Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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Romans 07 – Sin as Animal Instinct

22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Making Sense of Paul’s Writing

Paul has dense, rhetorical arguments.  I find them hard to follow sometimes.  If you, too, find Paul a little hard to follow sometimes, remember this: According to historians, these letters were supposed to be read out-loud in dramatic fashion, almost like a one-man play.  They also would have been delivered with a messenger, who, after the first reading, would be asked to clarify Paul’s point.  The letter would be read and discussed several times by the congregation. We don’t get to ask Paul (or his envoy) any questions directly, but we can read these letters multiple times, and read supporting material – of which there is tons on Paul and his letters – to help us understand better. I’ve got two books about Paul on my nightstand right now to get me through Romans.

This chapter is one of those dense passages, with back and forth reference to the law and sin, life and death, doing what he does not want to do but not doing what he does want – I don’t know if it is a problem with the translation or what, but it was thick.  In a nutshell, Paul is putting forth the argument that the law (found in the Torah) was important because it showed God’s chosen people the difference between moral and sinful living. “I would not have known what sin was,” writes Paul,  “had it not been for the law.”  However, in doing so it also condemned them.  The way I understand it, it’s kind of like a restrictive diet: You cold turkey all junk food: no cake, no chips, no soda. You are healthy, yay! But, even knowing those things are bad for you, you can’t stop thinking about them, and many people will give in to temptation and eat them again at some point anyway.  (This diet analogy is not a judgement call on anyone’s eating habits, just an oversimplified analogy to get us through Paul’s writing.)

So what’s to be done?  Are we just condemned by the very thing that saves us?  That’s where the good news of Jesus comes in, which Paul explores in later chapters, as will we.  For now, let’s push through this theme of law and sin and death.  This heavy focus on the law of the Torah, and highly analytical argument about it’s pro’s and con’s from Paul, is put forth because he was speaking to a largely Jewish and Jewish-sympathizing audience.  Their whole way of life – not just in the Synagogue but out of it – is built around the Torah.  The law was given to Moses from God Most High, a sacred and central part of their being a chosen people set apart and loved by God.  So yeah, they got mad when Paul started attacking it, saying that Jesus had nullified the law.  In an effort to make his audience more likely to accept Jesus as the Messiah, Paul had to tread very carefully: showing his respect for the law (because he did respect it), and slowly building a case around said law that exposes how Jesus is its ultimate fulfillment.

I hope that helps clarify this chapter, and indeed the ones surrounding it, a little bit.  But what I really want to talk about today is sin. The word “sin” appears nineteen times in this 25-verse chapter.  It’s a loaded word.  Of course it’s about our shortcomings, but it’s been made, over the centuries, to mean a nearly irrecoverable character flaw.  Sin damns us to hell, sin makes us the evil, sin makes us the lowest of beasts.

Sin as Animal Instinct

And actually, I agree with that last analogy, the lowest of beasts.  For what I think Paul was most describing here is our reptilian brains – our animal instincts.  Paul just lacked the terminology that we have today. What pet owner hasn’t seen one dog “covet” another’s toy or treat? Greedy squirrels hoard so many acorns they literally cannot remember all of them (to our benefit, because then new oak trees grow).  Don’t even get me started on the ecological havoc pigs can wreck: you could film lunar sequences in our pigs’ grow-out paddock, with its five-foot deep craters and being completely denuded of plant life.  Animals steal, rape, and kill – and not just for food.  Lions have been documented killing zebras and not eating the carcass, the same sort of behavior domestic cats exhibit when they sport-hunt songbirds. It even has an official name: surplus killing.

So, when Paul talks about the law teaching him what sin is, I think it is essentially this: learning that we have the capability for nobler actions than our first basic instincts. It may be natural to covet our neighbor’s big house, but we won’t let that covetousness build rancor in our hearts.  We may be naturally greedy, but we will overcome that base greed by practicing sharing on large and small scales.  We have more capacity than any animal (even pigs) to damage the planet, but we can start living lighter, both individually and collectively.  We can recognize, and hopefully then curb our worst impulses, especially the three most harmful ones: stealing, raping and killing.

As I said in my first post about sin, the greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  Animal instincts are all about protecting your own skin, hoarding resources for yourself.  And that is not loving.  Natural, yes, but not loving.  God must know this about us, that we have these less-than-noble animal instincts. So would God really condemn us for them?

Grace is overcoming our baser instincts.

I don’t think so, but that doesn’t get us off the hook.  I know my girls are going to fight, that doesn’t mean I just let it happen.  I know they would only eat cookies if given the choice, but I make sure that that doesn’t happen, either.  God wants us to do better, and will help us do so.  We have been given the higher intelligence to reason this through, guides (such as the Bible) to help show us the way, and grace through Jesus for the mistakes we will make.  Because we will make mistakes.  But making mistakes is not an irredeemable character flaw, nor will it necessarily damn us to hell (a place I’m not sure actually exists, but that’s for another time and another post).  God has given us so much grace, grace beyond the stain of any sin.  All we need to do to be washed clean is turn our hearts towards Xyr.  Listen for God’s message with open hearts and open minds: because those messages rarely come from a booming voice in the clouds, but most often from quiet and unexpected places.  If we do that, we are already on the right path.  Will we stumble and fall occasionally? Yes, after all, we’re only human (and humans are animals). But grace will always be ready to turn back and offer us a hand.

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Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.