Monday, June 7, 2010

Moral agency

Genesis 6:5-8

Here we have a paradox. Sin is loose in the world like a hurricane; it sweeps over creation, breaking boundaries and reducing God's good order to anarchy and chaos. We, and the rest of creation, get tossed in this tempest. Yet in the midst of this terrible sin-storm, human beings are both victims and violators. We who are broken by sin are also the law-breakers. We are innocents who suffer the consequences of the power of sin; we are also moral agents who choose rebellion over and over again. It is a classic both-and.

Thus God can say that our wickedness had become great upon the earth. Our wickedness, not the generalized sin of others. Thus in the face of the irresistable power of alcohol, the drunk confesses that he is responsible for his uncontrollable actions. The addict who has no choice repents of his destructive choices. And this is just and right and proper, because we are responsible in the midst of forces we cannot change. At the heart of our createdness we are made in the image of God, and so we are free agents. But in our free agency we are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves. In the midst of universal chaos and destruction, in what the Germans call the "zerrissenheit" -- the torn-apart-ness -- of creation, in our own small yet significant way we turn our backs on God, adding our small flow of putrid rebellion to the tidal wave careening down sin's sewer.

So God diagnoses us accurately. Our wickedness has become great upon the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil all the time. Some people object to this diagnosis, saying that humans are beautiful and wonderful and amazing. It is true. But we are infected with self-interest, and every thought, every action, every loving gesture, every altruistic breath is invested with your desire to make yourself look good, to be loved in return, to make your own world -- or the world of your precious children -- a better place because you will benefit. Could you really give up your life if there was nothing in it for you? Probably not. Because sin turns every thought, every action, back in your own mind until you don't know how not to calculate the return on your investment. You don't know how to give yourself away with no thought of return, no sense of satisfaction in the doing of a good deed.

Don't get hung up on this. You can't not be that way in this world. C.S. Lewis pointed out that one of the greatest things about heaven will be that we can live without selfishness, and what freedom that will be! But don't try to tell God he's mistaken about your heart, either. When you recognize the pollution in your motives, when you see the depth of the infection of sin in your soul, when you recognize the truth of what Calvin called "total depravity" -- not that everything you do is totally rotten like a fish dead on the beach three steamy days in July, but rather that everything you do is infected with sin, like milk two weeks past the expiration date. It just smells -- and tastes -- a little off, and you can't make it whole again no matter what you do. When you recognize that you are depraved in the totality of your being, in every organ and every pore and every moment, then you need the cross of Jesus Christ. At that moment you are finally ready to bring everything -- the good and the putrid, the noble and the diabolical -- to the cross. At that moment of total frustration with your bondage to sin, you are ready to die to yourself.

We're poised at the beginning of the story of the flood. If we do not recognize our need, our infection, our disease, we will not see the point of this story. We need this flood. We need to die. We need to be drowned in the waters. This is our baptism. This is our crucifixion. This is our death. And oh, how we need it. Without this death there can be no resurrection. Our old body is beyond cure; the only answer is death and resurrection. The paradox comes full circle. When we finally let God put us to death, when the waters of this hurricane wash over us, when we drown in the baptismal flood like Titanic in the waters of the North Atlantic, we can finally be raised to new life.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

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