To paraphrase that annoying hit dance song “Party Rock,” everyday we’re posturing. What I mean by “posturing” is that our conversations are constant performances of self-definition, at least those that happen in cyberspace where words are all that we are. Because conversation itself has turned into a primary object of our analysis, we do a lot of meta-conversation, talking about talking about things. The Christian blogosphere talks a lot about talking about sin, which is different than talking directly about sin. It is in these meta-conversations that a tired debate cycles endlessly: “Why do we need to talk about talking about sin all the time? Jesus ate and drink with sinners.” “Ah… but he would always tell them to go and sin no more.” Understanding the distinction between talking about sin and talking about talking about sin is critical if we are to avoid talking past each other as seems to have occurred in a recent sin meta-conversation between Rachel Held Evans and Kevin Watson.
Jesus spent a good chunk of his Sermon on the Mount covering the topic of exhibitionist religiosity. He says not to be like those who pray loudly on the street corners and announce their almsgiving with trumpets. It seems like a lot of blogosphere meta-conversation about sin is analogous to “disfiguring your face to show others that you are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). Too often it has little to do with genuine confession to people with whom you are in covenantal relationship or prophetic witness to worldly powers and a lot more to do with a showcase of our piety. Talking about your personal sins in the context of an intimate small group is about as different from getting into Facebook status update quarrels about the importance of talking about sin as the distinction between praying in your inner room and praying flamboyantly on the street corner (Matthew 6:5-6).
Evangelicals love to talk about whether other people are talking about sin enough. It’s one of the litmus tests with which we evaluate preachers. Do they sound “tough enough on sin”? Are they willing to throw in a few references to Satan? Better yet, do they have the guts to say the word hell and mention that a lot of people will be going there? Because I have heard so many others evaluate the “Biblical faithfulness” of preachers according to these criteria, I am embarrassed to admit that I have caught myself posturing to their needs in my preaching, making sure that people who hear me know that I’m a real evangelical who’s not afraid to talk about Satan and sin and God’s wrath and “tough topics” like that.
It makes us feel holy to talk about talking about sin. And it’s a very easy form of holiness because it’s often occurring as a substitute for actually talking about our own sin. We say things about how we talk about sin on an abstract meta-level almost as a mini-catechism to make a personalized spiritual fashion statement: “You know I love sinners, but I love God too, and He hates sin.” “Well, I think when we talk about our sin all the time and not God’s love, we’re saying that our sin is bigger than God’s love.” “Jesus ate and drink with sinners without judging them so that’s what I do.” “Ah, but he always told them to go and sin no more.”
Obviously, there is a place for legitimate meta-conversation in Christian discourse as in any other discourse. Christians need to be talking about sin in two specific senses. We need to prophesy publicly against the systemic sins within our world that cause suffering and idolatry, especially insofar as they have infiltrated the church. And we need to confess our personal struggles with sin privately within safe, committed covenantal relationships. We are not fully the church unless we are battling sin on both fronts.
But when Rachel Held Evans wrote her most recent post on sin, she wasn’t responding to the question of whether or not we should have spiritual accountability groups like the early Methodists had in England which we desperately need in our churches today. Nor was she dealing with the question of whether or not we should speak prophetically about the sinful forces in the world. Rachel was responding to the way that people use Jesus’ “Go and sin more” in his encounter with the adulteress who was about to get stoned in John 8 as a means of justifying their penchant for talking about talking about sin, usually in places where it has no legitimately constructive purpose such as the thousands of theological fencing matches that take place every day in social media. Here’s Rachel:
We have our own purity codes these days—people we cast out from our communities or surround with Bible-wielding mobs, labels we assign to those who don’t fit, conditions we place on God’s grace, theological and behavioral checklists we hand out before baptism or communion, sins real or imagined we delight in taking seriously because we’d like to think they are much more severe than our own. “Let’s not forget that Jesus told that woman to go and sin no more,” Christians like to say when they’re afraid this grace thing might get out of hand.
Because Rachel’s literary sensibilities cause her to write more inductively, she doesn’t provide her readers with the tiresome “This is what I’m going to talk about,” “Here are my three main points,” “This is what I just told you about” with which many preachers shape their sermons. Rachel is not claiming that we should resign ourselves to “going and sinning more” every time we are convicted of a sin that we put on Jesus’ cross and receive deliverance from. She is asking whether people who haven’t stopped sinning (like her) should use Jesus’ last words to the woman “Go and sin no more” as a means of undermining the main point of the story and a justification for grabbing the rocks they just put back down. (I’ve been scratching my head as to how charitable a hermeneutics to grant Rachel’s critics who may have missed the point so that they could make another point.)
Should we say to Jesus, I know you told me to put my rock down, but I’m pursuing this Christian perfection thing John Wesley taught us Methodists to strive for where I eventually don’t sin any more, so I just wanted to know how many sin-free weeks do I need before I can be the one guy without sin who gets to pick my rock back up to clock that adulteress in the head? (Which would be an analogously mischievous misreading of Kevin Watson’s point.)
The point is not that we shouldn’t be pursuing a life of holiness (in which our greater sanctification makes us less and less likely to need to throw rocks at other peoples’ sin as our means of self-justification). The point is that no matter how far we get on the journey, we are never going to come to a place where we feel divinely sanctioned to throw stones as those without sin, because God will reveal to us deeper and deeper subtleties in our sin the closer we get to Him (if in fact we are moving in that direction). And if John Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection is in fact more than a theoretical asymptote for a hyperbolic curve towards perfect love of God and neighbor whose slope is perpetually approaching infinity… if it’s actually a finish line, then there sure as hell is not a big shiny pile of rocks waiting for us as our reward at the finish line.
