Metaphors matter. The ways that we understand ourselves and our place in the world are firmly grounded in the pictures we design to represent key abstract principles. Plainly speaking, in order to make sense of an overwhelming universe, in an attempt to create order out of the chaos, we tell stories, we develop languages, we paint pictures, to give a face to the mystery. Generally speaking, people need to concretise things in order to make sense of them; we need to draw boundaries – outlines that help define what something is and what it is not. We make lines that separate what is one thing from what is another thing. In other words, we draw. By putting lines around things, we shape our understandings of what those things are. But as we create the “drawings”, the “drawings” begin to create us.
One example is the concept of God. On some level we recognise that if there is a Creator being, our sense of the purpose of our existence (and consequently the degree to which we perceive ourselves to have attained success– happiness if you will – because success is a product of fulfilling purpose) is intimately tied to what that being’s purpose was in designing us in the first place. It makes sense: if we have been deliberately designed (and all design is in some way deliberate: no sentient being makes choices that are entirely arbitrary, even if the reasons are only subconscious ones), we will find our greatest satisfaction in doing what we were designed to do. Understanding the nature of that Creator is thus of paramount importance. But to do so, we need to render the invisible visible. We cannot understand God without a picture. And until we have some understanding of God, we can never truly understand ourselves. So we draw.
In the West, born into a culture that is defined to a significant extent by Protestant thinking, we have inherited a picture of a God who resembles a courtroom judge. Our creedal statements – the lines we draw to distinguish between what God is and what God isn’t – are shaped by the legal paradigms of the protestant Reformist thinkers, primarily Martin Luther and John Calvin, who both had legal backgrounds. Even for many who do not believe in a God, the God they don’t believe in is most likely defined in Protestant and Evangelical terms: God is holy; God is just; God is pure; God is blameless; God is good; God is righteous. This picture of a God preoccupied with justice (and a very particular kind of retributive justice, it would seem) is, I believe, not in line with Jesus’s theology, but is a manifestation of our post-Enlightenment worldview. A thinking point for my readers who desire to understand the theology of Jesus: I cannot see anywhere in the accounts of his life, as recorded in the gospels, where the dominant thread running through the pictures of God that Jesus paints through his ethics, his stories, his teachings, is of God’s justice, or holiness, or moral perfection. You would be hard-pressed to argue that these were key issues for Jesus. So why do we, who call ourselves his disciples, place such a premium on them? Because our picture is drawing us that way.
This exaggerated focus on God’s justice plays a pivotal role in how we draw our pictures of another key theological concept: sin. Because our understanding of the nature of sin is critical to our understanding of our relationship with God, a distorted picture is potentially devastating. We have inherited a picture of God that defines Him (for those of you unfamiliar with my writing, I only use the masculine pronoun in relation to God when I am emphasising a problematic conception of Hen) as primarily just, even though we have tried (not entirely successfully, I think) to reconcile this God of retributive justice with a God of love. As a result, we think of sin as being essentially a problem of crime and punishment. I do not believe that this is how Jesus understood sin. If you look at his theology, you will see that the thread of the narrative around sin is around themes of lost and found, brokenness and healing, not crime and punishment. Think of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. Recall his mission statement in Luke 4:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In fact, if anything, time and time again the narrative of crime and punishment is undermined by Jesus. This would be completely in line with the dominant thread of the Jewish story, by the way, the one that would have informed how Jesus understood his role. The Jewish faith does not frame its identity narrative around ‘Creation – the Fall – Redemption’. That is a Reformist way of understanding the picture. The Jews, and we should need no reminding that Jesus and all of his disciples, as well as Paul, were Jewish and would have held Jewish worldviews, frame the story as ‘Slavery – Freedom – Exile – Return’. That is the central theme of the Passover, of the Jewish understanding of themselves and their place in God’s creation. Consequently, it must inform how we draw our picture of Sin, if we claim to follow Jesus.
What if we have been thinking about sin all wrong? Are we prepared to acknowledge that the pictures we have drawn of sin and God’s justice are rooted in 16th Century Puritan thinking rather than on 1st Century Jewish thought? Are we willing to explore how this has influenced our theologies of the cross and how these theologies have shaped us? Christians are quick to proclaim that Jesus is all about salvation. I won’t argue there. But salvation from what? From sin? Then what is sin? And salvation to what? What if what Jesus offers is not salvation from punishment but salvation from brokenness? What if Jesus’s mission was not to be punished in our place, but – seeing how, like drug addicts, we were trapped in destructive habits – to seek us out in the places where we had strayed and to help us return to a healthier path?
