God’s Awful Mistake
by Steve Douglas
July 11th, 2011 | 9 Comments
I’ve recently had the chance to introduce my children to a book I loved as a kid: it’s called Henry’s Awful Mistake, by Robert Quackenbush.
Here’s how it begins:
“The day Henry the Duck asked his friend Clara over for supper, he found an ant in the kitchen. The ant would have to go. Henry was afraid Clara would see it and think he didn’t keep a clean house.”
So what does Henry do? Naturally, he picks up a frying pan and smashes the ant. Or maybe not — the ant is rather clever and evasive (or Henry’s just a really bad shot). The book progresses with Henry trying his best to dispose of the ant before his dinner date shows up. Unfortunately for Henry, he becomes more obsessed with killing the ant than he is about keeping his house tidy: as he strikes at the elusive ant repeatedly with increasingly destructive force, he carelessly begins dismantling his house!
Increasingly exasperated by the ant’s uncanny ability to elude him, he finally espies the ant sitting on a pipe that’s been exposed behind a wall he has just smashed a hole in. Henry misses the ant, but he doesn’t miss the pipe, which (spoiler alert) ends up flooding his now completely desolate house. In his attempt to destroy the ant and thereby prove his fastidious care for his home, Henry has utterly destroyed his house and profoundly proved the opposite.
As I pointed out in my last post, viewing God’s hatred of sin as fundamentally a reaction to its being a challenge to His authority that He cannot leave unpunished or a failure to live up to a perfect standard of righteousness that deserves the death penalty usually ends up conceptualizing God as in some way bound to condemn sinners because of sin. “But of course sinners are condemned because of sin!” That’s such a basic understanding of Christianity that it might seem odd to think that I would challenge it. But I’m not going to challenge it so much as nuance it properly: I don’t believe God “condemns” in the sense of irrevocable damnation, but He may well have an interest in “keeping after class” those of us who need to have our problems rooted out. Even this He does as a doctor cares for a patient, not as an irrational duck bludgeoning his walls with a hammer in an effort to win the Good Housekeeping Award.
The teaching that our sinful nature is an illness isn’t some post-modern rationalization: it’s found both in Scripture and in ancient church tradition. It’s even occasionally affirmed by those who also affirm the models I’ve been critiquing. Witness the Lutheran Augsburg Confession:
That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. [emphasis mine]
My own “confession” is that the incongruity of this baffles me: why would any child born with a hereditary illness warrant “wrath” — apart, perhaps, from self-loathing for bringing such a child into the world? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater…bathwater that was dirty before you even put the baby into it.
If sin is the result of a sickness of the will, every one of us who sins is dreadfully in need of God’s saving power. But this salvation isn’t to spare us from punishment awaiting us due to His wrath: salvation is God’s simmering rage concentrated on burning away at the parasitical urge for self-destruction endemic to us all. Gradually, painstakingly, and in cooperation with the part of our will that remains functional, God through sanctification is curing the diseased part of our minds that prevents us from living as the healthy souls He wants us to be. Our salvation is about God loving us enough to pry from our grasp our characteristically human inclinations toward choosing the way of death; what it’s not about is God magnanimously exempting small selections of us from being collateral damage of His reckless war on sin.
As should be obvious by now, just because I don’t believe God is in any way obligated to damn us because of our sins doesn’t mean that I think sin or even divine discipline for sin are passé concepts. This seems to put me at odds with many of my more progressive friends. I’ll have more to say to them in my last post on this topic.
This is Part 2 of a series. Here are the other posts: