Back in a faraway era of hectograph printing and flannel-graph boards, I sat spellbound amidst my Sunday School assembly watching a children’s evangelist scribble the word “SIN” on a chalkboard. Mesmorized, I watched as he artisticly turned the “S” into a pipe with smoke rising from it, the “I” into a martini glass, and the “N” into a deck of cards. Fascinating, I remember thinking…
You’ve got to wonder what this evangelist was even thinking. Did he really believe that these boisterous, squirmy little kids struggled with any of these addictive vices? (This was in the 1950’s, remember.) I confess, it was relieving to know I was off the hook. So how was this group of gullible little kids supposed to even relate, except to go out and start looking for the “sinners” we came across thereafter? And– oh my word!– they were everywhere! All around us.
My family lived on the edge of a Dutch Reformed settlement with first-generation immigrants who still spoke their native Dutch language, wore klompins, and… smoked pipes. Across the street lived a Catholic Italian family whose house always reeked of wine as soon as the door was opened. They were all such kind, agreeable neighbors that it broke my heart that they were all going to hell.
Growing up in the church is a great blessing…and a great curse, if you’ve set down deep roots in misguided theology because of it.
All these years later, the topic of “sin” came up again while having coffee recently with a friend who has known me for a long, long time. We agreed together that repentance is not only imperative to salvation, but is a practice we’ve both grown to eagerly embrace. We talked about Holy Spirit conviction and I spoke about the point at which my eyes were opened to the awful truth that I was a terrible sinner…and consequently had experienced God’s amazing grace and forgiveness, His transformation in my life, and the incomprehensible joy of learning to quickly confess sin as it crops up, living daily in His forgiveness and grace.
Talking about sin isn’t particularly comfortable, and after a few minutes, my friend inquired, cautiously, what is it I had “done” that was so terrible? She’s known me for so long… What had I been hiding all these years?
If only sin were as easy to recognize as that child evangelist led us to believe! But alas, it is not. It really isn’t. In truth, sin can be so convincing, so deceptive, wrapped attractively within acts that appear to be so “good” by people who are “so nice!” Only the Holy Spirit Himself can remove the fascade and show us our own hearts, because our sin is never merely an outward act. Stealthily insideous, sin is always first internal– in the heart– before it’s ever manifested externally. And always, it orbits around “self”– self aggrandizing; self exalting; self prioritizing; self comforting… It wraps its tenacious fingers tightly and protectively around “me” until even God Himself seemingly exists merely to serve my purposes.
Sin takes root in the heart as deep, self-serving desire long before there is ever any outward expression of it. And just because someone else doesn’t initially see an obvious outward expression of it, that doesn’t mean sin isn’t there! Our current culture is rife with it. Trapped in self-worship, life becomes a perpetual struggle over who has the final word on any issue- God? …or me? Am I really created for God’s own glory? Or is He created for mine? Am I really made to worship God? Or is He really made to worship me? Are His commands fixed? Or can I have the freedom to tweek them– just “mostly” obey– in order to accommodate my own agenda? Perhaps I can legitimize my own desire if I couch it with, “God told me to…?”
What’s even worse– that intense desire to place ourselves, instead of God, in the center is in all of us. Every one, without exception. That’s the nature of sin. It’s the nature of who “man” is, and only the Holy Spirit Himself can crack open our eyes to the ugly true condition of our own hearts.
I’ve been studying the life and works of one of Christianity’s greatest writers, C.S. Lewis, and how he has written so articulately about God’s transforming power to forgive sin. Having grown up in a Christian home, Lewis’s faith took a severe beating at a very young age while grieving the early death of his mother, then having been shuffled off to the hell-holes of boarding schools of that era. Under the eventual tutalege of an atheist he deeply admired, Lewis plunged into atheism.
But the Holy Spirit was relentless in tugging at his heart, providentially placing the right books or the right people in his path. He wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere… God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous!” Strongly attracted to writers like George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton, Lewis reluctantly agreed with Roland who wrote, “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”
Eventually, while riding a bus going up Headington Hill in Oxford, Lewis realized that spiritually, he was at a fork in the road… deeply aware that he was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. On that bus, “I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite,” he wrote.
On that bus ride, Lewis became a committed Theist– but he was careful to emphasize that did not mean he was a Christian. At that point, he believed in God, but had no concept yet of sin, forgiveness through Jesus Christ, or God’s transforming power to change him. Today, such Theism is called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and it’s widely prevalent in our current cultural churches. MTD is belief in God inasmuch as He serves my purpose– He’s on call when I need Him, maintaining my comfort and well being. One might believe in the existence of God, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still an anthropocentric, or man-centered faith. God was not even close to being done with Lewis.
Still referring to God at that point as “universal Spirit,” eventually Lewis ran headlong into himself, and the bold and startling realization that God, not he, was the center. Obedience to God meant that God was the complete focus, and our Christian duty is to conform to His Will and purposes in a comprehensive Faith that touches every detail of life. He and God could not both be in control. “All my acts, desires, and thoughts were to be brought into harmony with universal Spirit. For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”
Soon after, walking on Addison’s Walk until 3 a.m. with his friends J.R.R.Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, Lewis made the giant leap from Theism to Christianity, as he was impacted by the unavoidable truth that “the myth was real”– that Jesus Christ truly had died for our sins and was resurrected. There was forgiveness in no other. Obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ was all inclusive. “How could the initiative lie on my side?” he wondered, “If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.”
With stunning honesty, C.S. Lewis eventually laid bear the true condition of the human heart in the poem, “As the Ruin Falls.” There are precious few descriptions that come even close to defining who man really is, and what God’s truly amazing grace does in transforming us:
“All this is flashy rhetoric about ‘loving You.’
I never had a selfless thought since I was born!
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through.
I want God, You, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, reassurance, pleasure are the goals I seek.
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin!
I talk of love (a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek)
But self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now You have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm…And everything You are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this, I bless You as the ruin falls! The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains!”
Periodically, the passion of our faith is stirred again when the transforming power of Christ is so perfectly articulated by someone else and we’re reminded again of God’s great power and amazing grace. The very soul jumps up and cries, “Yes! That’s it!” This time, it was not a popular evangelist who nailed it– but a pipe smoking, beer drinking Oxford don.
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