Tag Archives: Sin

Delicate Tastes

I can think of maybe one sermon I've heard on the subject of gluttony. Whether for fear of shaming portlier parishioners, or because our pastors have noticed how much closer the pulpit has moved to their own waistlines, it's not a subject we address much in church. Yet precisely for that reason our thinking on the issue has become so shallow and one-dimensional, leaving the church, especially our affluent, North American congregations, exposed to a much less obvious, and all the more deceptive form of the temptation.

I have to admit that I struggle with gluttony. Yet those who know me probably wouldn't suspect it. Indeed, I'm tempted to deny it myself because I don't tend to have a weight issue, nor do I find myself eating to excess regularly---well, not since the holidays at least. All the same, this is a sin I'm beginning to realize I need to be increasingly watchful against.

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Of course, that confession only makes sense when you understand that there's more than one way of being a glutton. I'll let C. S. Lewis explain what I mean.

Gluttony of Nice Things

In his 17th letter, Uncle Screwtape corrects his protégé tempter Wormwood's disdain for the enticement towards a lesser sin like gluttony. While Wormwood is wont to write it off, Screwtape says he has misunderstood both its efficacy, scope, and versatility:

One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient's mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished---one day, I hope, will be---to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 17)

Lewis here exposes the gluttony of delicacy. He goes on to describe the way the old woman's "All I want" desires, where all I want is a tea that's "properly" made, or a dish that's "properly" cooked, to the point where she makes her own life and the lives of all around her miserable because of her obsession with having her food measure up to her exacting standard. To be a glutton isn't simply to be driven to overeating, but to make one's stomach one's god (Phil. 3:19). And there are a number of ways of doing so.

In this, per usual, Lewis is drawing on the broader Christian moral tradition and contemporizing with great wisdom and perceptive care. You can find the same sort of distinction made by Thomas Aquinas, who distinguished between inordinate desire in eating with respect to (1) "sumptuousness," (2) quality or "daintiness," or (3) excess (Summa, 2.2.Q.148, 4). Kevin DeYoung calls our attention to a number of other examples in his recent, perceptive article on the issue.

Which brings me to today.

Delicate Tastes

I don't know about you, but the area I live in (Orange County), has gone full-blown into foodie-ism (not to be confused with fideism). Everywhere you turn, new specialty food shops and markets are popping up. Chain restaurants are going down in flames, and rising from the ashes are gastropubs with craft beer and burgers made with cheeses whose names seem to recall the fallen houses of the French aristocracy. Besides tasting better, most of it also boasts the merits of being ethically grown, grass-fed, hormone-free, and overall better for you.

Believe me, I'm not complaining. It's mostly wonderful. For Christians there is a proper place for health concerns---certainly place for buying "ethical" food. What's more, we can make a strong case for preferring fine cheese to a bag of MSG-laced Funyuns.

That said, I've come to suspect the gluttony of nice things, or daintiness, lurking in our increasing appreciation for finer cultural goods. It's one thing to be careful about how you eat and cultivate your palate. But it's quite another when you can only drink just the right artisanal coffee (Starbucks isn't good enough anymore) or can't cope with a salad made with anything less than the freshest backyard-grown kale.

There are times when, and I say this especially with respect to my young evangelical friends, our newfound appreciation for the finer things can be turn into cover for an idolatry of the palate. While initially innocuous, this temptation easily turns into a obnoxious form of "food righteousness," by which you are justified (or damned) by your choice of cereal. (True story: my friends have, at times, dubbed me a Beerisee.) Or, for others, it may lead to an excuse for a poor stewardship of funds, justifying excessive spending because it's on "necessities" like food, as David Brooks has chronicled. Again, this temptation is so brilliant because it's so easy to write off.

Lewis suggests this gluttony can be "gradually turned into habit," such that we come to "the state in which the denial of any one indulgence---it matters not which, champagne or tea, sole colbert or cigarettes---"will put us out of sorts, and then our "charity, justice, and obedience are all at your [the tempter's] mercy." Indeed, the more I give myself over to the gluttony of nice things, the more the idea of sacrificially taking up my cross and risking discomfort the sake of the gospel on becomes unthinkable. I mean, what if they don't have my favorite roast there?

Not a Matter of Food and Drink

Once again, there's nothing wrong with cultivating a nuanced, healthy, ethical taste for God's creation. These are gifts to be received with thanksgiving and enjoyed to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And yet, as disciples of Jesus, we must take care not to be ruled by our stomachs, but by the God who made them.

Instead of vainly seeking our joy in the temporary satisfaction of an increasingly persnickety palate, we ought turn our eyes to the meal Jesus gave us. In the Lord's Supper Jesus invites us to cultivate a taste for the true food that satisfies the deep hunger of our souls. "For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:56). In the bread he gives us his own body, broken for us, and in the cup, his blood shed for our sins---indeed, through our union with him, in the Supper we are invited to feast on nothing less than Christ himself.

