This is a little outside my current train of thought on this blog, so please be patient.
I've been thinking a lot lately about a Bible study series from many years ago called "Crossways." It was developed by Dr. Harry Wendt and used ingenious symbols to communicate important biblical principles. The symbol I've been thinking about lately is his symbol for human beings after the fall.
Before the fall (before our choice to sin, whether you believe that occurred at a moment long ago in human history or that it occurs in each of our lives repeatedly, or both) Wendt symbolized humans with two red arrows coming out of the human figure, which stood with upraised arms, representing praise. The red arrow -- symbolizing the direction of our love -- went skyward, toward God. But en route, it went outward horizontally, representing love for other humans. This symbol encapsulated Jesus' statement that the first and greatest command was to love God, and the second command was to love one's neighbor. (Incidentally, in Wendt's symbology, God was pictured as a circle with four outward-pointing arrows of love.)
Once sin entered the picture, however, Wendt's symbol changed. Now the human figure's arms were squarely placed on hips in an attitude of defiance. The red arrow symbolizing the direction of human love came out from the person, then circled back around into that same person. In other words, instead of lovers of God and neighbor, we became, bound by sin, lovers of self. The focus of our affections and our attention were squarely on ourselves.
So here's a picture from the Crossways material that incorporates all I've described so far:
Here is why I have been thinking so much lately about these symbols. The last few weeks I've been running up against people who are focused on their own sinfulness so much that they lose focus on God's love in Jesus Christ. When asked about this, they certainly agree that Christian faith is all about Jesus. But listening to daily conversation with these individuals, I almost never hear them talk about Jesus. I hear them repeatedly talk about sin, about habitual sin, about our accountability for sin, about taking every thought captive so they will sin less frequently, and about punishment for sin. Very rarely does Jesus make an appearance in their conversations.
Here's my difficulty with all this. As I listen to these people, who without a doubt long to be good Christians, I see how clearly their focus on their own sin keeps them operating in the right half of Wendt's picture. Their focus is almost entirely on themselves, though they would say that they just want to get rid of their sin so they can be closer to God. (I'm reminded of a woman I knew many years ago who kept a careful diary of how many minutes she spent in prayer each day because she wanted to be known as a person of prayer. Her focus was sadly much more on herself than it was on prayer as a way to grow in relationship with God.)
All of Christian faith is built on the foundation that we are not able to deal with our own sin -- that's why Jesus took it for us. That's the whole reason for the cross. That's why our task is to accept the overwhelming gift of God's grace and mercy and forgiveness -- and then live lives of freedom in response to God's gracious gift.
It's a dangerous thing to focus too much on our own sin. I asked one of these individuals why they talked so much about sin and so little about Jesus and his gift of grace. His answer? "Grace is assumed. It's inherent in everything I say!"
I can't find a New Testament preacher who spoke in this way -- focusing exclusively on sin, but assuming God's grace as a given. The New Testament writers all focused on God's goodness in sending Jesus as a gift of mercy and grace to deal with the issue of our sin so we could be free to live in relationship with him. My heart is heavy for these brothers and sisters who are so burdened by their own sin and feel such urgency to deal with it that they are seemingly blind to the love of God in Jesus Christ.