Quinoa and the Problem of Sin

A few weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking blog article by David Calvin on trading the language of ‘sin’ for the language of ‘brokenness.’ To read it in full, click here. The point of the article is that we minimize our own responsibility for sin by passing the buck to a nameless third party. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes; can we really be held responsible for sin when we are born into a broken world and are ourselves victims? David says yes, we must be held responsible; otherwise, excusing ourselves from our culpability, we allow injustice to run rampant.

What he writes is true; however, it is only one facet of the enormous — and in many ways, ambiguous and undefinable — problem of sin and evil.

What is sin? Is it an affront to God’s honor, as Anselm of Canterbury suggested? Or is it disobedience of God’s law, as John Calvin believed? Is it estrangement from God, or is it broken relationship, or is it deliberate rebellion? Is sin simply a way to describe our own actions, or is it a third party agent that acts upon us, such as Satan? Is sin a personal issue or a systemic one? Throughout history, both trained and lay theologians have offered ideas of the ‘fundamental sin of humanity,’ ranging from pride to ignorance, all of which depict an aspect of sin but seem fundamentally inadequate to describe it. Throughout Scripture, sin seems to be such a broad, sweeping category that we hardly know where to begin in defining it. We understand it only in terms of abstractions: it leads to death, it consists in the absence of God, it goes against the created order.  But what exactly is it? And how can we fight an enemy which we cannot see or name? The truth is, sin seems to encompass all of these explanations yet still transcends the limitations of our understanding. Derek Nelson, in his book Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines and addresses many of these different positions on sin, but it seems that we can only nail down a vague idea of what it means: “Sin implies something not being right in the complex relationships of oneself to God, oneself to one’s neighbor, and oneself to oneself” (Nelson, Sin, p. 17).

Something not being right.

Something is about as vague as we can get. Not being right seems fully subjective. This leads to ambiguity and disagreement regarding the nature of sin, something else which Nelson addresses. For instance, some Christians believe homosexuality to be a sin, to be against the created order, and thus something not right towards God. At the same time, however, many same-sex couples consider that Christians try to oppress them and deny them their rights, which would seem to be something not right in relationship to one’s neighbor. Is none of it sin? Is all of it sin? How do we begin to grapple with such an overwhelming topic?

I will admit now that I have precious few answers. To claim otherwise, I would have to claim to be a greater theologian than Calvin or Augustine or even the Apostle Paul. Clearly, as a first-year seminarian, I am not. All I can offer are my own fumbling attempts to understand this massive and complex issue, and while offering no definitive answers, I can offer simply the hope which Scripture gives. Understanding that sin can be explained in many different ways, I nonetheless turn to the social manifestation of sin — systemic injustice — to show why brokenness is indeed a legitimate understanding of this not-right-ness that surrounds us.

To do this, I will use a seemingly innocuous example: quinoa. Some of you may not even know what quinoa is; some of you have jumped on the bandwagon of health food and devour as much quinoa as you can get your hands on; still others mock those who succumb to the latest dietary fads. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, whether or not you consume quinoa matters very little in your everyday life and seems to bear even less relevance to this discussion of sin. Yet when we buy a processed and packaged ingredient such as quinoa, we think very little of where it comes from – and although it makes no difference to us, it may have far-reaching consequences for others.

Quinoa is grown in the Andean highlands, in parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru; and before the quinoa fad hit the U.S., it was part of the diet of those who grew and harvested it. The invisible hand of economics – and ecosystems – is often beyond my power to grasp. But whatever the reason, quinoa suddenly became all the rage, increasing the demand for the popular gluten-free grain and driving up the prices. Farmers are trying to grow as much quinoa as fast as possible to meet the rising demand, which is beginning to abuse and overwork the land. Because of the way ecological factors come into play, quinoa is an unsustainable fad. In addition, quinoa is becoming an outsourced commodity rather than a cultural staple; it is worth more sold internationally than consumed domestically. The farmers who grow the quinoa can no longer afford to eat it.

This is an example of systemic injustice; here, the root cause of sin is ignorance. It is not pride or rebellion that makes an unknowing Christian buy quinoa; it is a far bigger problem than that, and one which we are nearly helpless to fix. If we all agree to stop buying quinoa, then what will happen? Farmers will have thousands of tons of unsellable quinoa, which will cause a severe blow to the economy. Yet I found myself cringing the other night to see multiple pounds of uneaten quinoa cakes in the cafeteria waste bin.

Here is a situation in which ‘brokenness’ seems to be the only way to describe sin. I am not intentionally causing harm to my neighbor in Ecuador; the economy is broken, the ecosystem is broken, the whole societal structure is broken by sin. I am broken by sin, and beyond fixing myself.