In Christ the Father sets a table for his children that allows them to eat food as if they were not famished (1 Cor. 7:29-30), because they are being increasingly conformed to the image of the one whose "meat is to do the will of him" who sent him (John 4:35), not the will of their belly.

Rosaria Butterfield

You Are What—and How—You Read

I just returned from a well-known (and well-heeled) Christian college, where roughly 100 demonstrators gathered on the chapel steps to protest my address on the grounds that my testimony was dangerous. Later that day, I sat down with these beloved students, to listen, to learn, and to grieve. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview. This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I'm culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost.

Rosaria ButterfieldWhen I started to read the Bible it was to critique it, embarking on a research project on the Religious Right and their hatred against queers, or, at the time, people like me. A neighbor and pastor, Ken Smith, became my friend. He executed the art of dying: turning over the pages of your heart in the shadow of Scripture, giving me a living testimony of the fruit of repentance. He was a good reader—thorough, broad, and committed. Ken taught me that repentance was done unto life, and that abandoning the religion of self-righteousness was step number one. The Holy Spirit equipped me to practice what Ken preached, and one day, my heart started to beat to the tempo of my Lord's heart. A supernatural imposition, to be sure, but it didn't stop there.

I'd believed gender and sexuality were socially constructed and that I was the mistress of my own destiny and desire. Through the lens of experience, this was self-evident. I'd built my whole house on the foundation of "gender trouble" (the title of Judith Butler's book), and then stood by, helpless, as it burned to the ground. But the Bible was getting under my skin. Hours each day I poured over this text, arguing at first, then contemplating, and eventually surrendering. Three principles became insurmountable on my own terms: the trinitarian God's goodness, the trinitarian God's holiness, and the authority of Scripture. And then, Romans 1 nailed me to the cross: "claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions" (Rom. 1:22-26).

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It's listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn't causal, it's consequential. From God's point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It's so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin. God's challenge was clear: do I accept his verdict of my sin at the cross of Christ, or do I argue with him? Do I repent, even of a sin that doesn't feel like a sin but normal, not-bothering-another-soul kind of life, or do I take up Satan's question to Eve ("Did God really say?") and hurl it back in the face of God?

I had taught, studied, read, and lived a different notion of homosexuality, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong.

Three Unbiblical Points

As I write and speak today, 14 years have elapsed since my queer activist days. I'm a new creature in Christ, and my testimony is still like iodine on starch. I'm sensitive to three unbiblical points of view Christian communities harbor when they address the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. Everywhere I go, I confront all three.

1. The Freudian position. This position states same-sex attraction is a morally neutral and fixed part of the personal makeup and identity of some, that some are "gay Christians" and others are not. It's true that temptation isn't sin (though what you do with it may be); but that doesn't give us biblical license to create an identity out of a temptation pattern. To do so is a recipe for disaster. This position comes directly from Sigmund Freud, who effectually replaced the soul with sexual identity as the singular defining characteristic of humanity. God wants our whole identities, not partitioned ones.

2. The revisionist heresy. This position declares that the Bible's witness against homosexuality, replete throughout the Old and New Testaments, results from misreadings, mistranslations, and misapplications, and that Scripture doesn't prohibit monogamous homosexual sexual relations, thereby embracing antinomianism and affirming gay marriage.

3. The reparative therapy heresy. This position contends a primary goal of Christianity is to resolve homosexuality through heterosexuality, thus failing to see that repentance and victory over sin are God's gifts and failing to remember that sons and daughters of the King can be full members of Christ's body and still struggle with sexual temptation. This heresy is a modern version of the prosperity gospel. Name it. Claim it. Pray the gay away.

Indeed, if you only read modern (post 19th-century) texts, it would rightly seem these are three viable options, not heresies. But I beg to differ.

Worldview matters. And if we don't reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn't live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen's work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin's tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we'll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don't fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

In short, we honor God with our reading diligence. We honor God with our reading sacrifice. If you watch two hours of TV and surf the internet for three, what would happen if you abandoned these habits for reading the Bible and the Puritans? For real. Could the best solution to the sin that enslaves us be just that simple and difficult all at the same time? We create Christian communities that are safe places to struggle because we know sin is also "lurking at [our] door." God tells us that sin's "desire is for you, but you shall have mastery over it" (Gen. 4:7). Sin isn't a matter of knowing better, it isn't (only) a series of bad choices—and if it were, we wouldn't need a Savior, just need a new app on our iPhone.

