If you watch tv, I bet you’ve seen a show where someone no one suspected turned out to have deep, dark secrets. A man everyone knew to be a loving and engaged father was really a molester. A woman who was the prim and proper model of a Christian wife was really having affairs right and left. The pastor of the largest church in town was not only embezzling from his church, but also committing most of the sins he loudly preached against. Stories like these have been told over and over again.
Why are stories like this so common? It is cynicism? Sure, we live in a cynical age. We’re trained to expect the worst of people, yet still act surprised when it proves true.
I think it’s more than cynicism. Rather, though we present a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) image, that’s all it is: an image.
When I hear that another person has fallen, whether on the national scene or someone I know locally, I’m usually sad rather than surprised. Because I know I’m a sinner, and thus capable of falling and failing, I know other people are also. Will Willimon thinks of this as a southern trait. He says in his recent book Bishop, “I give thanks that I’m from the South, where we still believe in sin, rather than from some place sentimental, where human culpability is a surprise.”
If we’re not going to be surprised by sin, what ought we to do about it? If we know we – and others – are prone to sin, what actions should we take?
Perhaps the most popular response I’ve hear is some version of the “Nobody’s perfect” mantra. If no one is perfect, then you can’t expect me to be either. God knows I’m not perfect, so surely God will give me some slack here. We even have the slightly longer version of the complaint: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” So, yes, I’m going to sin. There’s no way around that. But there’s always a way out.
Another response is to try harder. in this case, we just need to whip our will and our performance into shape. Then we’ll do better, then we’ll be perfect. Well, at least more perfect.
John Wesley used the “perfect” language. United Methodist pastors are still asked “perfect” questions at their ordination. “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” You can tell from the context what the expected answers are. Wesley was challenged – and mocked – for his use of the language of perfection. If this language didn’t communicate well in the 18th century, I think it communicates even less well today. Why is this?
The primary reason perfection language doesn’t work well is that we take our metaphors of perfection from the world of mechanistic science. We think in terms of an absolute perfection. After all, if perfection is not absolute, then it’s not perfection, right? With these metaphors in place it’s difficult, if not impossible, to allow the relational context of the biblical teaching to play its role.
Given the reality of sin and the problem of perfection language, what are our options? The context of Willimon’s comment gives us some clues.
1. We need to face up to the fact that no one of us is beyond sin. Church members, pastors, DSs, Bishops – even little old church ladies – all can and do sin.
2. We need to recognize sin as sin. It’s not just the way we’ve always done things. It’s not just a necessary evil. It’s not just a tragic flaw or a mistake. It’s sin. It’s death. It hurts people and it hurts our relationship with God. Our sin is an impediment to the action of the Kingdom of God.
3. We need to remember that Jesus dealt decisively with sin in his life, death, and resurrection. All the powers of sin, death and hell have been defeated. For those of us who belong to Jesus, there is no temptation to which we have to succumb. Through the Spirit, God gives us the resources we need to say no to sin and yes to God.
4. As Christians, we need to hold each other to account. We cannot sweep either our own sin or the sin of others under the rug, or box it up and stick it in the basement where no one will see it. And we need to practice this accountability from the very beginning of a person’s walk with Christ., not waiting until they are at their pinnacle of power and influence.
5. We need to fight sin with grace, not self-righteousness and legalism. We leave self-righteousness aside by encouraging others to hold us accountable rather than being touch about anyone ever finding fault with us. We’re pointing people toward Jesus, not ourselves. We eschew legalism by putting our obedience (the opposite of sin) in the context of love and passion for Jesus.
6. Finally, we need to hold on to the conviction that a life of joyous obedience to Jesus is not only possible but is the norm. A mopey “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” is not God’s desire for us. Rather, we (Christians, not just clergy) are called to demonstrate in our lives the reality of Jesus’ grace and power.
Sin? That’s not surprising. No news there. Holiness? Righteousness? Joyful repentance? Those might just draw someone’s attention to Jesus.