It's strange that we can be so uncomfortable with acknowledging personal sin and yet so comfortable in committing it.
Every Friday night I have the privilege of meeting with a group of friends and fellow believers for fellowship and Bible study. We break bread together, study the Word, and share about our personal lives: experiences from the week past, praises, and prayer requests. Meeting with this group once a week has strengthened my faith and provided me with much-needed spiritual nourishment. I love it!
This past Friday night we studied the story of the paralyzed man from John 5: An invalid for 38 years, he hung around the pool of Bethesda, hoping in vain to be the first to get into the pool when the water was stirred and so to be healed, but he had no one to help him. We talked a lot about the idea of hopelessness and marveled that as Jesus passed through the crowd of sickly and maimed, He picked the worst case to reverse... As we came to the end of the study, it seemed that the lesson was that Jesus was the help of the helpless and that we take hold of this help by acting on His promises.
I thought that this was a pretty good setup for my prayer request.
"Well, my request is for a personal area of my helplessness. I'm normally a pretty productive person, but I seem to be inextricably caught in a bout of laziness. It's terrible! And the worst part is that if your problem is lack of willpower, then it is impossible to will yourself to change. So I need prayer that God will cure me of this laziness."
The group didn't want to accept that. I got a couple friendly chuckles and some advice about letting go of my to-do lists. I protested that no, this really was a problem, and someone shared a story about a fellow classmate of ours who throws away his syllabi at the start of every term and ignores due dates and has all A's. I tried to communicate the problem wasn't really about my achievements (my grades are just fine, actually) but rather it's a problem of my character: I need to do things that I don't want to do. After a couple more rebuttals, I said, "Okay, I think I'll just pray for myself." During our time for prayer, someone did actually pray for me, but it was more of a request that God would help all of us get our schoolwork done during this summer semester.
This strange episode seems to me to be indicative of a rampant illness in our Christian communities, a disease I'm calling sin-ambivalence, characterized by the inability to acknowledge specific personal sin as evil, and the overwhelming compulsion to ameliorate any (possibly justified) feelings of guilt. Some symptoms that you may have observed include a reluctance to admit any personal character defect and when such an admission is made it is spoken of in such a light-hearted manner that one might be led to think that this was not sin but rather just some funny idiosyncrasy. When we confess, we often veil the true nature of the problem, preferring to say something like "I just really need to start getting stuff done!" rather than "I am lazy." Furthermore, we tend to phrase any such admission in such a way as to avoid the impression that this was not some slip or accident, but rather something very in tune with the feelings of our hearts. (Notice how in my own confession, I mentioned how I was normally a productive person, as if to say that this problem was really out of character for me.) When we talk about sin, we rather prefer to talk about sins generally, with the eager agreement that we're all sinners and the underlying feeling that there's nothing we can really do about it and we really shouldn't hold it against ourselves or each other.
please don't make me admit my sinfulness.
On the rare occasion that someone does confess a sin, our first instinct is to make that person feel better. The first words out of our mouths are "It's okay." We assure him that a lot of people probably struggle with this and that it's nothing to be ashamed of. (I get the distinct impression from the Bible, however, that sin is exactly the thing we ought to be ashamed of.) We make sure to remove the sense of personal responsibility from the confessor at almost all costs, steering clear of any suggestion that her personal choice might be the cause. (Since alcoholism is called a disease, perhaps we've concluded that any thing we do that we don't approve of is also a disease, out of our control and not really our fault.) When we ask for prayer so often we avoid the personal. It seems to me that while we avoid making any requests that could give the right impression about our spiritual needs, we're eager to bring up to the group Aunt Sally and her disease. (But the Jesus who heals the paralytic also heals our souls... right?)
I honestly and truly feel that my laziness is a sin and that it is a personal character defect that is interfering with my spiritual well-being. When Jesus bore my sins on the cross--the sins that crushed out His life--I believe that He carried my laziness. And when I choose laziness, I think that it really is an act of rebellion against God, choosing my own desires over His and rejecting His lordship in my life. In other words, I think it's really bad!
And when I confessed it to the group I wanted to feel better, but not because they convinced me that it wasn't really a problem. I wanted to feel better because I received assurance of Christ's power in my life and of their intercession on my behalf. Strangely enough, their attempts to clear me of any wrong doing kinda just made me feel invalidated.
sin isn't that bad. clearly.