I don’t know about you, but the more that I am delivered from sin, the less I think of it as anything I deserve credit for and the more I see it as pure grace on the part of God (and while I really believe that, I can also admit that I’m Jesus-juking you to gain the higher rhetorical ground by saying it). Holiness does not make us less capable of tolerating other peoples’ sin; it makes us more perfectly capable of loving them amidst their sin. “But if you love somebody, how can you love their sin?” That’s a question that only makes sense in the tiresome meta-conversation about sin and not in reality.
Sin always happens in context as part of a relationship. When my wife is short with me in a conversation on the phone, I can either say that’s rude, that’s a sin, and because I love you, I’m not going to tolerate it, or I can try to figure out what I did or forgot to do that may be the source of her anger so that we end up making peace in a way that involves mutual apologies and a mutual sense that the other person’s “sin” may have not been as a big deal as either of us thought originally. When we actually make up, we usually don’t feel the need to clarify exactly how much I sinned and how much she sinned; it’s simply a tangled-up mess that we take to Jesus’ cross together in order to be set free.
Of course I’m not going to let anybody I love bust out a crack-pipe in front of me and start smoking it. But the more deeply I appreciate my own brokenness and need for God’s mercy, the less likely I’m going to be able to say with clarity, “You just sinned and there was nothing I could have done differently.” In a loving relationship, I’m a player on the field, not the referee who sits back and watches from an overarching vantage point, assessing yellow and red cards with perfect objectivity and chomping on his fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The more we are sanctified, the more we take responsibility for unilaterally loving other people and seeking to empathize with them. This means that the things we would have been quick to label dismissively as “your sin” in a state of spiritual immaturity turn out to be more complex as we look deeper into the chemistry of our interactions with each other.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to set healthy boundaries, etc. But what gets removed is the underlying need to affirm and validate myself by thinking and talking about other peoples’ sin, which is the original sin as Jonathan Martin identified it in last Sunday’s sermon: playing God and lusting after the sweet fruit of knowing with absolute clarity which people are good and which people are evil. An abstract meta-question like “How can I love my friend and not hate her sin?” presumes the divine “clairvoyance” of those who spend their lives eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
To close this meta-conversation about sin, I thought I would drop three verses that my brother Jonathan Martin used to close his sermon “Playing God” last Sunday:
1) Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
The sober judgment with which we look at our own sin is an entirely different entity than the fake “sober judgment” with which we posture when we talk about how important it is to talk about sin in our daily Facebook status update skirmishes. People who soberly judge themselves on the inside are humble, self-emptying, and warmly hospitable on the outside. If we are using our self-severity as a means of justifying severity against others even inside our heads, that’s posturing, not sober self-judgment. The more progress I make in my quest for holiness, the more I hate that little Lucifer who keeps on hiding in my thoughts and keeping me from perfect love as he seduces me into infatuation with my cynical brilliance and the delight I take in the evil of others.
2) 1 Corinthians 13:6-7: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
In his sermon, Jonathan counsels us to have the love that always hopes for other people and sees them in the best light possible. He’s often said before that anyone can “tell it like it is,” but it takes a prophet to speak hope over a people. Sometimes it is necessary to call people out on their sin, but for this to be genuinely loving exhortation, it should always be spoken in the context of naming the true beauty you see in the other person. It is the other person’s beauty which is the truth that we rejoice with, even if this truth is concealed beneath an evil that we don’t take any pleasure in calling out if we absolutely have to.
3) 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
If you google this verse, you’ll see all kinds of blog posts that have been written to “clarify” what Peter means here because the idea of love “covering over a multitude of sins” is too scandalous for evangelicals who love to talk about other peoples’ sin. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Living Together, which is one of the most important books on Christian community ever written, he says, “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no [excuse] whatsoever” (96). As Bonhoeffer rightly notes, the degree to which I am scandalized by my own sin is inversely proportional to the degree to which I will be scandalized by others’ sins, which is entirely consistent with the point James 2:13 makes: when I have actually been put in place by my own sin, then “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
A genius example that Jonathan used in his sermon was the story of how Noah got drunk and was doing something to himself naked in his tent when his son Ham saw it and made fun of it to his brothers (Genesis 9:20-27). It wasn’t Noah who got in trouble with God for his drunkenness and whatever his “nakedness” is a euphemism for; it was Ham who got in trouble for uncovering his father’s nakedness. Similarly, Zechariah 3 relates how God rebukes Satan for deriding the filthy robes of the high priest Joshua rather than rebuking Joshua for getting his robes dirty.
We need to have the love that covers over a multitude of sins. While there are sins that require direct intervention and confrontation, more often people are convicted of their sin when they are confronted by the pure good-naturedness of someone else’s love. That’s how Jesus got Zacchaeus to repent; and I’ve shared about several occasions in my recent past when it was precisely the means God used on me.
So how should Christians talk about sin? We should prophesy when common evils need to be named publicly; we should confess our personal sins in safe accountable community so that we can live in the freedom Christ died to give us. And if you happen to feel convicted that you’ve done a lot of posturing in abstract meta-conversations about sin in order to “disfigure your face so that others will know you’re fasting,” I’ll put down my rock, because I’ve got my own set of posturing self-justification games that I like to play (I’m very good at the “I’m more vulnerable than you are” game for example). But do yourself a favor and accept the freedom Jesus offers you to go and sin no more. 😉