Culture At Large

The Gospel in G: Guilt

Roger Nelson

Editor’s note: This is the second in an adapted sermon series tracing the arc of God’s story, as told through Scripture and the created world around us. You can find other installments here.

It was an overwhelmingly good morning. The spring sun was loosening winter’s grip and catching dew diamonds in the fields. I was on a training ride with three other bicycle racers. Four men with shaved legs, dressed in bright colorful Lycra, rolling along in a 23-mile-an-hour pace line. It was a motion of grace. Creation was in a full-voiced chorus of joy.

I took my turn at the front of the line and then drifted to the back. Smooth, silent, it was the wedding of body and machine and team. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of a ball of fur on the shoulder of the road. Even more suddenly that ball of fur shot between my front tire and my back tire. With a little bump I rolled over that fast flurry of fur… 

What was that? 

As my buddies rolled on unaware I glanced over my shoulder and there, flopping on the pavement, was a squirrel. Squashed. He lurched and staggered around the road. Nobody else saw it. I didn’t know what to do. 

And in that split second, as we were sailing up the road, I thought, “What’s wrong with this picture?” In the corner of a shalom-filled morning there was a smashed squirrel. On a created, overwhelmingly good morning one of God’s little creatures met its demise under the wheels of an Italian racing bike.

As a high school teacher I told that ridiculous story because it made kids laugh and it opened all sorts of questions. Why would grown men shave their legs? Is Lycra ever acceptable attire for a teacher? Was death part of God’s original intention for creation? Does God have a grand plan? Is there any sense or sovereignty in the wrongs of this world?

I can’t shake the hope that we long for something more than the snatching of sinners’ souls from Satan’s grasp.

It is a trite story, but it pushed open the door for discussion. Kids knew the goodness of creation. They told stories of catching a glimpse of God’s hand delightfully traced in the created order, but they also knew that something was wrong with this picture. They knew that things were foul and fatally flawed. They were the children of Columbine and 9/11. They were on the backside of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. They knew that under the sheen of all that’s beautiful and new there’s something depraved and sick-unto-death at the core. They knew that creation is broken. 

To quote Cornelius Plantinga:

Creation speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It still sings and rings, but it also groans. As Paul says, “the whole creation has been groaning” for release from its “bondage to decay.”

The language that Scripture attaches to this state of affairs is “sin.” It’s not just a matter of ignorance or a few bad apples. It’s not just a question of a moral scale that is slightly out of kilter. It’s not just the cumulative consequences of bad choices. It’s sin.

I was trying to get high school students to expand their understanding of sin. For many of them sin was little more than adolescent indiscretions — their naughty thoughts, their lusts and longings, their pint-sized peccadilloes. But Scripture offers that sin is more than the sum of its parts and that creation itself is bent, bound, broken and born into a state of being from which it can’t extricate itself. There is something else, some spirit, some curse, some enslavement that is in the very stuff of creation.  

It was on a beautiful spring morning that my father was murdered a few feet away from my family and me. I guess the “sin” was the murder — the blatant disregard for the sanctity of life that caused Clarence Hayes with no provocation to flippantly pull the trigger. Guilty. But, on that Sunday morning, in that church parking lot, I remember also thinking that this is just one thread in an intractable knot of poverty, addiction, inadequate health care, a culture of violence, easy access to guns, unemployment, mass incarceration, racism, limited educational opportunities, mental illness, crack cocaine, national indifference, etc., etc., etc. It was all a knotted mess that choked off shalom, that fouled God’s intention for creation. And so, the murder was more than just one expression of sin for which the murderer was culpable. It also seemed like something evil was burrowed into the bowels of creation.

Again Plantinga is helpful here:

Evil is what’s wrong with the world, and it includes trouble in nature as well as in human nature. It includes disease as well as theft, birth defects as well as character defects. We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be. Thinking along those lines we can see that sin is a subset of evil; it’s a member of a group. All sin is evil, but not all evil is sin. A killing by a 2-year-old who picks up a gun is a terrible evil, but not an actual sin — at least not for the 2-year-old.    

Romans 8 proclaims that sin is more than just the work of humanity, no mattered how depraved, but that there is something in the fabric and fiber of the cosmos that is corrupted and in bondage — and not by its own choice. The ground under our feet is so vandalized that it too is groaning for healing and release. 

John Calvin uses the language that:

There is no fragment or particle of the world, which, in the grip of the knowledge of its present misery, does not hope for resurrection.

And I would offer that the corruption of creation finds expression in institutions, systems, diseases, economics, environment, sexuality and spirituality. And it can’t all be tied directly to the will, missteps or activity of humanity. 

That does not mean there is no goodness and mercy in this world, but it does mean that there are forces unto death that are bigger than we are. And therefore, no education, no enlightenment, no religion, no rationality, no purchase, no pill, no progress, no therapy, will be able to fully restore shalom. Or turn the tide, or liberate the earth or salvage creation. 

And I offer that not as an excuse for inaction, or to massage our guilt, or to ignore this world and wait for another, or to shrug off earth-keeping, justice-seeking and peace-building as nothing more than putting bandages on a terminal patient. I think the goodness of creation and the image of God that is in all people calls forth our very best in seeking shalom and using whatever gifts we have for the good of others.

But, I also know that there is something in creation that we can’t overcome.  There is something that is beyond our capacity to save, rescue, fix, heal. 

The Belgic Confession puts it this way:

It is the corruption of all nature — an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother’s womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God’s sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring.   

Now. I know that friends I love would find all this talk about sin and an evil that is manifest in creation as an antiquated bowl full of religious balderdash. And it sounds as plausible as Muggles in Middle Earth — to mix fantasies. And I know that my thinking here is sloppy and not fully developed or articulated. Does it mean that evil is in the very cellular structure of creation? And if evil isn’t in the stuff of creation, then where is it? What is it? Does evil have personhood or a power outside of God? If so, where did it come from? And why wouldn’t God, who purportedly created and loves this world, do something immediately to end the brutality and suffering that defines so much of this world?  

You get the idea. And, as one who often has a front-row seat to the human condition, I have no answers for why that which is evil and cruel seems to win the day.

But, given the daily record, given any honest reading of history, given that, as Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” I don’t have any other way to frame the human condition. It is hard to write it all off to ignorance, or an inadequate rationality or the slow pace of progress. There is something at work in creation that is beyond our ability to change that ultimately leads to death.

Sin. Evil. Death.

In the first installment to this series, the invitation was to be open to the gift of creation and give thanks. This week we join creation in groaning for healing, in groaning for salvation. In groaning for life. And I can’t shake the hope that we long for something more than the snatching of sinners’ souls from Satan’s grasp. We would join creation in groaning for the healing of every hunger, every hatred, every lost species, every depleted resource, every malignancy, every loss, every square inch and every broken heart. May the very ground under our feet be restored to the goodness that God intends.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith, Theology