Brett Dennen, in his powerful song Ain’t No Reason, poetically describes the hopeless state of humanity:

“There ain’t no reason things are this way; it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.”

The first time I heard this song, one line seared itself into my memory: “Slavery is stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” In one phrase, this sums up the brokenness of systemic sin. When you touch your iPhone, think of the hands that put it together, worn down by poverty and the unceasing demands of a greedy world. You didn’t know as you stood in line for it that you were the cause of suffering. Are we held responsible for this ignorance? Are we condemned by every bite of quinoa?

When we examine the social effects of sin and the systemic repercussions of it, we are no longer discussing individual responsibility. We can look at an individual person and call out their infidelity, their lies, their theft. But when we zoom out and look at injustices such as racism and sexism, it becomes a victim/victimizer issue – whites against blacks, or men against women. When we zoom out even farther to look at the even larger picture of ignorance in the face of social injustice, the lines become even more blurred. Thus the greater the scale, the more it becomes about brokenness rather than individual sins. To say that we must take responsibility only for our personal sinful acts is to greatly oversimplify this massive disease in our world.

The whole creation groans. This is Paul’s attempt to grasp the enormity of our world’s not-right-ness and somehow address it in a meaningful way. Yet we hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

While we try to navigate the murky waters of right and wrong, we must take responsibility for our own contribution to systemic brokenness, seeking both to address the not-right-ness within us and to advocate for the not-right-ness of the world. Yet there is only so much we can do. I encourage fair trade, thrift shopping, gardening, and paying a little more to support small businesses rather than large corporations. Yet in the end, we all contribute to brokenness in ways that we simply cannot help. We will all, at some point, buy the metaphorical bag of quinoa out of ignorance. And so we repent of our individual sins, but we also cry out to God for the redemption of brokenness too big for us to fix.

Scripture does not and cannot tell us what sin is, for it is too great for us even to comprehend. Yet it does tell us of redemption and hope that is also greater than we can comprehend. We do our best to live in the Kingdom, yet in the end all we can do is hope for an infinite, unfathomable grace that can cover the sins of the world, known and unknown, confessed and unconfessed, repented and unrepented. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

And in times when the hopelessness of sin and brokenness overwhelm us, I find myself comforted by this beautiful quote from Chris Wright:

“We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”

I don’t have answers.

But I have hope.

Faith and Worry

This kid has a theological pet peeve.

Actually, I have more like a million.  But tonight I will bring one of them to your attention.  Typically, I can’t handle cute Christianese phrases.  I shudder every time I pass a church sign that says “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.”  It’s like fingernails on a chalk board.  Homonyms are tacky.  Rhymes are possibly even worse.  And there is little to no theological depth behind any of these little maxims.

As such, one of my least favorite phrases is “Too blessed to be stressed.”  Even worse is its evil cousin, “Too anointed to be disappointed.”  Three-syllable rhymes are even more unacceptable than one-syllable rhymes, and the theology here is crushingly bad.  There’s no other word for it.  Just bad.

For one thing, it’s horrendously smug.  When you paste on a self-satisfied smile and tell a struggling person, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”, it sends the following message: I am a super-Christian. You are ungrateful and have no faith.

Disappointment in this life is a very real obstacle, regardless of how “anointed” you may be.  But when you say that you’re above stress and worry because you have superior faith in Jesus, it makes a very normal person feel very alone in their struggles.  Now in addition to the cloud of worry hanging over their head, which is probably very legitimate and justifiable, they have a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach and the nagging thought, “I’m not a real Christian.”

When we don’t allow people to feel their feelings, we lose a vital sense of transparency — and thus, community.  Honest communication shuts down, and we get the fake little plastic smiles as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to make ourselves super-Christians — happy little robots who are too anointed to be disappointed.  And somewhere in the midst of all this pretending, we lose the entire point of the gospel.

You see, Jesus didn’t come so that we would never experience these negative emotions, but so that we would have hope in the midst of them.

I have heard people before use Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 as a strict command, as if a dark and angry Jesus is towering over us gravely shaking his finger in our faces and saying ominously, “Stop worrying! That’s what the pagans do.”  I have heard people reason, “Worry signifies a lack of faith…worry is a sin!”

It was a cool concept.  It made sense to me.  I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and quickly agreed, “Yeah! Worry is a sin!”  Whenever I worried, I would slap myself around a little bit and anxiously repent, “God! I’m sorry! I’ll do better!”  And I would shove the worry into a closet and slam the door and paste on a fake smile, hoping that all that worry wouldn’t build up and come bursting out in a panic attack.  What kind of witness would that be?  What would that say about my faith?  I would be an ungrateful, un-anointed un-Christian, that’s what.

