Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How About We Don't Call It "My Sinful Nature"

People playing cards. Image source.
Back in college, there was a Christian cross-cultural training I attended in preparation for a mission trip. At this training, we participated in a bunch of activities to simulate situations where we encounter cultural differences, and see how we react and how we feel about it. (This training turned out to be really useful for me- before, I really knew nothing about cultural differences. I couldn't imagine there could be a society where people all did some very basic mundane thing in a completely different way than anything I had heard of, and it's fine and society still functions and people would think I'm the weird one for thinking it was weird. And now, years later, here I am in China.)

One activity was a card game. The training leaders handed out the instructions for the game, and all of us students took a few minutes to read them. It was very simple, everyone plays a card and then the highest card wins, that sort of thing. (And no talking allowed.) So we read the instructions and then played the game in groups of 4.

After we had played one round, we were instructed to switch to a different table, and play with a different set of 4 people. Now this is where it got interesting. According to the instructions, the person who had won the previous trick should be one who plays a card first on the next trick. But for some reason, this other girl, let's call her Lisa, was playing a card. And I tried to tell her, no, that's wrong, it's supposed to be the one who just won the previous trick. We tried to continue playing the game, but it was difficult because over and over, there was disagreement over whose turn it was, and we argued by means of impassioned pointing at each other, because we weren't allowed to talk. (By this point, all of the papers containing the instructions for the game had mysteriously disappeared.) I felt angry at her for acting like the rules didn't matter. I didn't give up- I kept advocating for the correct way of playing. By pointing and waving a lot.

When the game was over, all of us students gathered around to talk about what had happened and how we felt about it. And at this point it was revealed that actually, each table had received a slightly different set of instructions for the game. Yes, as it turns out, Lisa had come from a table which played by the-next-person-to-the-left-leads, rather than the-person-who-won-leads. The purpose of the activity was to see how we would react when we encounter people who do something in a different way than we're used to.

Basically, there were three possible reactions:
  1. You can tell other people their way is wrong and try to force them to do it your way. (That's what I did.)
  2. You can internalize the idea that your way is wrong, and assimilate and lose your own cultural identity. (Like the people who thought "maybe I'm remembering the rules wrong" and didn't put up any kind of fight over it.)
  3. You can recognize that different cultures do things differently and that's okay, and we should all listen to each other and accept each other. (This is the correct answer, if you're wondering.)
I remember I lay awake that night, thinking about how I had failed. I had tried to force Lisa and the other players to do things my way. I was so sure they were wrong; I didn't listen to them or respect their "culture."

That was back when I was so on-fire-for-Jesus; I devoted myself to Jesus so hard, I woke up early every morning to read the bible, I obsessed over doing everything I possibly could to obey him, I constantly fought against my own "sin". And yet somehow, this behavior had slipped through. Somehow, even though I worked hard all day long to follow Jesus, I had sinfully tried to force people to do things my way, not listening to them or respecting their way.

I was a good evangelical, so there was only one way I could explain it: my sinful nature. I believed that, at the deepest core of who I am, I am horribly sinful and that's never going to change. All of this devotion to God was about covering up my true identity, putting on layers and layers of prayer and bible verses and obsessive devotion and repentance. I was training myself to be the kind of person who didn't sin in the ways that my sinful nature would want me to sin. I'd done such a good job that I was able to fool people- and even myself- into thinking I was a pretty good person and didn't have the capacity for such evil things. But the sinful nature would always be there. It would always be who I really am.

What was going to happen, I wondered, when I went on this mission trip and met people who actually did come from a different culture than me? I worked so hard for God, worked so hard doing evangelism and loving people, and I imagined that somehow, at some point in the future, this sinful tendency to force my ideas on people would come out, and all of my hard work would be ruined. Surely it was inevitable, because I have a sinful nature and I'll always be this way, no matter how much I devote myself to Jesus. It'll always be there, somewhere, deep under the surface, and someday it will break out in an ugly way. I wondered if maybe I shouldn't even do mission trips.

(For those of you who are like "no no no, that's not what 'sinful nature' means, you misunderstood it": I challenge you to find a well-known evangelical leader or organization that teaches "after you become a Christian, you will no longer have a sinful nature. You can relax; you don't have to scrutinize every action and thought, worrying that somehow you're going to accidentally commit a huge terrible sin." Yeah, you're not going to find one. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall, and all that.)