We also take heart, remembering the identity of our soul and thus rejecting the Freudian ideal that sexual identity competes with the soul. And we encourage other image-bearers to reflect the Original in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, not in the vapid reductionism that claims image-of-God theology means he loves you just way you are, just the way your sin manifests itself. Long hours traveling the road paved by Bible reading, theological study, and a solid grasp on hermeneutical fallacies gets you to a place where as sons and daughters of the King, people tempted in all manner of sin, we echo Owen: "The law grace writes in our hearts must answer to the law written in God's Word." We also take heart, remembering that God faithfully walks this journey with us, that victory over sin comes in two forms: liberty from it and humility regarding its stronghold. But it comes, truly, just as he will.

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Editors' note: During The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando, Rosaria Butterfield will lead two workshops: "You Are What You Read" and "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith." Visit TGC.org/2014 to find more information on the conference and register.

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Broken Vows, Broken World

A few years ago I unexpectedly, unwillingly, and at times ungracefully walked through the pain of divorce. And I'm thankful.

Of course, it wasn't that I wanted my former wife to commit adultery or that I was overjoyed to watch her walk out on me. It wasn't that I was glad to see my marriage end, either. It's just that I wouldn't trade what I now know of God's grace for anything in the world. Now more than ever, I am convinced God's goodness is higher and wider than this world's brokenness.

Divorce

When the wound was new, Jesus was my only comfort. As I began to heal, God's Word guided me through the process of grieving and forgiveness. And as I began to move forward with my life, my heavenly Father directed my steps, drawing me closer to him—closer than I'd been before—in a world that now seemed so uncertain. I can attest that God is able to work all things for good and that he is a refuge in times of uncertainty and trouble. God's goodness in my life has been more extravagant than I could have imagined—as if the truth, beauty, and goodness of heaven were poured into my life from above.

Casualties of the Culture War

Yet during the most difficult season, I experienced what I now refer to as the "murdered puppy phenomenon." It was like I had lost my dog—like he had dug a hole under the backyard fence and wandered out into the street only to be hit by a passing car. But instead of receiving sympathy and compassion for the loss of my dog, I heard sermons and platitudes from well-meaning people who suspected I'd left the back gate wide open. Mostly, they just wanted to make it clear they were against the murder of innocent pets.

It's not a perfect analogy, of course. And I wasn't a perfect husband either. The prophet Isaiah said our righteous acts and best efforts are nothing more than "a polluted garment" (Isa. 64:6) or "filthy rags" (NIV). This was true even during my best moments as a husband. Still, the fact remains that I was a faithful husband who tried with his entire imperfect being to honor Jesus in his marriage. Divorce wasn't something I sought or desired, but it came knocking all the same.

I understand what's happening, though. We live in a culture that condones and minimizes the damaging effects of puppy murder—er, divorce—while God intends for the marriage covenant to last a lifetime. When I arrive with leash and collar in hand but no puppy, people assume I agree with the culture. But of course, I don't. In fact, I know better than most just how tragic the shattering of a marriage can be.

Divorce is a third-rail topic, one about which there are a variety of opinions within evangelical circles. Gospel-centered people who love Jesus and his Word can draw markedly different conclusions on the issue based on the same biblical texts. While everyone would agree marriage is a good gift from God that should be upheld—defended from the inside by a husband and wife and protected from the outside by the local church and the broader Christian community—we're often unsure how to proceed when the brokenness of this world infects a marriage and it succumbs to the disease. Disparaging the existence of the morgue won't raise the dead, and it certainly won't bring comfort to those who mourn.

Divorce Is Not Always Sin

Even in writing this article, I realize some may interpret my words as being "soft" on the issues of marriage and divorce. I believe sin is always and necessarily to blame when a marriage ends in divorce. Every time. Without exception. However, divorce itself is not always sin. It can be sinful, of course, but not necessarily so. The problem comes when compassion for those who have experienced divorce gets squeezed out in an attempt to draw easy, clean lines of demarcation in the culture war.

This reaction is, in reality, a cousin of the health-and-wealth gospel—one in which we imagine Jesus has already and completely eradicated the effects of the fall for those who are counted as his bride. For months following my divorce, it felt like I was wearing a scarlet "D" on my chest in church. I imagine it's somewhat like walking into a prosperity-gospel church with holes in my clothes and a case of the measles. I can't be counted among the faithful if their theology dictates that faithful living means surviving unscathed.

Jesus will one day return and reverse the fallenness of this world. The effects of sin will be wiped from our hearts along with the tears from our eyes. But that day has not yet come. We still live with the consequences of sin. There is no utopia yet, no unspoiled promised land—not even in the church. Perhaps I needed the reminder more than most, and that's why God allowed me to walk through the valley I did. But let's remember we're not home yet, that we all walk with a limp this side of heaven, and that spurring one another on to holiness is an act of kindness, not a weapon in the culture war.

Did the Devil Make Me Do It?

I just sinned. Did the Devil make me do it?