But then one day I saw Jesus’ words in a new light.  I saw a gentle, loving Jesus stooping down and tenderly cupping my face in his hand, saying in a soft voice, “Don’t worry, beloved.  I have it taken care of.”

At this point in my life, I truly do not believe that faith and worry stand in opposition to one another.  Rather, I see worry as a chance to exercise faith.  I do not believe stress to be a sin.  If you’re insistent on viewing it in a negative light, you could see it as a temptation.  But instead, I choose to see it as an opportunity: not to shove it in a closet or pretend it isn’t there, not to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a super-Christian, but to snuggle into the arms of the Savior and childishly, trustingly tell Him that you need help.

I’ve mentioned in another post, Dear Grace, that sin is less about doing something wrong than it is about a state of separation from God.  I’m open to correction, but this is the way I see it.  Jesus didn’t die because you parked illegally in a handicapped spot; He died to bridge the gap between God and humanity, to draw you back to Himself.  Following this logic, I would consider it more destructive to our relationship with God to pretend we’re fine when we’re not, than to allow ourselves to struggle.

The point of the gospel isn’t to ignore our brokenness; the point is to address it.  Salvation isn’t about denying our humanity; it’s about surrendering it to Jesus.  Don’t put Jesus off until you’ve got your act together; your messed-up-ness is the entire reason you need Him.

Don’t put contempt or condemnation behind words that are meant to be comforting and reassuring.  You don’t have to shoulder the burden with all the bravado of Superman.  There’s another way:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Dear Grace: On Wrestling With God

There is nothing more intimidating than being asked a deep theological question by a 13-year-old who looks up to you.  But there is also nothing I love more.  Sometimes I flounder a bit, and sometimes I have to admit that I don’t have all the answers.

Tonight, in the middle of a crowded and noisy restaurant with the youth band playing Christmas carols, struggling to be heard over the noise, Grace asked me one of these questions.

“I just learned the story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Was that…okay? I mean, is that a sin?”

Instead of answering, I simply asked Grace this question: “Have you ever wrestled with God?”

She thought about this for a moment. “You mean mentally? Yeah…yeah, I have.”

“Do you think that was a sin?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “If it is, I guess I’ve sinned a lot.”

“Do you remember from the story what Jacob said to God?  Why he wrestled with Him?” I asked. “He said he wouldn’t let go until God blessed him.  Sometimes we have to doubt before we can believe, and sometimes we have to wrestle with God before we can receive blessing.”

She considered this. “I feel like the concept of doubt has been showing up in my life a lot lately,” she responded. “My mom and I were talking about it the other day, and now you just mentioned it.”

I shrugged. “We all go through doubt.  Some of the greatest people of the faith are the ones who have wrestled with the hard questions. Try reading through the Psalms and see if David didn’t do some of his own wrestling with God.”

Long after the Christmas party was over that night, I continued to think about her question.  Is it a sin to wrestle with God?  I pretty much told her no, but do I act like that’s true?  I’ve done a lot of hiding the past week because I’m afraid to voice some of my frustrations.  So my Bible has sat in my backpack for a few days, sadly neglected, because I can’t seem to read it while ignoring the elephant in the room.  So Grace’s question made me do a lot of thinking.  And praying.  And wrestling.

So, Grace, if you ever get a chance to read this, here’s my answer.

Dear Grace,

It’s okay to wrestle with God.  Don’t be afraid of messing up by wrestling with Him.  Sin is a far deeper problem than just messing up, than thinking or saying or doing the wrong thing.  Sin is disconnectedness from God.  Sometimes we have such a tiny view of sin that we think it’s something we do, something that we think we can manage or fix, but we can’t.  The very second that humanity chose to turn away from God, we lost the beautiful intimacy with Him that we were meant to have.  Sin at its core is just the gap between us and God.  So sometimes I think we try to pretend that we have a relationship with God by doing everything right, but pretending can’t bridge the gap.  We don’t want to get into fights with Him because that must mean we don’t love Him, but that’s not the way real relationships work.  Real relationships don’t pretend like there aren’t problems or miscommunications; they work through them. They wrestle with them.

You see, sin is anything that keeps us away from God.  And if you wrestle with God, you’re closer to Him than you’ve ever been.  You’re making physical contact, skin on skin, looking Him right in the eye, saying that you’re not letting go until He blesses you.  When you grapple with the God of the Universe, you’re being more open and transparent and vulnerable than ever before.

But if you leave your Bible in your backpack and hide because you’re ashamed of your feelings, the gap just got that much wider.  God bridged that gap by sending Jesus to experience life the same way we do.  He understands our feelings.  And He’s big enough to handle our questions.

