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by Ted Schroder
Ash Wednesday, 2010

For Ash Wednesday and Lent I have been reading a book by the president of Calvin Theological Seminary, Cornelius Plantinga. It is entitled, Not The Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. It is a tour de force on the nature of sin in biblical, and contemporary terms. His preface states his purpose:

"What we need periodically are presentations of main themes that arise within the traditional Christian understanding of sin, presentations that bring these old themes forward through some of the currents of modernity in order to present them afresh in a common idiom, illustrated from a wide variety of literary, journalistic, and general sources. Hence this book - a brief theology of sin (a 'breviary' of sin), with contemporary illustrations.

My goal, then is to renew the knowledge of a persistent reality that used to evoke in us fear, hatred, and grief. Many of us have lost this knowledge, and we ought to regret the loss. For slippage in our consciousness of sin, like most fashionable follies, may be pleasant, but it is also devastating.

Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic, a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system.

What's devastating about it is that when we lack an ear for wrong notes in our lives, we cannot play right ones or even recognize them in the performance of others.

Eventually we make ourselves religiously so unmusical that we miss both the exposition and the recapitulation of the main themes God plays in human life.

The music of creation and the still greater music of grace whistle right through our skulls, causing no catch of breath and leaving no residue. Moral beauty begins to bore us. The idea that the human race needs a Savior sounds quaint." (p.xiii)

These words jump out at me: "Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system." Because of our self-deception, our lack of consciousness of our sins, we become tone deaf to God and his grace.

Scott Peck in The People of the Lie, wrote that the heart of sin is the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of sin, to take responsibility for one's sin, to live with the sorrowful knowledge of it and to pursue the painful way of repentance. That is why most people, when asked about themselves, will protest they are good people, deserving of God's grace, and therefore, if they were honest, not really in need of a Savior.

Many of us feel that we are accountable only to ourselves. We believe that we are the center of our world, and our goal in life is to fulfill ourselves. We have no obligation to God (if he exists), or to others. We relate to others only to further our own self-realization. In our therapeutic culture suffering is never my fault, for I am the victim. Power comes from blaming others for my problems. "Whoever can claim the status of victim with greater authority wins, because that status projects an image of innocence over against which all others are somehow guilty." (L.G. Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, 46)

Crime is explained, not in terms of individual responsibility, but genetic or environmental causes. So sin is not my fault. Nobody can ever be said to be guilty, because nobody has a free choice to do anything. Ultimately I am the victim of my own genetic make-up. "It would seem that we move ever closer to a society free from personal guilt, free from the traditional language of sin...We seek not salvation - as defined in a religious manner - but liberation, as defined psychologically, 'the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.'" (Alan Mann, Atonement for a 'Sinless' Society, 29)

But personal liberation is hard to come by, because every human being carries within himself, a conviction that he is less than he should or could be - a sense of shame - of failure to live up to what he conceives to be his ideal self. This sickness of the soul condemns him to a sense of deficiency, even if he attempts to ignore God. If you are not accountable to God, you end up being accountable to yourself, naked to circumstances, vulnerable to the accusations of the devil, and your last state is worse than your first.

Plantinga maintains that "...each of us possesses one last defense against the knowledge of sin - a defense so strong, supple, mysterious, and private that even veteran sinners cannot track its ways.

Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions...We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim.

We know the truth - and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We actually forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them. To the extent that we are self-deceived, we occupy a twilight zone in which we make up reality as we go along, a twilight zone in which the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth.....

A moment's reflection reminds us that self-deception has long been a growth industry. Why do alcoholics and other drug users typically go through years of self-denial? Why is the revelation of incest an astonishment to people who are living right in the middle of it?...Why do battering husbands offer minimizing and euphemistic accounts of the beatings they administer, and why do battered wives sometimes accept and repeat those accounts?" ( pp.105,107)

Jesus calls such self-deception 'hypocrisy'. Under the guise of doing good, of polishing one's image, vices masquerade as virtues. We learn to present something falsely, to make our presentation credible, and to avoid exposure. Even Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor.11:14) in order to look merely plausible. Evil appears in disguise. Hence our need for the Holy Spirit's gift of discernment. Hence the sheer difficulty, at times, of distinguishing good from what is evil. As sinners we try to keep up appearances. We are acutely sensitive to what others may think of us. Hence the constant attempt to explain, to justify, to rationalize, and to scapegoat evil. We want to appear to be good people.

This is why we have Lent. It is a time of self-examination and repentance, when we take responsibility for our sins. Kierkegaard wrote that "The consciousness of sin is the essential condition for understanding Christianity. This is the very proof of Christianity's being the highest religion. No other religion has given such a profound and lofty expression of our significance - that we are sinners."

There is a temptation to run too quickly to the promise of forgiveness through Jesus' purification for our sins on the Cross, and to avoid consciousness of sin and our need for self-examination and repentance. The season of Lent gives us that time, so that we can see ourselves for what we truly are, and not be deceived. Only then can the redeeming work of the Savior have merit and meaning.

Follow my blog on www.ameliachapel.com/blog/

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