Monday, March 26, 2012

The sin behind the sin

As commenter chris e has noted, there are some people who have taken up a phrase "the sin beneath the sin" and run with it. Just the phrase "the sin beneath the sin" invited a certain base line of thought and exmination.  I might dissent from chris e a tiny bit and suggest that what this has invited is not morbid introspection, at least not in certain circles.  What a focus on "the sin beneath the sin" has apparently permitted is a fantastic device through which to decide what the sins of other people are and to decide what sin beneath those sins is the animating force. 

Unsurprisingly when some people get on this kick everything springs from pride and whether the sin on top of the sin is disrespect, fear, mistrust, arrogance or whatever the root is invariably pride.  I've blogged on this tiresome trope in the past.  There are some Christians who can only imagine that there are sins motivated by the boastful pride of life and that the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh are non-entities.

But perhaps for people who think everything boils down to the boastful pride of life this is useful.  The reason it is useful is because it may permit them to project their own sins on to other people.  When King Saul declared to his underlings they had all betrayed him and that they were seeking to betray him by aligning themselves to David this wasn't the case.  Saul, in his decline into self-justifying paranoia and a desire to retain power and prestige, imputed to others the foibles he was guilty of.  Saul, to go by the steadfastness of Jonathan and even the long-suffering of Michal, was apparently not so bad a husband or father but he was a terrible leader and being given power was arguably what eventually drove him mad.  David was annointed king secretly and did not gain the throne until many, many years had passed.  He did not attempt to stage a coup to gain the position he had been promised by the Lord through Samuel.  Meanwhile, as David's star rose Saul began to resent the man who was praised in songs by the words "Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands."

But what was the sin of Saul lurking beneath the paranoia and desire to control?  We could try to suggest that the problem with Saul was his pride but if Saul was the bad king and David was the man after God's own heart doesn't David come across as even more self-aggrandizing in the psalms than Saul often does?  It is true Saul seemed to ultimately have little regard for the Lord ... but was that unbelief explicable only through pride? Perhaps Saul was motivated by "pride" but perhaps what is most recurrent in the narrative of Saul was that he did not believe the Lord was for him. He also had this nasty habit of clinging the privileges and powers of kingship while not taking up the responsibilities of being king and an even nastier habit of taking credit for the victories of other people. A man who can build a kingdom by taking credit for the sacrifices of other men doesn't make for a great leader.  A man who clings to the prestige and privileges of being a leader while avoiding the responsibilities of difficult decision-making is a poor king.  Such a man may, indeed, be guilty of "pride" but is pride the only way to ultimately boil things down?  Is the human heart so simple that everything boils down to "pride"?

Some people would say "yes" but it is at this point that I remind readers that years ago I considered "pride" or "hubris" to be the stem cell of sins.  It can grow into any other kind of cell and once it has matured into whatever that sin is attempting to identify it as "the sin under the sin" becomes problematic.  The boastful pride of life is not necessarily "hubris" or "pride" in some generic lapsarian sense.  Proud people are generally proud of something. Fearful people are generally proud of something.  Addicts are addicted to something. Yet if we rush to decide that something must point to something else we can miss things.

For instance, I once read a fellow describe about how he used to idolize money.  He explained that he'd get credits cards, buy a bunch of stuff on credit he couldn't afford, and ended up in debt.  This he presented as his having made an idol of money.  I don't see why this should be the case.  If he considered his idol money because he was willing to open up lines of credit to buy things he's welcome to imagine that the sin beneath the sin of buying things he couldn't afford was a love of money.  But who's to say that's the only option? 

People who are misers love money but this love of money has "a sin beneath a sin".  Proverbs tells us that in the mind of a wealthy man his wealth is a fortress that is unassailable and protects him.  We are also told that a man's riches will buy his life but the poor receive no threats.  In other words, nobody makes a point of kidnapping the poor man whose life can't be ransomed for much while the wealthy man makes a prime target. A person who racks up credit card debt may imagine what he worships is money but if he really worshipped money as a reflection of value he isn't worshipping money at all. Buying tons of stuff on credit is buying with money you do not truly have.  Why buy? 

Well, we buy things that are valuable to us, obviously. We buy things for the pleasure they bring us and for what our purchases say about us.  For all the blather amongst some Christian bloggers about consumerism it won't stop them from remarking on pop culture.  A certain pastor around Seattle has simultaneously decried consumerism while talking about his three tivos and two home theaters.  But if a guy is married and has five children maybe he feels he needs those two home theaters and three tivos.  But this person who was talking about how he worshipped money at one point isn't that guy and that's not where I'm going with this rumination.

No, what I think could be said about a person who buys a lot of stuff on credit is that it's possible that the "sin under the sin" or the "idolatry" under the foolishness may not be a love of money at all.  If love of money is "the boastful pride of life" that wouldn't make sense since buying stuff on credit won't make you look good.  Lust of the eyes could make sense, though.  If a person were to attempt to boil down the lust the eyes it could be construed as an obsession with prestige or status and THAT, dear reader, could be described as coming from a boastful pride of life, couldn't it? 