So I think it was okay that Jacob wrestled with God.  And I think it’s okay if you do too.

Love,

Lauren.

there’s a constant tug-of-war.

Just a compilation of thoughts lately.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do…the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.” –Romans 7:15,19

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” — C.S. Lewis

“So could you love this bastard child/Though I don’t trust you to provide/With one hand in a pot of gold/And with the other in your side./I am so easily satisfied/By the call of lovers so less wild/That I would take a little cash/Over your very flesh and blood.” –Derek Webb, Wedding Dress

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” –Mark 9:24

And I love the last quote because it so perfectly sums up the tension in which we live, without using fancy rhetoric to cover up the stupidity of it all:

“…I’m afraid that I just might run back to the things I hate.” –Tenth Avenue North, Satisfy

The other night I was talking with a friend about guys. She said, “He makes me feel insecure and devalued and disrespected…but there’s just something about him.” I couldn’t really judge, because in the past I have done the exact same thing — look past a guy’s million and one faults to the good that really isn’t there.

Isn’t that exactly what we do with the desires of the world? We chase after things we know will only hurt us, yet there is an undeniable, inexplicable draw to the things we hate the most. We don’t want it, but we do want it, so very much. We can’t tell you why, but the desire is there. As Christians, we live in constant tension with the world. The question is, will we rise above it all, or will we continue to enslave ourselves? Will we give in to the deception of our hearts, or cling to what we know is worth it?

Published in: on October 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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sothesetai

For the most part, the main message of Scripture comes across fairly well into English translations. But there are some things which are beautifully enhanced by the original Greek (even the small amount that I know). I’ll willingly admit that the process of haltingly translating Scripture for myself has brought me to tears a few times for the sheer beauty of the truth, revealed to me in a new way past the traditional interpretations which I have heard and read and memorized all my life. Sometimes it’s something as small as Jesus’ speech at the resurrection of Lazarus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life…the one who believes in me will never die.” But somehow it takes on a deeper level of meaning when you can read the underscoring and intensified negatives that the NIV peeps left out: “I, I am the Resurrection and the Life…the one who believes in me will surely not die, ever.”

All this as a nerdy introduction to my love of Greek. And now we come to the word sothesetai.

In John 11, Jesus and His disciples are discussing the sickness of Lazarus. Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has “fallen asleep,” meaning that he has died. His disciples, thinking Jesus means natural sleep, respond, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”

At least, that’s what the NIV says. But the word translated “get better” is sothesetai, from the root word sozo.

It means, he will be saved.

There’s so much richness and depth there. If the word “save” is used in the context of recovering from sickness, what other implications might that Greek word carry?

Healing.

Restoration.

Revival.

Liberation.

If the word “save” can be used to describe these things, think about what that means in the context of Matthew 1:21 — “You will call His name Jesus, for He will save — sosei — His people from their sins.”

“Salvation” has become such a churchy word that we hardly know what it means anymore. It’s some vague concept referring to Jesus’ death on the cross and ranks up there with “propitiation” and “atonement”. We throw it around a lot more, but do we have even have a complete idea of what it means to be saved? What does it mean that Jesus saves us from our sins?

We’re healed from the pain and the scars of this fallen world. We’re restored back to our right standing with God and into His purpose. We’re revived, brought back to life from when we were living in darkness and death. We’re liberated from our bondage to humanity. We’re completely, totally, quite literally, in every way, SAVED.

What new implications for salvation does this context bring to mind for you?

Published in: on September 18, 2012 at 11:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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love the sinner, hate the sin?

Published in: on August 16, 2012 at 12:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Norman Elrod on Transparency

By Norman Elrod

Its not weakness to be afraid of the battle.
Its weakness to run from it.

Its not weakness to make mistakes.
Its weakness to blame them on others.

Its not weakness to be a sinner.
Its weakness to ignore it.

Be open. Be transparent. Don’t lie to yourself, but instead EXAMINE yourself. See the sin that you don’t want to. As a fallen human, it is our tendency to ignore our sin, blame others, and to in general be a coward. But let’s strive to be honest real people, first with ourselves, and then with God and others.

I am a fool. I am a rash, impulsive, immature, and awkward stumbling fool. I need to be gentle, I need to learn patience, I need to control my temper better, I need to serve others more than I do myself.

I fail to do these things.

But pretending like I dont have issues in these areas won’t help me change.

Owning up to them and turning my eyes to Christ will.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
(Romans 12:2 ESV)

“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
(Romans 8:13-15 ESV)

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
(Hebrews 3:12-19 ESV)

Published in: on April 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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