The authors of the New Testament almost never speak about a Christian's sin in terms of demonic influence. Paul refers to false teachers who have been captured by the Devil to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26) and ill-qualified elders in a church who are in danger of falling into a snare of the Devil (1 Tim. 3: 6-7). But when he speaks to believers about their sin it's usually in direct terms. So, for example, in Ephesians 4:25-32 Paul instructs us:

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Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Paul does indeed mention the Devil in this passage, telling us not to give him an opportunity to tempt us by clinging to anger and rage. But while our sin might give Satan an opportunity to advance his agenda through us, Paul doesn't understand our sin to be fundamentally caused by the Devil and his demons. Notice that the apostle doesn't instruct them to beware of the demon of falsehood or to be on the lookout for an evil spirit that might tempt them to unwholesome talk. Paul simply tells them that these things are inappropriate and that God's people should have nothing to do with them. Sin isn't evidence of demonic strongholds in our lives; it is simply disobedience that is inconsistent with our salvation in Christ. We don't need an advanced degree in demonology in order to be obedient; we don't need exorcisms or deliverances.

Keep Satan at Bay

So as a Christian, one of my motivations for avoiding sin is a desire to keep Satan at bay. He wants me to disgrace myself and Christ by indulging in sin. The Devil desires me to be a selfish husband and an impatient father. He is happiest when I am miserable in my sin. I don't want those habits and patterns in my life, so I resist Satan and his temptations. But he has no power to coerce me. God promises never to let any temptation come to me that is beyond my capacity to withstand (1 Cor. 10:13). The only person who can make me do anything is me.

C. S. Lewis warned that Satan is happy with either our ignorance or our obsession with him and his ways. It seems the Bible's approach to the topic cuts right down the middle. On the one hand, Satan is a real and dangerous opponent; he prowls about and exerts influence in the world and even in our lives. But on the other hand, Christians are not at his mercy. The salvation Christ purchased has set us free from the Devil's tyranny, so we are no longer slaves to sin and death. Instead, we are under the authority of God's Spirit and bearing his fruit in our lives.

So should we be aware of the Devil? Yes.

Should we be alert to his motives and ways of working so that we can avoid him? Absolutely.

Should we be obsessed with him, looking for a demon lying behind every sin? No.

Should we tremble at his power and rage? Under no circumstances!

Satan's power and knowledge are limited; his doom is sure. He's not worthy of our time, obsession, and emotions. Instead we live with both of our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, who has delivered us from the Devil's wrath and given us a sure hope that we will one day be rid of him for ever.

Editors' note: This is an excerpt from Mike McKinley's new book Did the Devil Make Me Do it? And Other Questions about Satan, Demons, and Evil Spirits (The Good Book Company, 2013).

Don't Tell Me Your Kid's Sins

My husband and I have three sons. They love Risk, backyard baseball, anything with a screen, and their daddy. They aren't crazy about lima beans or black-eyed peas. They're bursting with energy. (Why, yes, we do have a trampoline in our living room.) And, as you might imagine, my boys also regularly sin. I won't pretend they don't. But I'm not going to tell you about it, either.

huff-shutterstock_57014537-231x300I do talk about my kids. I often tell other parents stories about the day they made a cage out of bricks, in case they ever catch a bird, and the time they all ate jalapeños at the dinner table just to prove they could. I can remember the childhood pleasure of hearing my parents tell stories about me, and I hope that by telling stories about my kids, my children know that I love them and find them fascinating.

And when my child is ensnared in a sin, I sometimes get counsel. Several times, I lacked wisdom about how to address a sin pattern in my child's life, and I privately sought wisdom from another godly person. When I quietly tell my child's sins for the purpose of his rescue, I do well.

Not Public Property

But I want to caution fellow parents against telling us your children's sins as if those stories are community property. The prevalence of this kind of sharing may have lulled us to believe it's not a big deal. But it is.

Perhaps one of the most popular examples of telling children's sin is the viral Tumblr "Reasons My Son Is Crying." The site was launched by Greg Pembroke, who posted photos of his children in distress because of seemingly insignificant events. The captions describe tantrum-inducing moments like "I broke his cheese in half" and "the neighbor's dog wasn't outside." Parents from all over the world resonated with the scenarios, and they began submitting photos of their own complaining children. Six months since its launch, the site has become so popular that Pembroke has included his favorite submissions in a book, recently released in the UK—with a U.S. edition scheduled for publication in the spring.

Christian parents might feel above this kind of crass oversharing, but, often, we are not. From blogs to Bible studies—wherever parents gather—stories of children's misbehavior flow freely. It's not unusual for a mother to walk in to a gathering of Christian women, sullen child in tow, and proceed to tell everyone about her young child's last hour of disobedience. Frequently, the women of the group will listen, roll their eyes, and groan in sympathy. Most parents have been in a similar situation, and perhaps we have told some of the stories ourselves.

