that sin makes us happy.  Obviously, living in a pattern of selfish, sinful behavior doesn’t make anyone happy, either.  But it seems that people who are extremely rigid and rules-bound are equally (if not more) miserable.

I suspect that part of the problem is that people like that also want everyone else to comply with their version of the Official Rules for Life.  I’ve certainly heard my share of sermons implying that the world would be a better place if everyone did what the Bible says we’re supposed to do.

The problem, though, is that different eras and different churches have had their own spin on things.  What was considered shameful and wrong in the past, we no longer find objectionable (such as indoor plumbing).  What was considered acceptable in another time is now considered grave sin (slavery).  What one denomination views as against God’s plan is not an issue in another (female pastors, homosexuality).  Each one of those perspectives can be supported through Scripture.  The Bible has been used to both justify and condemn certain actions.  We may become more restrictive or less, depending on interpretation.

So how do we truly know what is or isn’t sin?

The list of rules may change, and if we try to cling strictly to the Ultimate List we will end up unhappy.  That’s because sin is inherently self-centered.  Believing that we can just exercise self-control (even with God’s help) and keep to the rules is also self-centered.  It’s all about me—what I’m not doing (self-righteousness), or what I’m doing that I shouldn’t be (guilt).  And unless we have superpowers, not one of us is likely to maintain every rule all the time.  That path only leads to misery, shame, and self-doubt, perpetuating the cycle of self-centeredness.

I suggest we start over.  Instead of looking at sin as a black-and-white list of all the things we should avoid, let’s begin with aligning our behavior with what Jesus says:

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37b-40)

And what Paul says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

This isn’t just about “big” things, it’s in everything.  Every interaction we have with another human being should begin with placing value on the other person, then acting accordingly.  Do I get this right all the time?  Heck, no.  I’m lucky if I manage 50-50.  But I’ve stopped operating on a list of what I’m not supposed to do and started working on the ways I can love other people, treat them as I want to be treated, and value them more than I value myself.

Double Standards and Wedding Cake

I wrote yesterday about the way sexual purity has been idolized, particularly for women.  I want to follow that up, because there is still something bothering me.

Many years ago, long before I was married, my friends and I discovered something interesting.  One of the young women I knew back then had ended up broken-hearted after a relationship ended.  He didn’t just cause her pain by leaving her.  He ripped out her heart, stomped on it, and left it a bloody pulp.  He utterly crushed her by making her feel dirty and damaged.  He had found out that she wasn’t a virgin and told her he couldn’t be with someone who wasn’t pure.  But even worse, he confessed later that he himself was sexually experienced.

Talk about a double standard.

I decided that this would make interesting “research.”  I wondered if this was a common perspective among males.  Did they all want the same thing?  I questioned both my male and female friends on the subject and found some not-so-surprising results.  Nearly every guy I asked said they would either not want to marry a woman if she weren’t a virgin or would have serious reservations.  This included involuntary sexual activity.  There were only two exceptions.  One said he couldn’t justify being judgmental because he had already had sex.  The other was gay.

On the flip side, the majority of women said they didn’t really care.  They figured that what was in the past was behind them, and as long as he wasn’t pressuring them, it wasn’t a problem.  Only those who had the most fundamentalist worldview preferred the idea of marrying a man with no prior sexual activity.  Now, this is only anecdotal, and my sample was limited to my own friends and acquaintances.  It was fascinating nonetheless, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be much different among other Christian populations.

In yesterday’s post, I reviewed some common metaphors used in abstinence-based education.  They were all about damage: The wedding cake, demolished flower, chewed candy, spit-filled cup.  Obviously, the aim is to demonstrate how a girl or woman has been forever ruined by her sexual history.

Wait…but the guy wouldn’t be “ruined”?!  So, he could be forgiven of his indiscretion, and he could move on, but she would have to live with the shame and guilt forever.  There is definitely something wrong with that.  Female virginity is still seen as a prize, and men who don’t get to claim it should be sorely disappointed.  But male virginity isn’t important, at least in the long-term.

One thing I’ve turned up is that there is a difference in what we consider the Big Sex Evil when it comes to men and women.  Men are often shamed for their “lust.”  You can see the evidence for this with a simple Google search.  There are literally thousands of web sites devoted to discussing, preventing, and treating lust (usually described in terms of porn and solo sex).  If men give in to their desires, it’s almost considered inevitable, given the fact that “all” men have issues with lust.  (Apparently, women don’t; we don’t have much a sex drive.)

Those aforementioned sermon illustrations, however, are obviously aimed at women (picking the petals off a flower and saying its beauty has been destroyed, anyone?).  I don’t personally know any men who are ashamed that they had sex before marriage, even Christian men.  I know far too many women who still, years later, beat themselves up over not waiting until walking down the aisle.  Included in this are the women who feel the need to excuse or explain the fact that their children are older than their marriages, despite the fact that it’s really not anyone else’s business.  I haven’t seen any men try to field that particular question.

One key difference between lust-shame and virginity-shame is that men aren’t considered damaged goods if they got off to Playboy.  They’re not all used up.  Again, men get to move on.  There may be ongoing shame, but only if they continue to interact with porn.  But once a woman’s virginity is gone, it’s gone.

I don’t think the answer is to make it more shameful for men to have premarital sex or for women to look at porn.  The answer is to stop using it as a weapon.  While I’m all for having morals and values when it comes to sex, I’m not much of a fan of using purity standards (of any kind) as a battle-ax.  I believe somewhere out there is a better way for us to think about and deal with sexual morality.

Reap What You Sow

I got to thinking about the consequences of our actions and what that might mean in terms of changing behavior.