But for some reason, Christians don’t like to let go of the notion of a wrathful God. They want a God who wants blood. A God of revenge is somehow easier to stomach than a God of forgiveness. A God hellbent on violent punishment is perversely more attractive than a God who favours mercy. What does that say about us? The argument often levelled at me at this point is: what if Nathan (my son) was to do something wrong? Wouldn’t the most loving thing be to discipline him? How can I not see that the most loving thing God can do for us is to punish sin?
Really? REALLY?! I love the assumption that discipline and punishment must go hand in hand. I fully support discipline. But I am not sold on the necessity of punishment. Consequences, yes. Punishment, not so much.
Insisting that inappropriate actions are met with the resulting consequences leads to discipline. It does so by deeply respecting the principles that the laws were designed to protect, laws which ensure the maintenance of a peaceful and cohesive society. Discipline puts people first. It understands that the laws serve principles, and those principles protect people in the messiness that is our relationships, by preventing relationships from becoming dysfunctional.
Insisting that inappropriate actions are met with punishment leads to resentment. It does so by valuing compliance to the letter of the law over the principle and the people the law was designed to protect, or the spirit of the law. Punishment puts the law first and in so doing, enslaves people. So long as the letter of the law is not transgressed, it is perfectly acceptable that people have absolutely no comprehension of the principles underpinning the law. Relationships can remain dysfunctional as long as no laws are broken. But enslaved people become (rightly) bitter people.
So I hope you can understand why I believe that a God whose primary interest is in enforcing justice (that is to say, punishing offenders) is not a God to be trusted. It is probably a good thing, then, that such a God is not the one depicted in the gospels.
It is precisely this distinction between discipline and punishment that I believe Jesus alludes to when, accused of being a sinner, he responds: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is, I am sure, what Paul is driving at when he talks about how, in Christ, we are no longer under the law (please note that in Paul’s theology it is the Law that is metaphorically nailed to the cross with Jesus, not our sin – see, for example, Colossians 2:14 ). It is why, when Nathan does something wrong, my primary concern is not what rule has been broken, it is how this pattern of behaviour will negatively affect him and his relationships; it is not what he has done but what might happen in the future if this behaviour is normalised, that concerns me. Discipline, not punishment, motivates my action (when I get it right, of course). I value Nathan and our relationship over any rule. That does not mean Nathan can do whatever he likes; it means that my correction is aimed at transformation not at punishment. I am pretty sure the same could be said of God.
Maybe it is time we tried to redraw our picture of sin. Maybe it is time to throw out the paintbox of adjectives (given to us by the Reformation theologians) that we use to describe God’s character, which centre mainly on His unhealthy obsession with obedience to the letter of the law, and which have enabled us to create a monster God who is complicit in the brutal torture and execution of an innocent Jesus to satisfy that obsession, and focus instead on the colours Jesus himself gives us to paint a picture of God, when he states: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Maybe it is time we take the scribbled pages on which we have drawn our pictures of sin – pictures that depict sin as breaking God’s law, as disobedience – crumple them up and throw them in the bin. Maybe it is time to join the dots that Jesus and Paul so carefully lined up, and colour (inside the lines) to discover a picture that frames sin, as Reverend Denny Moody observes, as “the destructive way we handle our pain.” And perhaps, with our new understanding, John’s claim that “nobody who lives in [Christ] continues to sin” (1 John 3:6), makes sense. Perhaps then we can grasp why Jesus (who, for example, was criticised for not observing laws surrounding the Sabbath) was considered to be completely without sin (1 Peter 2:22 and 1 John 3:5*). We will see then that the lists of forbidden activities we love to condemn in others, if they are indicative of anything, are the fruits of sin, not sin itself. And maybe that knowledge will make us kinder, more loving, quicker to forgive.
* It is interesting to note that when Peter interprets the Isaiah passage, he quotes Isaiah 53:16, which – in the original – reads: “Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth” as: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). The link between sin and violence, in the mindset of the early Christians, is made very clear here.