I had sinned, and I knew I would sin again in the future, because that's just the kind of person I am. No matter how I try to get away from it, no matter how much I read the bible and devote myself to God, I'll always have a sinful nature. It was very discouraging, as you can imagine.

Now how about we try looking at this in a different way, without using the concept of "sin" or "sinful nature." Here's the deal: I'm kind of stubborn. That's just part of my personality. I've always been very focused on right and wrong, and standing up for what I believe is right.

Sometimes this is a bad thing- like when I think my ideas are so much better than everyone else's, and I don't listen to or respect other people's ideas. Or when I'm so focused on following the rules and "standing up for what's right" that I don't realize that people and relationships are sometimes more important than the truth. (I've gotten in arguments while playing board games- somebody did something that breaks the rules [probably because they weren't aware of some tiny nuance of the rules], and I won't let them get away with it, and it becomes a huge thing and other people tell me, "let it go, it's just a game," but in church they told me to stand up for what's right, even if no one else is, so no I won't "let it go." I've since figured out that the purpose of a board game is for everyone to have fun, and that's more important than following the rules. It's better to just let someone believe that they're allowed to move their piece here or there than to spend half an hour yelling at each other about it. This was never explained to me when I was introduced to the concept of games.) My parents have always said I'm "stubborn." I often have very strong opinions on what's "right" and what's "wrong" and I will fight for them- sometimes out of proportion to the importance of the actual "right" or "wrong" in question. (Because how can you attach a price to The Truth? Truth should be defended, regardless of the cost. Right?)

But it can be a good thing too. It means morality is extremely important to me, and I want to do what's right even if it costs me. It means I will stand up for what's right.

So it's part of my personality, this stubbornly-trying-to-force-my-ideas-of-right-and-wrong-on-people thing. That's never going to change, and I need to make sure I remind myself to notice the human cost of insisting that people follow The Rules and The Truth- to remember that sometimes there are things which are more important than The Rules and The Truth.

I'll always have that weakness, but it's okay, everyone has weaknesses and personality flaws. But let's call it a "weakness," okay? Instead of "my sinful nature."

If it's "my sinful nature" that means I can never really be a good person- all my seemingly godly qualities are just me putting on an act. That's "sanctification", the pastors all said, it means God is in the process of making us into perfect sinless people, and we're always improving but we'll never actually get there. It means no matter how hard I work to be devoted to Jesus, I will inevitably hurt him infinitely (because every sin is an infinite offense against a holy God, right?). It means I should always feel bad about myself, and feel bad for the terrible things I do to Jesus.

But if it's a "weakness", a perfectly normal, human flaw, then it's okay. I should be aware of it and try not to treat other people badly because of it, but if I mess up sometimes it's not the end of the world. It's just a small part of my life, not some kind of big dramatic moment where it's revealed that I've been thoroughly evil and sinful all along. It doesn't have any bearing on whether or not I deserve love and happiness, on whether or not I should go to hell.

In the Christianity I was taught, it's not okay to just be a human. In our default state, we sin sometimes, and that means we deserve to go to hell, and we don't deserve anything good ever. And so, according to the "gospel" I learned, I need to constantly put all my energy into serving God and fighting against my "sinful nature"- I need to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

The Christian leaders were very adamant that we don't earn our salvation- it's a "free gift" and besides, we suck so much, there's no way we could earn it by doing good deeds. So all this fighting against "my sinful nature" isn't how I get salvation. But. They said if you're truly saved, then you will really really love God, and therefore you will fight with all your strength against anything that could hurt him (ie, any and all little mundane sinful thoughts). So all the "real Christians" will of course fight this battle against their "sinful nature." But remember, even when you do, even when you do it with all your heart, even when your love and obsession for God consumes every part of your life, you still won't be good enough. You'll still mess up and sin sometimes, and hurt God so bad. But God still loves and forgives you, even though there's no logical reason he should, and you should feel lucky he still loves you since you're such a worthless sinful human. (This is what it means when church people say "we are saved by grace through faith, not works." And also when they say "isn't it great that we don't have to do good deeds to earn our salvation- because we could never meet that standard." And "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.")

But thank God I don't believe that anymore. I believe I am a good person. I have weaknesses and sometimes I don't treat people right- and that's bad, I should work on that- but it's okay, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I'm basically a good person. And I say that, knowing it's the highest form of heresy. The very foundation of the "gospel" I used to believe and dedicated my life to was "there's no such thing as a good person."

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