Telling people, “You made your bed, now lie in it” doesn’t necessarily help that person to actually make positive changes in behavior.  On the other hand, constantly bailing someone out doesn’t help, either.  Yet that is the artificial tension we’ve set up between so-called Christian politics and “worldly” politics.

For example, many conservative Christians are anti-abortion, to the point of wanting a return to its previous illegal state.  Yet when a woman finds herself with an undesired pregnancy, those same people don’t want her to receive public benefits.  The idea is that she made her choices and now must find a way to deal with the consequences.  On the other hand, abortion is not a good form of birth control and a constant struggle to rise above public benefits is no way to live.

Another one is the moral outrage over sex education.  Plenty of people would rather that their children not be given instruction on proper use of birth control, and some would rather that the whole subject be kept out of school entirely.  Abstinence-only education, and if an adolescent gets pregnant or sick, that’s the natural consequence of immoral behavior.  The alternative is “safer” sex, the idea being that if teenagers just protect themselves, all will be well.

As with the question of whether the Bible is trustworthy, both of the above situations (and most like them) are focused on the wrong thing.  People are going to do things with unwanted results.  Human behavior is much to complex to pin down to a naughty list, and there are always going to be exceptions to the rules we’ve set up.  There will be people for whom the consequences are the same, but not by their own actions.  There will be people who do foolish things and appear untouched by negative repercussions.  And it’s a mistake to make assumptions about the “sort” of people who make poor decisions or need extra help finding their way back again.

Part of the problem is that we have a fix-it mentality.  We see things in terms of:: a) Problems you didn’t cause and I’m responsible to help fix; and b) Problems you caused and you’re responsible for fixing.  If we stop looking at this as some kind of puzzle or math problem with a solution, we might find it a lot easier to see something different emerging.  The first step toward a healthier way of dealing with other people is to stop dividing the world into black/white, on/off, right/wrong categories.

The second thing we might try is getting to know some real people.  It’s very easy to condemn actions, and the people we believe are taking them, when we don’t know anyone in a given situation.  It’s easy to claim that welfare recipients are lazy if you aren’t friends with or related to someone on public assistance.  It’s easy to be angry with an adolescent couple who have become intimate if you don’t understand them or their circumstances.

None of that means that anything goes, morals don’t matter, do what you want.  In fact, that’s no way to live either.  That becomes just as much of a trap, constantly acting in self-interest, taking instead of giving.  I’ve seen just as many people destroyed by that as by condemnation.  People who lean toward free-range morality ought to take a good, long look at themselves and decide if they like what they see there.  Anyone who can honestly say they’ve never made a choice that hurt themselves or others might want to entertain the possibility they’ve rewritten history a bit.  It’s just as important to encourage love, respect, and care as it is to prevent or shed negative consequences.

Ultimately, the best way to handle it is to consider not “what would Jesus do” but what does Jesus actually do with people we would prefer to condemn?  We won’t find the right answer by looking through the Bible for Scriptures which point out someone else’s flaws.  Because when we do that, inevitably, we have to face our own flaws first.  Better to first love the other person, then pray for G-d to show us the way we can best be a loving neighbor to that person.  After all, reaping what you sow isn’t just for those whose immoral behavior can be easily seen, but for all of us.

What Is Sin?

I have been thinking about the concept of sin.  What is it, exactly?  Is it just a list of the things we are supposed to avoid doing or failing to do?  It must be more than that, because even Jesus didn’t seem to have this concept in mind.

Following through on that thought, I considered the ways in which what we do, even within a church, might constitute sin if we read the Bible with strict literal interpretation.  For example, some churches do not allow women to preach sermons or be senior pastors.  Are the churches that do out of alignment with G-d’s will, and therefore in sin?  Some churches believe that tongues is a gift still given in modern-day churches.  Are the ones who do not encourage the practice of this gift also failing to do as God commands?  When doctrine gets out of hand, this is the end result—that we really have no idea what is or isn’t sin anymore.

I wondered if it might mainly boil down to being selfish vs. being selfless.  In other words, what G-d wants from us is that we should live always trying to keep the other person in mind. But that has its failings, too.  For example, which is more selfless, to attack the person trying to murder your child, or to take the bullet yourself?  If sin is a matter of where your heart is, then why do we concern ourselves with the salvation of unselfish atheists?  It seems obvious that being a Christian isn’t necessarily the litmus test of one’s moral character.

My worst area of failure is when it comes to my kids.  I get so upset and disappointed when they mess up, especially when they seem to believe their behavior was justified.  I don’t show them nearly the same level of mercy and grace that G-d shows us.  I think that maybe we are looking at it wrong.  We see G-d as being more angry about our failures than he is pleased with our successes.  G-d is more upset that there are gay people than he is happy that missionaries are providing clean water in Uganda.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s true.  We are attributing a human failing to G-d.  We are more upset when our kids screw up than we are proud when they do what we expect.  We are much quicker to punish bad behavior than to reward good behavior.  Heck, this is even true in schools.  Kids are sent to the principal for hitting each other, but nor for standing up for a friend or doing well on a test.

There seems to be, as I’ve said before, a tension between personal purity and social ministry.  But the more we focus on Jesus’ own words about our conduct (mostly concerned with caring for others), the more likely we are to avoid the pitfalls of internal corruption.  Perhaps that is the summary of the difference between actual sin and doctrinal purity.That’s not how G-d sees us.  Certainly, He knows we are flawed.  But His love for us is far greater than our weaknesses.  He isn’t overwhelmingly concerned whether we’ve gotten the finer points of Biblical interpretation down.

Let’s start living like we mean our faith.