Throughout my “glory days” in high school, I played on the football team. During the course of one game, I was hit so hard that I recall standing up to find that the field around me was shaking. Of course, the field wasn’t actually shaking. My perception had been altered by a brutal hit to the head that left me with the impression that I was experiencing something like an earthquake. Since no one else seemed to notice the “earthquake,” after a few seconds I realized that the problem was in my head rather than on the field. Imagine how my experience would have differed if I had been born into a world that seemed to shake and quake from day one because of an issue in my mind. And imagine if everyone else around me experienced the world in the same shaky way. When our experience is off for a few moments we can generally determine that our perception is the problem, but making that determination is much more challenging when our perception is perpetually out of whack.
This illustrates one of the greatest challenges we face when thinking about the biblical notion of sin. When we try to think about sin we always do so with a faulty “thinker” in the sense that our minds are broken and twisted by the very sinfulness we are trying to understand. They are not entirely useless but they are deeply flawed and can be misleading. Unfortunately, until we come to terms with just how broken we are apart from Jesus we will never find it necessary to embrace him and receive everything he offers us.
The first chapter of Romans asserts that everyone has some knowledge of God’s eternal power and divine nature because of what God has revealed about himself in creation. Nonetheless, we sin without excuse when we fail to honor the Creator as God or give thanks to him. Instead of living lives in humble gratitude to God, our lives center on selfish pursuits that place great value on pleasure, comfort and self-indulgence. Yet many find these statements nearly impossible to believe. People are generally good, they reason, and this account suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with human beings. It is a view that is entirely too pessimistic for the average person. Nonetheless, the biblical narrative is deeply pessimistic about humanity in its current sinful state which entails rebellion and isolation from the God who made us in his image. But which of these perspectives accurately corresponds to the way things really are? Are humans basically good or basically bad?
Romans offers critical insight into these questions. The author notes that our sinful state entails futile thinking, a darkened heart and a preference for falsehood. Under these circumstances it becomes clear that one who is plagued by sin has actually done so much damage to his or her moral and spiritual faculties that it would be nearly impossible to arrive at an accurate understanding of reality. Indeed, the challenge of thinking with a faulty “thinker” (i.e. mind) is exacerbated by thinking with a faulty heart and an inclination to disregard the truth. In sum, when we live in sin we live lives that are broken and twisted but our thoughts, desires and inclinations obscure that truth from us. Apart from Christ, we find ourselves in a miserable and hopeless situation that we are incapable of understanding accurately, let alone resolving.
Who, then, can rescue us from this horrible state? If the Bible is so deeply pessimistic about the human situation then it would seem that all is lost and resolving the problem is essentially impossible. Yet the Bible is as optimistic about God’s ability to rescue as it is pessimistic about our ability to remedy the situation without Him. God alone can open our eyes to the truth of our situation and soften our hardened hearts. While the Bible does not provide a simple solution to the challenges we face in grappling with sin, it does offer helpful hope for those who are willing to receive it. While it is evident that apart from Christ we are at least as bad as we sometimes fear, the Bible is equally clear that Jesus is able to rescue us from the direst of circumstances. For with God, all things are possible (Luke 1:37).
By grace alone, Jason Hiles
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