Parents announce their children's sins for a variety of reasons. Being a parent is a lonely job, and we can wrongly use our children's sinful antics to build camaraderie with other parents. We can also be personally frustrated by our children's actions and leverage the telling of their sins to justify our own impatience and anger. And, particularly online, we sometimes tell our children's sins as a way to establish our family's authentic credentials as "real" and "broken" people.

None of these is a good reason to forget that our children are also our biblical neighbors. I may have authority over my children, but I don't own them or their stories. My children are neither my possessions nor extensions of myself. They are image-bearing individuals with souls that will last forever. And one of my first obligations to my children is to treat them with kindness and dignity as my neighbors. I am obligated to look out for their interests (Phil. 2:4), and I must treat my children as I desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Even when it comes to their sin.

Gospel Distortions

But my silence is about more than merely kindness. It's about my children's perception of the gospel. This is serious. Telling my children's sins publicly can misrepresent the gospel I otherwise work so hard to communicate to them.

When parents retell our children's sins, we often leave the impression that we are the ones who have been wronged. This is not the attitude of Scripture. David's confession in Psalm 51 makes it clear that sin is primarily rebellion against God himself. We parents may have been disrespected or disobeyed by our children, but we are not the chief offended party. We distract our children from the real significance of their sin—and the real sweetness of their Savior—when we make it sound like their sin is about us rather than about God.

In broadcasting our children's sins, they may begin to think that sin is not so serious. The wry chuckles and eye-rolling of parents can make children believe their sin is funny, or at least something expected. This attitude only serves to make Christ and his sacrifice seem unnecessary. If sin is not so bad, our Savior is not so important either.

Finally, and perhaps worst, is the possibility that our children will believe their sinful condition is hopeless. Parental exasperation—throwing up our hands at one more instance of misbehavior—can communicate to our children that their sin is so far gone as to be beyond hope. Retelling and broadcasting our children's sin can magnify it to an unsolvable proportion and thus push Jesus and his sin-covering blood out of the grasp of tiny fingers.

God dealt with our sins individually and personally, and, likewise, parents do best when they whisper the gospel into the ears of the little rebels on our laps—whose cookie-snatching, wall-decorating, and tantrum-throwing was specifically and lovingly atoned for on the cross.

So, no, I won't tell you why my son is crying. That's between him and the Savior of small sinners.

Gatsby: Money, Romance, and the Wages of Sin

"My life has got to be like this. It's got to keep going on." — Jay Gatsby

"What's the point?" — My wife

THE-GREAT-GATSBYI first read The Great Gatsby when I was a sophomore at Taylor University at the behest of a religion student with a military-neat room across the second floor of Wengatz Hall. He claimed I would like it. I claimed to have read it in high school. I lied. I'm sure he knew. I probably read a chapter or two, at most.

I think he thought I would like it because I felt like Taylor was a school that had 1,100 rich kids and 100 football players. He knew I was one of the 100 football players who, like the other 99, had come from either the middle of a cornfield or from the city and probably not from a lot of money. Perhaps he sensed the fact that I felt estranged from all the Lexuses in the parking lot, and all the North Face Jackets and Ski Trips who lived in our dormitory. Perhaps he thought I would resonate with the Jay Gatsby character and all of the striving and money-chasing and Daisy-Buchanan-wooing.

He was right. I did resonate with Jay Gatsby, and while my life has stopped a little bit short of bootlegging and Meyer Wolfsheim and mansions on West Egg, it has still had its fair share of chasing after the wind.

My friend and I wanted to conquer the world and then woo our Daisy Buchanans.

Idols and Hope

If you've seen the movie and read the book or have at least claimed to have read the book and then seen the movie (sheepish) you know that Gatsby (spoiler alert) grew up poor, glommed onto the right rich person, became rich himself through questionable means, and then set about trying to woo the woman whom he placed on a pedestal and made into a living, breathing messiah.

The fact that I saw that same(ish) narrative play out at my upscale Christian college is beside the point. People glom onto people for a variety of reasons, and usually that reason is money.

If you've seen the movie or read the book you know that ultimately all the money and all the charm and all the "hope" in the world couldn't woo Daisy, who ended up having even more questionable character than Gatsby. He asked her to say that she had never loved anyone in the world besides Gatsby. What Gatsby wanted was Daisy's eternal, holy, and un-divided worship, and she knew that it wasn't within her to give that. He idolized her, and in turn wanted her to do the same.

And then, beautifully but sadly, the consequences of sin played out onscreen as Tom Buchanan's mistress ran to her death in front of the car Daisy was driving, and then Gatsby himself was gunned down by the woman's irate and revenge-sick husband. As Nick Carraway plunged into the kind of depression and alcoholism that often plagues people who think at length about things, Tom and Daisy Buchanan escaped to a world of punishment that included, primarily, the fact that they were sentenced to a life of living with each other.

