Ash Wednesday: A Teaching on Sin

A Teaching on Sin, With the Help of Holy Scripture, Julian of Norwich, and C.S. Lewis
February 18, 2015
Ash Wednesday
The Church of the Holy Spirit
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

In Christian faith we use a number of Big Words; not big in the sense of length, but that they’re meant to carry significant meaning. The problem, often through their frequent yet unexamined use, is that they can get reduced to being code words. They convey more context rather than content.

This can even be the case with the word “God”—as well as just about everything else in the vocabulary of theology. What do we mean when we say the word “God,” or “salvation,” or—since it’s Ash Wednesday—what do we mean when we say the word “sin”?

I propose that the last of these—sin—be the focus of our teaching today. Most of the time, if it means anything to us, “sin” is a violation of a rule: some infringement on this or that discreet ordinance. Surely this is part of what sin is, but when we get to this point, we’re dealing more with symptoms than with the sickness itself.

Instead: To go to the heart of the matter, we could say that sin—in all its forms or degrees—is the rejection of reality; specifically, the Reality of God, and the Reality with God. If this is so, sin is what pulls us (even subtly) away from Being. There’s always something self-annihilating in sin’s intent.

That’s a strong claim, I know, but I’ll invite you to ponder it with me.

Let’s continue by considering the following Scripture; from the eighth chapter of Proverbs—a hymn of the Divine Wisdom, which the early Church perceived as a hymn of Christ:

“Now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
33Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
34Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
36but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:32-36)

We can say that all sin is, in some sense, saying “No” to God’s sufficiency for us. Sin is moving away from trust, based on the notion that—after all—God does not have matters adequately in hand. That’s delusional, of course. So, by definition, such a disposition moves us away from Reality and Being—to nothing!

Julian of Norwich has some striking words to offer:

“Ah, wretched sin! What are you? You are nothing. When I saw that God has made all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God is in all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God does all things that are done, greater and lesser, I saw nothing of you. And when I saw our Lord Jesus sitting so gloriously in our souls, and loving and liking and ruling and guiding all that he has made, I saw nothing of you. And so I am certain that you are nothing. And all those who love you, and like you, and follow you, and choose you at the end, I am certain that they shall be brought to nothing with you, and endlessly overthrown. God protect us all from you. Amen, for the love of God.”

“During the time that men or women love sin, if there are any who do, their suffering is beyond all suffering. And when they do not love sin, but hate it and love God, all is well. And they who truly do this, though they may sometimes sin through frailty or inexperience, they do not fall, for they will strongly rise again.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, 23)

Sin is “nothing”—a black hole of non-being; or perhaps better put, anti-being. It can certainly masquerade as the seizing of life, by manipulating the strength of our feelings. But it is not so. At the heart of it, sin is always the refusal of “the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)

One of the Collects of our Church Year begins, “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.” (Proper 12, Book of Common Prayer, page 231) The Screwtape Letters is C. S. Lewis’ stunning account of a spiritual journey, told inversely through a series of letters from a senior devil to a junior tempter in the field, trying to impede progress on that journey. In it, Lewis makes a play on the words of this very Collect. Here it is; and remember that “the Enemy” referenced, is the Devil’s enemy, not ours!

“The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong.’ And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years…in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” (Screwtape Letters, XII)

The eighth chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of the greatest chapters in all of Holy Scripture. Near the chapter’s conclusion, Paul offers the assurance that nothing shall separate us from the love of God. (8:36ff) Without question, this is meant to be a great encouragement for us—and so it is. But following the line suggested in Screwtape we might also read it in a second sense, inversely, as a serious warning: Infatuation with “nothing”—as we’ve been describing it in this teaching—shall indeed, terribly separate us from the love of God. Not God’s love for us, to be sure; but so sadly, our love for God.

Did not Jesus tell us that one of the signs of the End, with its impending Judgment, is that “the love of many will grow cold”? (Matthew 24:12)

We might then adopt the following as a working definition of Sin: A refusal to trust God’s provision in the circumstances to which God’s providence has brought us. God isn’t meeting our “needs,” so we assume control, and secure them on our own terms. Now, that last statement is disconnected from Reality at all levels—but I think it a fair summary of the fallen human disposition. In any case, we can say that all sin, “large” and “small,” obvious or subtle, is in some sense a denial of either God’s good-will or God’s competence—or both.

We may have heard of the distinction between sins of commission (the bad that we do) and the sins of omission (the good we fail to do). As one of the classic Confessions of Sin puts it, “We have left undone which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 41-42) Yet perhaps, at the heart of it, all sins are sins of omission: our failure to trust the God who is so faithful with us. Since God “isn’t up to the job,” we give up, in defiance or despair, and drift away—to “nothingness”—forgetting that God must always be greater than our present distress, whatever that may be.

I will suggest that in Lent 2015, we ponder how this working definition might be playing out in all the “Seven Deadly Sins,” or for that matter, any others we might name: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.

The purpose of this exercise is not to feel miserable about ourselves—let alone judge others. The purpose is to foster the awareness and insight in which we take hold of the better thing that the Lord has in store for us; as we take the next step in our spiritual formation that the Lord intends.

As a test case, to get us started, let’s take a brief look at “wrath.” We are mistaken if we think that this only applies to volcanic expressions of rage. Wrath is uncontrolled anger—or anger that controls us. This may be a matter of degree (how obviously angry we get on this or that occasion), or it may be a matter of extent (how much anger, of whatever degree, pervades our existence). Life lived at a constant angry low simmer still adds up to a wrathful life. And at its core, habitual irritation rests on the false—yet indulged—premise that God is letting us down.

This Lent, I invite us to continue to think all this through in greater depth, and to ponder the dynamic in its other forms, not just only wrath. We shouldn’t feel overwhelmed, though. We can take reasonable time. After all, it’s only Ash Wednesday; Day One. Nevertheless, with God’s help, let’s make a serious beginning.

On the constructive side of things, let’s name the virtues. By these I don’t mean our anxious attempts somehow to do “better” on our own, but rather the natural fruits of a converted—or perhaps, re-converted—life. They are the outflow of a life graciously redeemed. Virtues are those characteristics in which we live out our risky, faithful “Yes” in response to the God who so wonderfully said “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ—“who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Romans 8:25)

For the God who has acted to save in Christ, there is no such thing as too hard, or too far gone. Whatever our condition, we may surely take hold—and may we do so without delay. Returning to the Lady Julian, only slightly paraphrasing: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this? Know it well: Love is his meaning.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, 86)

So, in joy, may we launch into all that flows from our “Yes” to the One who said “Yes” to us in such great love. The “Cardinal Virtues” more than counterbalance that other seven that we mentioned before. Growing in these, we pass from shades to substance in the character of our lives: Chastity, Temperance, Generosity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility.

How do we get there? Surely, we know: In Him Who is both the Way and the Destination.

I’ll conclude with a short set from Paul, which sets forth, once again, the progress of this teaching—and the heart of our message:

“Wretched that we are! Who will rescue us from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24)

“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

“Therefore, beloved, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

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