Sunday, April 01, 2007

Powerless over sin

I've been working my way through the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Thankfully I don't drink much, but this book is of interest to me because of experiences with AA through friends and family, plus I have plenty of my own things that merit self-examination.

I am struck by the first step of AA: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." Suppose we substitute "sin" for "alcohol" and apply it to Christians? Is this accurate/ helpful?

Some of the readers of this blog are much better at theology than I, so I'm asking it as a question, but this substitution seems like a good idea to me. On one hand, we should work to sin less ("go and sin no more"), but on the other hand, we are born, live, and die sinners and our only hope is grace. It's probably a truism, but a prerequisite for receiving grace can be acknowledging a need for it; hence, the value of step 1.

Maybe I should spend less time committing to sin less and spend more time acknowleding my inability to do so.



Ben D. said...

Interesting application Brad.

I would say YES and NO.

In one sense we powerless. In another we have power through the Holy Spirit.

Paul says in Romans that once we were SLAVES so sin (powerless) but we NOW ARE SLAVES TO RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Paul seems to think that THROUGH GRACE we have POWER OVER SIN...

So how does this work out in real life...

- We surrender to Jesus, not sin.

- Our power is in Jesus, mot ourselves.

- The goal is not "sin management" but righteousness (which is more than simple avoidance of sin... but also the commission of good)

- We live in the tension of the "already and the not yet". We are already forgiven, redeemed, restored, and empowered by the Holy Spirt... but this side of heaven will not fully realize this.

As a side note, people like James Dobson have some odd theologies of "perectionism" that I think are off...

Interesting stuff!

Brad Wright said...

Well put Ben. I would say, though, that not many Christians feel *personally* unable to manage sin... we seem to view it almost like a diet that we're always on the verge of conquering.

In contrast, the first-step idea would be to throw up our hands, say can't do it, and start looking for help. This is clear in what you write (and preach), but sometimes I think some Christians view sin as a self-help issue rather than a perhaps a more appropriate model of it being a disease or inherent condition.

jpu said...

being in a church with a lot of people in "recovery" and knowing the church background of the big book authors, you have made an astute observation. Gordon Macdonald makes the connection also here...

Brad Wright said...

Thanks for the reference to Gordon MacDonald... he puts the issue very well, and much more memorably, than I.

Jay Egenes said...

Great question.

Part of the answer is that we need to quit thinking of sin primarily as stuff we do (or even don't do). Sin is simply part of the way we are and part of the way the world is.
If the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent (this analysis holds whether you think it's literal or not) tells us anything, it's that the first beings who had whatever it is that makes us human, who had the ability to be in relationship to God and to other people and creatures in a way that other creatures can't, wanted to be in charge more than they wanted to be in relationship to God.
Our condition is that we are by nature selfish and prideful. We want to be in charge.
It is that condition, more than any particular sin we commit, that is essential to understanding sin. Focusing on any given sinful behavior isn't necessarily unimportant, but it can be distracting from the bigger picture.

Jay Egenes said...

More on our sinful nature (what some people call original sin):

Many Lutheran churches begin worship with a corporate confession of sins that includes language such as "We confess that we are in bondage [or captive] to sin and cannot free ourselves."

It is that captivity or bondage to sin, death, and the power of the devil that is reflected in the oldest theories of atonement (answering the question why it is that Jesus had to die).

In the oldest theories (dating to the 300s), Jesus' death is seen primarily in terms of a conflict with evil. Death of course is a great if not the greatest evil. When Jesus rose on Easter he conquered death and evil, reconciling God and man. There are variations on the theme, and atonement wasn't really a major theological issue until later in history, but most of the early theologians emphasized the battle with evil and reconciliation with God rather than payment for individual sins (which is the most common understanding among protestants today).

Jay Egenes said...

Make that "reconciling God and humans." Or better yet "God and people" or maybe even "God and creation." Sometimes when I write about history I use historical language that doesn't stand up very well given current useage. Sorry.

Brad Wright said...

Wow, great stuff Jay! I particularly like the distinction between sin being who we are rather than things we do. If sins are actions, they can be controlled, like dieting or exercising more (though, not that I personally control those very well;-).

If a condition, we need to approach it differently. This is true to the 12-step approach which views alcoholism as a disease; i.e, an inherent property of the person--a property that will not change.

Thanks for posting.

Jay Egenes said...

Thanks Brad.

Glad you found that helpful. Also glad that it made sense. LOL

Some interesting questions arise if we apply the concept of sin as a conditin to ethical issues.

If sin is simply a condition that we can't do anything about, one of the assumptions behind virtue ethics--that we learn to be good by practicing good behavior--doesn't really hold up.

If anything, thinking that we can learn to be good is evidence of pride (which is part of the sinful condition).

Maybe this is where ben d.'s post comes in (see first comment above). If we rely on Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, a higher power in the twelve step terminology, maybe we can in fact be better people. Is it ironic, or paradoxical, to say that we can be better people only by acknowledging that we can't be better people?

Brad Wright said...

"Is it ironic, or paradoxical, to say that we can be better people only by acknowledging that we can't be better people?"

I really like that, Jay. It put things into perspective, and it sheds a different light on the high self-esteem self-help--that the way to be a good person is to think that you're a good person.


Jay Egenes said...

High self-esteem--great application of the issue to real life. Don't let this thinking spread, or it will be devastating for the publishing business.

John R. said...

There was a group in Texas that called itself, "Sinners Anonymous," many years ago. Keith Miller, author of many books including "Hunger for Healing" was involved with it. If I remember correctly, it disbanded and people were referred to Overcomers Outreach for any people addicted to whatever.

Brad Wright said...

Sounds like a group that I could use. How about "Sinners Unanimous"?