God’s Awful Mistake

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.”

Henry’s Awful Mistake by Robert Quackenbush

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:

Part 1: Sinners in the hands of a ____ God

Part 3: Is righteousness underrated by liberal Christians?

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  • Michael Thompson

    Good read! That is just how it is taught too, God needs to squash all of us sin ants if we are not christian ants, never really was told why. if you ask, you get “should the pot say too the potter blah blah blah. Oh and throw in pop evangelical eschatology and we get god destroying the whole earth to rid it of us pesky bugs!

    • In my analogy, we were the house getting ripped up in search of the ant called “sin”, but your analogy is certainly another very common way things are conceptualized. The question then might be framed, why did God make ants He to squash? And why did He teach us love them?

  • nick b

    So… I know you established the definition of sin in your previous post, and it reminded me of something i had been reading lately. Thought I’d throw this passage, which quite thrilled me…

    “…[S]in is not just an error or the doing of certain prohibited actions, but sun is the positive attempt to overreach our power as creatures. …its fundamental form is self-deception. We are rooted in sin just to the extent we think we have the inherent power to claim our life – our character – as our particular achievement. In other words, our sin – our fundamental sin – is the assumption that we are the creators of the history through which we acquire and possess our character. Sin is the form our character takes as a result of our fear that we will be “nobody” if we lose control of our lives.”

    “For our sin lies precisely in our unbelief – our distrust that we are creatures of a gracious creator known only to the extent we accept the invitation to become part of his kingdom. It is only by learning to make that story – that story of God – our own that we gain the freedom necessary to make our life our own. It is then that I am able to accept my body, my psychological conditioning, my implicit distrust of others and myself, as mine, as part of my story. And the acceptance of myself as a sinner is made possible only because it is an acceptance of God’s acceptance. Thus I am able to see myself as a sinner and yet to go on.”

    hauerwas – the peaceable kingdom

  • I’m liking this series. I have no idea why you don’t get a ton of comments on these posts.

    • Thanks, Michelle. My site stats suggest that fewer people are even visiting the site to read the posts, so that helps account for it. It’s rather discouraging, actually. 

      • Paige

        Summer…

  • If sin is the result of a sickness of the will…

    Then it’s either NOT or Adam and Eve had this sickness too. The very fact that Adam sinned (as Paul tells us) should prove (according to positivist inerrant readings) that our conception of sin is radically wrong. “Sin”, whatever it is, will not disappear when we all go to heaven and are pure. As Lucifer “fell” so could we from some future paradise.

    Steve, if I may be frank and presumptuous, I’ve been on the road you are on and, if you follow it through and stay honest, you’ll leave the faith as I did. The only way to stay a Christian, in my humble but considered opinion, is to not analyse one’s beliefs and to cling to “faith” in the sense of “belief beyond verification and enquiry”. I’m afraid in this ol’ Dawkins may have been right.

  • Luis

    Wow these posts are really great, and they make a lot of the points i was discussing in beyond the box. Sin really goes beyond violence, but you cannot put sin itself as something that God is somehow legally bound to punish. As if the Law itself somehow tied God’s hands. Thats why Paul and the others emphasized so much the death of Law. For me, Jesus died to show how Law in general could not be fair since Death could touch even the sinless son of God. Therefore, there was a conflict inside the whole chain of sin causes death according to law. As sin and death are undeniable, then the law must be wrong. That would put a whole new spin on the words of Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” If there is no law as humans understood it, then sin of the flesh ny itself could not merit death any longer.
    Mind you, not that christians are lawless, but that human conceptions of law and punishment are wrong. Our law must be the law of love written in our heart, and we are judged positvely if we will ourselves to be saved by sincerely trying to lead loving and faithful lives. God can see our intentions and doesnt need to judge us on the poor works our body represents.Further, if I follow my idea of Jesus liberating us from the cycle of sin according to law merits death, then that solves the issue of original sin. God knows that judging someone because of, as u call it, an inherited illness, is totally unfair. Thats (maybe in part, maybe totally) why he decided to show Death itself to be unfair. Thats why Paul recognizes a law of the flesh, as opposed to our will in Romans 7:20 “But if I am doing the very thing i do not want (or will), I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

    Now, this is still very preliminary, but I think its fundamentally compatible with what you’re saying here, and with the general spirit you reflect in your writings. Correct me if Im wrong, please. What I’m trying to do is not be legalistic, on the contrary, im trying to show how the human legalism is at conflict with itself and therefore cannot be the basis of judgement. I like a lot your emphasis on will, and the unfairness of being judged on our sinful flesh inherited from Adam. My church’s teachings on original sin made me really waver in my faith for a long time, since i could not stomach a God so legalistic and bound by rules that even Humans judge unfair.

    • Luis,

      I will be ruminating on this for some time to come; I think it’s really insightful, and though I hadn’t thought of things in quite that way before, I see some real validity in it. Thanks!