Notice how far down things go before you can get to that, though?  And notice that it's merely one of many options or possibilities?  One of the mysteries of some who appropriate attempts to find the sin beneath the sin is that they find it easier to do this for other people than themselves.  This in itself is not mysterious!  What is mysterious is why, to get all psychological, we find it so vastly easy to identify the cognitive biases in others but not in ourselves?  This is, to frame it in starkly theological terms, is the mysteriousness of sin.  It is the mystery of how we can find someone else to be troubled and troublesome without realizing we have many of the same foibles. 

I have heard and seen men complain about anti-gay bigotry from traditional Christians while saying they didn't want to share a living space with neurotic queers.  There are people who think they can transcend the uneducated rural Christian bigotry they think they have transcended and yet they display that they haven't.  As the proverb goes you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy even when the boy tells himself he's better than that ... the sad reality may be he's not better but worse. Romans 2 will never stop having its punch.

There may be people who think the temptation they are facing is fear of men and fear of the world when their problem is precisely the opposite, they want no external accountability of any kind because they fear being shown to lack the competence, prestige, or skill they tell themselves they have.  Meanwhile they may care very much about being able to hold outsiders accountable. They may be determined to see in others the sin of pride without realizing it is their own struggle.  And, of course, if this truncated taxonomy of sin is taken at face value all the way down it remains useless because everything comes from pride, after all, and then nothing is that insightful.  As an old lady once joked to me "Everyone dies of heart failure in the end".  Yes ... but there is a difference between a stroke, a heart attack, and other illnesses. A person who dies of a neurological disorder eventualy "does" die of heart failure but we know that heart failure is a reductionist way of explaining death.

If Christians want to grasp what the sin underneath the sin is then this is not something that will be discovered alone but it will apply not merely at the level of the individual, it will apply at the level of the community.  Israel was not situated to recognize its own failures which is why prophets showed up. This was also why the Lord permitted attackers.  Even the most cursory reading of the Old Testament shows that when God's people in their arrogance or confidence stopped trusting in the Lord the Lord allowed disaster to strike them, usually in the form of outside oppression or gross injustice emerging from their own egotistical overconfidence in the righteousness of their cause and methods. 

When the Lord raised up prophets to rebuke Israel Israel would tell them to shut up and stop ripping down God's people.  Sometimes they would even say "We've got the scriptures" to which one prophet replied, "They do you no good if your scribes and priestly class have transformed them into lies." To borrow some language of more contemporary vintage than a biblical prophet there are some leaders who have appointed themselves in power who have transformed the Bible into a sock puppet that always agrees with them.  One of the most trenchent prophetic rebukes of fellow prophets and priests was from a prophet who declared that these were people who preached "Peace" to anyone who filled their stomach and cursed those who were useless to them.

What was the sin behind the sin here?  Pride? That's too easy. Gluttony and a willingness to use the power of an office established to serve the Lord's people to live at ease is not something that can be explained merely by saying such and such is motivated by "pride". One of the risks of trying to find the sin under the sin is simply sin itself, it is so pervasive and wily an adversary that without the mercies of Christ even our attempts to ferret out "the sin beneath the sin" can become a blind alley in which sin subjugates still further and we never discover the sin lurking within our hearts as we attempt to discern it in others or, depending on how people often like to approach things in public discourse, the sins in others.  We must be wary that we become so eager to tell others to repent that this is paradoxically one of the things we must ourselves repent of.  There are times when God chooses to comfort rather than confront His people and times when God does both at once. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks WTH! I really enjoyed your thoughts on this topic. I agree with your assessment here.

I'd like to throw in a word about "morbid introspection." I think in most cases, the "sin beneath the sin" mentality will not lead to morbid introspection. However, if one is (hypothetically) a very neurotic person by nature, or (again, hypothetically, as I myself would know absolutely nothing about this!) a perfectionist, I believe this "sin beneath the sin" doctrine can indeed lead to morbid introspection. It breeds the inner sense that you can never fully be sure that you've gotten to the root of things. Thus you exhaust yourself trying to constantly get to that root.

I think the "sin beneath sin" doctrine can also actively keep people from working through their real issues. Many of my sins stem from the fear of needing to self-protect. I could spend weeks trying to work through pride issues in my life, be successful at it, but still struggle with the exact same sins, because they weren't really about pride after all.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e wrote a comment that I think inadvertantly ended up in moderation that I'm posting here:

Yes, it doesn't stem from morbid introspection so much as lead to it - especially among people who have read John Piper to the exclusion of all else. As you point out, attempting to diagnose the sin behind the sin runs into the problem both of perceptual bias and 'simul justus et peccator'. The cult-like connections bear following though, self-criticism has a large place as a power play in a lot of sects, and it appears that MH is starting to replicate the mistakes that the Shepharding movement and the ICoC made years ago. Take a look at the ICC DIscussion Forum sometime, and you will see similar stories: