Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Problem with Puritanism (and why sin matters, but not how they thought it did)

The problem with legalism and puritanism is not that it takes sin too seriously, but that it takes sin too lightly. (I mean by sin, behaviours and attitudes that destroy lives when they come to full fruition, or as my great friend Jess describes it, simply dysfunction).

Legalism spreads out broad, gets greedy, condemns more and more activities as sinful - first premarital sex, then all sex (it has to be done, but it's much better if you don't if you can help it), then dancing because it leads to sex, too much facial hair, too much jewellery, listening to the wrong music...
The problem is that, though it is so broad and all encompassing, it never goes deeper than surface level.

As a recovering self-righteous prig, I know all too well the dangers of only thinking about the surface level. It's a focus on the symptoms, not the cause.

We need to think about sin more seriously. To do that, we need to stop focussing on the outside. Not that many things are really sinful in and of themselves. You don't need to regulate everything you do, or force yourself to give up everything fun.

No, to take sin more seriously, we have to go deeper. We have to go right to the deepest part of our hearts, our minds. When we are selfish, when we are afraid, when we hate, when we get angry and don't resolve it, but let it fester there, when have desires and try to bury them, where they grow in the dark and secret places. Those are the real sins. Those are the attitudes that become the actions, like murder, lying, cheating on our partner, stealing, gossiping...

Jesus said it in his sermon on the mount. He said things like 
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
The secret attitudes of our hearts can destroy us, even if we never act on them. Hatred, bitterness and resentment can eat you up inside, stopping you enjoying life. Fear (as I know too well) can hamstring you, prevent you from doing the things that really matter and forcing you to focus on yourself instead of reaching out in love to other people. That's the tragedy of sin. That is hell on earth.

Can any of us really get rid of those things, deep in our heart? I don't think we can, totally. I can't, and people much older and wiser than me say the same. But I think once we have become aware of this and admitted that we are helpless, that's when we can begin to heal. That's when Jesus can enter in and start His work in our broken lives and souls. And that's when we can begin to experience true freedom. Not just freedom from the legalistic system of outer rules and regulations, but freedom from the tyranny of our own darkness.

Light drives out darkness.
Love drives out fear.
Truth drives out deception.
Those with ears, let us hear.

(Image by Daina Kahu at

Grace, rules and the bible.

Is the bible a rule book divinely dictated down by God? I used to think so, but now I think I'm starting to change my mind. I'm starting to think of it as something flexible; something that is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" precisely because it is so flexible. It is an inspired response to God's intrusions into our reality; to those times that in some way God meets us where we are. It was inspired by God at the time of writing - but just as importantly, it is inspired by God at the time of reading. God changes us through our reading by His Spirit. He breathes into and through the text, into us the readers.

Now why am I thinking about this. Well the other day I was reading a passage by Paul and it was about dealing with sin in the church. It was very graceful. "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness."
That got me thinking about another famous passage of Paul's about dealing with sin in the church - the one in Corinthians, where it says "hand him over to satan."

Talk about polar opposites! And as I thought about that, I realised that this happens all the time in the bible; sometimes in two passages that are right next to each other.

Something I do sometimes with the bible (that I've recently been trying to avoid), is I try and find out what decision I am meant to make by looking in there for similar situations, and just copying whatever it is they did in the bible. If the bible is inspired and infallible, then clearly, that would be the best way to go right? Well, actually, no. Because the bible isn't a rule book. It's a grace book. Ever since Jesus came, the rules have been out the window. Not because we aren't meant to try and be good people, make good decisions and do good works. But because we are supposed to do this through grace, discernment and wisdom, as fully matured children of God. We aren't supposed to blindly follow a rule book in order to make all our decisions.

It is far, far easier to treat the bible as just a rule book - but that diminishes what the bible is and what Jesus came to do. Far harder, but more glorious, is to become the people that Jesus calls us to be - sons, and not just slaves.