The pain of personal sin

I want to think about sin, sinning, and my sense of self. So often my mental processing of sin is impulsive, a kind of muscle memory which, in my worst moments, reflexively rebels against the right and towards the wrong; or it is tragically retrospective, picking up the shrapnel of self-detonation. These are important issues, but they are not what I am aiming at here.

Instead, I want to think about the dissonance which sin brings to me as a person, the cognitive and even physical effects of transgression, the holistic devastation that resisting God realises in every atom of my being. I’m considering this in the belief that my life (and possibly your life) with God can be enhanced and more fully enjoyed if I dispassionately consider the internal consequences of letting him down – if I take stock of the barrel of rats that I stand to let loose in my conscience when I sin, and how that affects my entire wellbeing as a Christian.

I don’t just sin my soul: because our culture is basically dualistic, because we have imbibed a neo-gnostic approach to body and soul, it is all too easy to view my personal sin as a merely spiritual matter, a phenomenon which is restricted to the inner workings of my heart, the unseen fibre optics of consciousness and conscience. On this model, sin is personalised, compartmentalised, and quarantined from the rest of my existence. This kind of divide means that the non-Christian world can do all in its power to seek spiritual cleansing while hedonistically destroying the body on one hand, or cleansing the body while leaving the internal life untouched. Those paradoxes sit comfortably with a world which has denied the interconnectedness of things, and which has no category with which to deal with conscience apart from via the ‘mute’ button.

As a Christian, however, I have access to a much more robust view of things. I am an integrated whole now, and I will be at the resurrection. I am body and soul with a dynamism and synergy that I can neither divide nor fully understand. This means that sin is not just inward, but that when I go against what God says, when I splice out the commands that are inconvenient, when I breach the bounds of how I am to live, when I nurse my own self-centred bias, and when I heed my self-defensive spirit, I am doing damage to all that I am.

Our society has come to understand the hidden linkage between psychological trauma and physical disease, the very real potential for harmful mental events to impinge on one’s whole wellbeing. The Psalmist, David, also understood the physical pathology of sinning against God. In one of the highest penitential Psalms penned by him, he itemises the impact which sin has had on him as a whole person. Not only did David bear an imbalanced spiritual spreadsheet in his mind when he transgressed, but when he kept silent about his sin,

My bones became brittle from my groaning all the day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat – Psalm 32:3-4

This is astonishing, but also inherently recognisable. Sin is damage, and sin is deadly, it impacts all of me, not just the jumbled closet of thought and motive, but the whole of who I am, the entirety of what is me – it shakes and destabilises the fibres of my being, and the bearings of my body. How many of us can identify with David here, the exhausting physical burden that sin places on our backs, the muscle tightening regret of indulgence or omission, the stoppered throat, the immediacy of tears, the panicked hand to brow that we have let things go and let God down?

This is what sin brings to me, and I need to process this in the coolness of now, so that I might employ it in the heat of temptation. When I hold back on holiness, when I double back on commitments, when I am enticed, when sin is entertained, when I casually lob word grenades at others, when my thoughts make a run for it through the no-man’s land of temptation, I am imperilling my whole self, my entire health.

I need to understand myself: sin, then, is inherently disruptive, it is not only produced by the body but impacts it as well. The question that this leads me to is deeply uncomfortable – why, knowing all of of this, do I still sin? In so many areas of my life I am predisposed to avoid discomfort, even adjusting my diet if something is disagreeable to me. I am avoidant of pain, and yet I sin – why?

The answer to this is surely, in part, that I am more deeply sinful than I care to admit. At heart I want to believe that I need minimal salvation from a minor Saviour, a makeover rather than constructive demolition. But my propensity to invite the pain of sin into my life, my willing unwillingness to suffer consequence for iniquity, my squirming resolutions to seek greater sanctity, my ambivalent approach to mortification, all betray the barrenness that I am without Jesus, the inherently corrupt heart that is entirely mine.

This ought not to lead me to despair, but to a greater, deeper, more gospel-based concern to learn, and grow, and see banished the displeasure that my sin is to God, and the discomfort that it is to me. I am grateful for the capacity that God grants that enables me to ‘by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body’, I am reassured by the progress and growth in grace that God grants to me in the gospel, but I also want to never lose sight of the fact that God not only saves me from what I deserve, but also what I desire – death. My fallen appetite is not ultimately for pleasure, but for destruction – I would kiss the blade of sin before plunging it into my heart were it not for Christ. It has taken the incarnate God, a physically ruined and sacrificially bereft Saviour to deliver me from this – my rescue is more costly and more definitive than I sometimes care to admit.

The recognition of these things, my repulsion at what I once naturally rejoiced in is a profound grace from God. I need, however, to build this kind of cool understanding into my reflexes as a Christian, I need to process the idiocy of sin, the self-harm that going against God ultimately is, the divine displeasure at sin, but also the deep destruction of sin to my whole enjoyment of fellowship with God, psychological peace, and physical wellbeing. Only then might I readily embrace the logic of resistance, and the life-giving blessing of mortification. To resist temptation is to embrace pleasure, to yield is to invite pain – that is deeply counter-intuitive at one level, but profound common sense at another. I need God’s enabling to live this kind of analysis as part of my daily pursuit of Spirit-empowered sanctification .

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