Never Works

When my wife asked "What's the point?" afterward I didn't know what to tell her. Later, we decided that the point, simply, is that the wages of sin is death. The movie doesn't deal at all with eternal punishment, but it deals beautifully with the fact that we have to live with ourselves, on this earth, when we realize that all the money, sex, romance, and adoration the world can bestow can't do it for us. When we realize it never works.

The filmmakers want us to think Gatsby is the hero because he died with "hope." But we know he died a minute or two before he realized it was Nick Carraway on the phone and not Daisy. He died a few days before he had to see Daisy and Tom pack their car and leaving their mansion for parts-unknown. Or, at most, he died a few years before he saw that Daisy's true character was human, flawed, and imperfect—just like his.

What he had wasn't hope. What he had was a lack of knowledge.

Nature of the Business

The religion student across the hall became my best friend. We speak at least once a week. He pastors a small church and, like me, he really hasn't conquered anything. We both married women who, thankfully, aren't much like Daisy Buchanan.

I now, ironically, make my living selling books to the selfsame North Faces and Lexuses and Ski Trips who I used to secretly envy on the way to the dining commons. I still don't sell quite enough of them to finance the kind of Ski-Trip-Lexus-and-Jesus lifestyle that was fashionable at my school. And at this point it's bad for business for me to admit that said lifestyle still makes me a little sick.

It would be good for business for me to make friends with the kinds of college presidents, conference speakers, consultants, pro athletes, book-blurbers, and independently wealthy Christian businessmen who can make my life easier. For some reason I've always been bad at that.

At this point in the essay it would be customary to say that I wouldn't trade my humble existence for anything, though if I wrote that I would be lying as much as I used to lie about having read the novel. The fact of the matter is, I would like to be a little more impressive and a little more successful. Not Gatsby-esque, necessarily, but a little more. And then when I got my little more, I would want a little more after that. That's the nature of my business—really, the nature of any business.

When I was young and cynical, I used to say to my wife, "You really can buy people's respect." What I was really saying to her is, "I hope to one day have enough money that we can buy everyone's respect." I now see the folly of that goal, because while it might be true and probably is—I see a new example of it almost every year in my business—it can't buy me the one thing that matters: freedom from guilt and communion with my Savior.

Gatsby couldn't buy eternal life. He couldn't love his way into eternal life either. He couldn't keep his life on an upward trajectory out of the sheer force of his will and charm, any more than you or I can.

The movie reminded me that I am only here—living, breathing, writing, teaching, fathering, and so on—by the grace of God.

Crack, Meth, Addiction, and the Puritans

In a fascinating piece in The New York Times, "The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts," Dr. Carl Hart presents his research on how crack and meth addicts choose future monetary rewards instead another high. John Tierney writes:

Like other scientists, he hoped to find a neurological cure to addiction, some mechanism for blocking that dopamine activity in the brain so that people wouldn't succumb to the otherwise irresistible craving for cocaine, heroin, and other powerfully addictive drugs.

But then, when he began studying addicts, he saw that drugs weren't so irresistible after all.

"Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don't get addicted," said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. "And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures." . . .

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.

"They didn't fit the caricature of the drug addict who can't stop once he gets a taste," Dr. Hart said. "When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions." [emphasis mine]

When methamphetamine replaced crack as the great drug scourge in the United States, Dr. Hart brought meth addicts into his laboratory for similar experiments—and the results showed similarly rational decisions. He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash. They knew they wouldn't receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high. [emphasis mine]

This piece is really interesting on multiple planes. First, it challenges many of the sacred cows of neurological science and behavioral psychology. Second, it highlights some intriguing spiritual truths.

Rationality and Irrationality of Sin

addictSin is simultaneously rational and irrational. Sin typically has a "payoff" associated with it—whether the release of neurochemicals to the brain for some illicit or risky behavior, or the temporary and fleeting gratification of revenge, greed, lust, or hatred. It makes sense, then, that if one's joy in Christ is minimal, then the payoff of sin would seem more attractive.

But the payoff of sin over-promises and under-delivers. Sin is deceptive—it promises one thing and gives you something else. Sin is always irrational because the payoff is always a lie. Sin promises you the true/good/beautiful and gives you gravel in your mouth instead. Therefore, when our joy and pleasure in Christ is superior to the payoff of sin, we choose Christ over the sin and its payoff.

Puritans and Crack Addicts

So what do the Puritans and crack addicts have in common? In this instance, quite a lot. When a superior pleasure is presented, we choose the superior pleasure. In the case of Dr. Hart's study, the addicted participants chose the promise of future money over an immediate high. This is like what the Puritan Thomas Chalmers meant when he spoke of the "expulsive power of a new affection."

And this is what Jonathan Edwards meant when he spoke of the human pursuit of happiness:

It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man's love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity. . . . That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them. (Charity and Its Fruits, p. 159.)

Though not a Puritan, Blaise Pascal argued similarly:

All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. . . . God alone is man's true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, plague, war, famine, vice, adultery, incest. (Pensees, #148.)

Worship Rules All

Because all men seek happiness, all of life is worship.

What you want is what you worship.

What you worship controls you.

How is your worship of God today?

Badly Broken

In 2008, we were introduced to a high school chemistry teacher who turned drug dealer after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Breaking Bad's Walter White was just an average man who wore unflattering patterned shirts and an awkward mustache. Slowly but surely, however, the mild-mannered husband and father transformed into his alter-ego Heisenberg—the shaved-headed, goatee-sporting prince of crystal meth.

And how appropriate his choice of alias, a nod to physicist Werner Heisenberg. Walt is the anthropomorphization of the Nobel laureate's uncertainty principle; loosely speaking, we can know who he is right now, but we cannot be sure from whence he came or where he goes. In The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall writes:

Walt might start off as a sympathetic character, but [the show's creator Vince] Gilligan knew that there was darkness in his past (we learn that he quit a lucrative business over wounded pride, and later stubbornly chooses to keep cooking meth rather than take money from his ex-partners), and would be far more in the future.

When Walt murders a drug dealer in episode three, we see that "this is who Walter White was all along, and it's only his changed circumstances that have revealed him as a man capable of these things," Sepinwall writes.

In other words, Walt didn't become broken—Walt was already broken. Broken on the inside by pride, lust for power and greed, all of which was neatly hidden away until circumstances brought the inner being to light. So Walt wasn't a bad person because he manufactured narcotics; he manufactured narcotics because he was a bad person, and the long-term effects of unrepentant sin gradually harden him into a ruthless psychopath.

Gilligan puts it this way:

The in-between moments really are the story in Breaking Bad. . . . It is the story of metamorphosis, and metamorphosis in real life is slow. It's the way stalactites grow, you stare at it and there's nothing, but you come back 100 years later and there's growth.

The first cook. Drip. Killing Krazy 8. Drip. Stealing methylamine. Drip. Poisoning a little child, blowing up a nursing home, murdering his partner. Drip, drip, drip. With each calcified deposit, what starts off as an instinct to provide for his family mutates into a monstrous obsession to preserve the empire that Walt has established with his own two hands. Walt has been so engulfed by the darkness that he is no longer fully human. And that's because sin is a force that refuses to let up; like gravity, it relentlessly pulls us inward into itself. As Walt himself says, "If you believe that there's a hell . . . we're already pretty much going there. But I'm not gonna lie down until I get there" (from episode 5.07, "Say My Name").

And so, Walt embodies what theologian John Owen mentioned centuries ago in his classic, The Mortification of Sin:

When a lust has remained a long time in the heart, corrupting, festering, and poisoning, it brings the soul into a woeful condition. . . . Such a lust will make a deep imprint on the soul. It will make its company a habit in your affections. It will grow so familiar in your mind and conscience that they are not disturbed at its presence as some strange thing. It will so take advantage in such a state that it will often exert itself without you even taking notice of it at all. Unless a serious course and extraordinary course is taken, a person in this state has no grounds to expect that his latter ends shall be peace.

But Breaking Bad is not just a drama; it is an all-too-realistic depiction of the corrosive effects of sin. Try as we might, we cannot fully distance ourselves from what we see on-screen because the truth is that we are all Walter White. Do we really believe that we are incapable of such depravity, somehow immune to the darkness that festers within us? Sin, that ever vigilant predator, stands ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness—how will even the strongest among us resist its ferocious assault?

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A version of this article was originally published by Center for Faith & Work

The Bible of the Sacred Self

Rummaging through the attic of my mind not so long ago, my eyes fell upon an ancient and dark text. Ah, here was the Gen X Bible of my youth, that unholy script, that declaration of self-dependence, whose natural lines have shaped my intuitions and governed my ambitions for decades . . .

Selection 1

And I spoke all these words:

I am me, who brought myself out of slavery, out of the land of inauthenticity and the inarticulate self.

I shall have no other gods before me.

I shall not make for myself any God besides me, or a God that is anything other than a refashioned image of me, even if he speaks from heaven above or incarnates himself on earth beneath. I shall not bow down to him or serve him, for I am a jealous me, committed to politically disenfranchising and socially marginalizing the close-minded and intolerant naysayers of me, but showing steadfast favor to every friend, family member, celebrity, and preacher who loves me and celebrates the autonomy of me.

I shall not express myself in vain.

Remember the Self by keeping it holy. Six days I shall labor to please myself, free myself, improve myself, indulge myself, embrace myself, create and recreate myself, never judge myself, and tell you whatever I please about myself. On the seventh day I will do pretty much the same, but with an additional afternoon nap. Perhaps, too, I will attend a church or, better, enjoy a soul-enlivening walk in the woods for the sake of spiritualizing myself.

Selection 2

And tell the people, "This is how you are to enter the temple of 'me.' After washing yourself of unclean opinions and old religions, you may approach me non-judgmentally, speaking no offensive thing, for my authenticity and self-indulgence requires me to be thin-skinned.

"You must bring a sin offering, that you might make atonement for any transgressions that I perceive against my freedoms, my political and emotional sensibilities, my sacred call to self-expression and discovery. You shall bring "Old Morality" as a sacrifice. You shall sacrifice it and sprinkle its blood on the altar of My Rights.

"In the same way, the goat of 'Institutional Religion' must be released into the wilderness of history, carrying with it the derision and pity due to all the old rule-makers and hierarchies, indeed, to anyone who lived in less enlightened days than my own.

"Spiritual, not religious, you must be."

Selection 3

You shall not say that I must love this way or that. I shall set my affections upon whom I set them. For the Lord God am I.

You shall you not wholly identify me with my spouse, my parents, my church, my school, my workplace, or the fruit of my sexual activities. No contract is binding, and my sacred covenant is with myself alone. For the Lord God am I.

Should I attend a church, you shall play music that suits my sensibility; offer social opportunities with people who demographically look like me; and encourage service as a chance for spiritual self-discovery. You must not be preachy, as if you know more than I do. For the Lord God am I.

You shall love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength by letting me be whatever I want to be, feel whatever I feel.

I will not yield my glory to another.

I'm Not Afraid to Raise Daughters

I am standing with both of them, the one who looks like me on the left and the one who looks like her father on my right. They are tall, tall as me, and full of the willowy grace of hastily retreating girlhood.

He regards them. He smiles and says, "I'm glad I don't have daughters." He means it as a compliment. A lighthearted joke. We smile back and laugh.

I smile, yes—but I am thinking it was funnier the first time someone said it. When they were perched in a shopping cart in tutus, all of two-and-a-half feet tall. How many fathers of sons have said this? How many times? I'm glad I don't have daughters. Glad. I'm glad about it.

Why, I want to ask? Why glad? Are sons so much easier to raise? There are two of those under my roof as well. What is it about daughters that their absence in your home relieves you? Is it their emotions? Sons have those, too.

But I can see the answer as you look at my girls: how can that sweetness be brought safely to adulthood? Men you understand—the paths of their thinking, the patterns of their acting. If your sons act rashly with women the consequences can be minimized. If my daughters act rashly with men the consequences can be massive.

You think I should be afraid. You ascribe truth to the common crass joke that with a son you only have to worry about one set of sex organs, but with a daughter . . . 

No More Fear Mongering

I reject this analysis of the risk. I reject the fear-mongering apparitions of predatory sons and pregnant daughters as motivators for my parenting. This philosophy believes a pregnant daughter is the worst thing a parent has to fear. This is far from the truth. My greatest concern cannot be that they reach marriage unsullied and unharmed—it must be that they grow to love God above all else. If they make mistakes on the road to adulthood, even mistakes with permanent consequences, we must face them bravely and run to their Savior for forgiveness and help.

Do you think your sons are at less risk to be harmed by wrong decisions? You take too much comfort in their lack of a uterus. You have calculated the risk only in physical terms. There are always consequences for sin—some of them just gestate longer. If you considered my daughters as valuable as if they were your own, you would raise different sons. In all likelihood, one day you will have daughters. Raise sons who choose them well.

I am glad I have daughters. You must hear this: Glad. They are strong and smart and serene. They know what their bodies are capable of. They know what men's bodies are capable of. They are not afraid of your sons. And neither am I. They will know if your sons are worthy of their attention because their father's example has hard-wired them to recognize character. Instead of intimidating someone else's sons at the front door, he has wooed the hearts of his daughters every day of their lives. I am glad I have daughters, and by God's grace the father of their husbands will be glad I had them, too.

You do not mean to offend or challenge. I know this. My head measures your words and finds no fault, but my heart measures the culture that has taught you to repeat these lines. You catch me at a vulnerable moment.

They are running—running, I tell you—toward womanhood. No more tutus and sequined shoes. The heavy-lashed eyes of their dolls have long grown accustomed to the darkness on the highest shelf in the closet. On a day not far distant those two rumpled beds will remain neatly made side by side in the room they share. There will be no more jumbles of hangerless clothes, no twisted cords of curling irons, no fine dust of beauty products adhered to the sink top with a film of hairspray. They will be gone. Let it be known that there has been gladness in their growing and going. Let it be known that I have been glad beyond measure.