Let's be done with smugness
I want to propose that a richer and more wide-eyed understanding of the horrible nature of sin is a profound moral advantage in the fight against sin.
And I wish to say that to know this should lead believers to bury their smugness and take more note of texts like
1 Peter 1:14-17 and Titus 3:1-7.
The piece will be repetitive, so some of the few that visit this web-site will find it a bit tedious. Still, maybe the patience to work through it will be worth the effort. [Having read the piece I know it isn’t very well laid out, but...]
It wears on me a bit to hear people treat all sinners alike and to hear them insist that all sins are of the same character. I do accept—and would insist—that all sin is damnable and if God in his generous grace in Jesus Christ did not deal with it none of us could bear his holy presence or gain life. But it’s silly—almost criminal—for believers to brand all sins as equally wicked when the Bible and sanctified common sense teach otherwise. (By "sanctified common sense" I mean common sense put to a holy use.)
I suppose it’s true that the more horrible we think a sin to be the more we will struggle against it. Would you say so? It’s certainly how we act at the individual and societal level. Comparatively speaking, not many of us will break into a house to steal but a vast number of us will cheat on income tax returns. Not many ladies will in fact murder their husbands but a great number of them will be guilty of gossip. I see that exceptional circumstances enter into the discussion at some point but in general terms that embrace the vast majority of us I’m sure that if we see a particular sin as horrific we avoid it or struggle bravely to avoid it. The motives may be mixed (prudence, the fear of being discovered, the ramifications for those we love, and such) but I’m fairly sure we’d all agree that the worse we feel the sin to be the more fervently we’d want to avoid it. The narrative about Joseph and Mrs Potiphar in Genesis 39:6-9, I think, illustrates motivation. None of this seems controversial to me so I’m going to take it as true
Let’s take a further step. If we truly think Sin is an abomination we’d be more set against it and even when in specific instances we sin with distressing regularity we would still be utterly opposed to it and bravely fight the good fight. If we don’t think it to be very bad then we’re lacking a weapon with which to fight it. A child raised in a morally careful and healthy home clearly has a moral advantage over a child raised in and shaped by a vicious ghetto environment. The difference is real! This too appears to be non-controversial.
I recognise that we might tend to commit a particular wrong rather than another because this one is easier to commit than the other is. It might also be easier to hide than the other so that fear of discovery and perhaps punishment of some kind would not hinder us as much. I’m thinking that it would be easier to lie about the amount of "sundry expenses" on an income tax return than it would be to work up the courage to suffocate an abusive husband. But that’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about at this precise moment though it will enter a bit later. No, at this moment I’m talking about how we view the wrong. If I see the wrong as horrible (rather than, say, of little consequence or even as maybe justifiable)—if I see it as horrible my attitude toward it and vision of it will come to my aid in avoiding it. This would be true even of a sin that could easily be hidden. The fact that it can easily be hidden might encourage me to do it but the fact that for one reason or another I think it to be monstrous would discourage me from doing it. I would have thought this to be plain truth that anyone who gave it a moment’s thought would say yes to.
You understand I’m not saying that if we all thought this sin or that was horrible that we would never do it because it’s demonstrably true that we all do things that we feel the horror of. Sadly it’s a common experience to come across people who have been caught in a great wrong and see them filled with shame and incapable of explaining why they would have done such a thing because they don’t understand why they did it. (I’ve so sinned myself.)
No, I simply want to make the point that sensing the grievous nature of sin gives us another tool with which to oppose the sin. It might not keep us from it in all cases but we are better prepared to make a fight of it than if we weren’t aware of the staggering nature of the evil. In general terms, we’d probably find it more difficult to keep the money we were overpaid for a job if it came from a poor widow rather than if it came from a thriving big industry. We’d probably think you’d have to be the lowest form of person to do the first and we’d probably say it serves the big company right for being stupid. We’re not being paid to be their accountants, don't you see.
So where has all the above been going? I’m proposing that a richer and more wide-eyed understanding of the horrible nature of sin is a moral advantage even if we don’t make use of it. I’m saying that those of us who have been privileged with light in which to walk have been given a stupendous moral advantage over those raised in moral gloom. The light is both a weapon and an inspiration. The light that exposes the loathsome nature of sin is geared to enlist our emotions and will against it and our failure to use that advantage is serious! In light of what many of us have been blessed with, Jesus’ question "what do you do more than others?" is of chilling consequence. See Matthew 5:46-48. Peter was certain that for some people it would be better if they had never known the way of righteousness. See 2 Peter 2:21. We are all equally sinners (Romans 3:23) but there are sins that are greater than others (see John 19:11, Ezekiel 16:47, 51 and elsewhere).
Sin against soft but bright light is greater than sin committed where the light has not reached. It is more than a question of knowledge. To know and to experience the love of God is a profound moral blessing that multiplied millions have not known. For the richly blessed to feel superior is smugness hardly forgivable. It’s obscene to stand safe on the shore shouting scorn while poor souls are going down in the storm of moral pollution. To be well armoured and to compare ourselves favourably with the moral weaklings whose defences have been eroded by society is pathetic. It would be like a man who is able to see despising a blind man because he is blind.
I’m ashamed of our smugness.