Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

The greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.

Job 11 – The Endurance of Job

Job really isn’t very patient, but he does endure.

Then Zophar the Naamathite replied:

“Are all these words to go unanswered?
    Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
    Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
    and I am pure in your sight.’
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
    that he would open his lips against you
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
    for true wisdom has two sides.
    Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

10 “If he comes along and confines you in prison
    and convenes a court, who can oppose him?
11 Surely he recognizes deceivers;
    and when he sees evil, does he not take note?
12 But the witless can no more become wise
    than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human.

13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him
    and stretch out your hands to him,
14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand
    and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face;
    you will stand firm and without fear.
16 You will surely forget your trouble,
    recalling it only as waters gone by.
17 Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid,
    and many will court your favor.
20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail,
    and escape will elude them;
    their hope will become a dying gasp.”

The more I read Job (and read about Job), the less I think it is about theodicy – the justice of God existing alongside the existence of evil – and more about endurance of faith.  I think this seed was planted long ago.  The same pastor I mentioned two posts back also told me she thought that “the patience of Job” should really be “the endurance of Job,” because he really isn’t very patient with his loud complaints and bitter responses to his friends, but he does endure through his whole ordeal.

Then, a week or so ago, I was perusing through online writings on Job. I’m sorry I can’t remember if it was on Instagram with the hashtag #bookofJob, or a blog article, or what because I’d really love to link to it and give the author credit (to that person: if you find me, holler!), but the thrust of their message was, Job’s suffering was all worth it because it meant (spoiler alert) he got to meet God.  Yes, he gets his stuff and family and everything back, too, but even more than the worldly goods his faith is rewarded by the presence of God.  So, is Job’s test more of a quest, almost like a knight? Job didn’t get to pick his quest quite like a knight does, but just like a King Arthur style tale, he is tried and tested and faces hardship but wins a glorious prize for his endurance in the end.

Finally, earlier this week, I came across an article in my favorite academic journal, Vetus Testamentum. In it, author Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central theme of Job is not theodicy, but rather Job’s “struggle to maintain his integrity and his battle to hang onto his trust in God, rather than the problem of his suffering.”  Steinmann goes on to argue that the theme of theodicy is secondary and the only safe conclusion we can draw, again to quote the author, is that “theodicy is an irrelevant exercise for human beings.  They cannot explain God’s actions because they do not have access to God’s wisdom in the heavenly court. They can only dangerously attempt deductions that are as unreliable as the deductions made by Job’s friends.” (All this from “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job, Andrew E. Steinmann, Vol. 46 Fasc. 1 of Vetus Testamentum, Jan. 1996)

Following this theme of the endurance of Job, or the endurance of the faith of Job, we can see his friends test him with their false piety, impatience and indignation.  This speech of Zophar’s is the most impatient and indignant yet.  Add his wife to the mix when she says “curse God and die,” (2:9) and we have temptation (it’s a morbid desire, but still, Job desires the grave above all else at this point – and his wife is saying he will die if he just curses God).  So Job’s faith is tried in every manner: loss, suffering, trying attitudes, and temptation.  But he endures, his faith endures.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of the book of Job than one based solely on theodicy, exactly because there is suffering in the world.  The truth is, we don’t know why God allows suffering.  But that doesn’t mean Xe doesn’t love us, it just means we lack a full comprehension of God. I think I’ve used this analogy before: but it helps me to think of it like kids on the playground.  When I take my girls to the playground, I am watching over them, helping them.  But even under careful guidance, they occasionally hurt themselves.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just part of growing up, learning their abilities, and striving for the next monkey bar.  I patch up their boo-boos, give them hugs and kisses, and send them back out there.  If Earth is our proverbial playground, could God be doing the same for us?  Watching over us, maybe even letting us make some mistakes, in the hopes that we are growing, not just individually, but collectively? I like to think so.  I know I’ve mentioned this before (maybe multiple times), but my all-time favorite church sign is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  This encapsulates what I think is the most important takeaway from Job:  That all of life is a quest, just like Job’s suffering was.  It is a quest of faith, a battle of endurance in which we must hold fast to God.  We may get scraped up from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our faith.  Stay faithful, and the reward is everlasting peace in the life to come.

Job 05 – Virtue Signalling with Eliphaz

Go through life like a dog: If you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.

“Call if you will, but who will answer you?
    To which of the holy ones will you turn?
Resentment kills a fool,
    and envy slays the simple.
I myself have seen a fool taking root,
    but suddenly his house was cursed.
His children are far from safety,
    crushed in court without a defender.
The hungry consume his harvest,
    taking it even from among thorns,
    and the thirsty pant after his wealth.
For hardship does not spring from the soil,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
    as surely as sparks fly upward.

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God;
    I would lay my cause before him.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
10 He provides rain for the earth;
    he sends water on the countryside.
11 The lowly he sets on high,
    and those who mourn are lifted to safety.
12 He thwarts the plans of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He catches the wise in their craftiness,
    and the schemes of the wily are swept away.
14 Darkness comes upon them in the daytime;
    at noon they grope as in the night.
15 He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth;
    he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.
16 So the poor have hope,
    and injustice shuts its mouth.

17 “Blessed is the one whom God corrects;
    so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.[a]
18 For he wounds, but he also binds up;
    he injures, but his hands also heal.
19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
    in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
    and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
    and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
    and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
    and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
    you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.
25 You will know that your children will be many,
    and your descendants like the grass of the earth.
26 You will come to the grave in full vigor,
    like sheaves gathered in season.

27 “We have examined this, and it is true.
    So hear it and apply it to yourself.”

It looks like there’s a lot of wisdom here, right? As my NIV text notes so wonderfully put it, “The problem is not so much with what the friends knew but with what they did not know.”   Poor Eliphaz is being made to look quite the pompous fool, a little reminiscent of Hamlet’s Polonius.  Polonius is the character with the famous one-liner “to thine own self be true,” which is, indeed, great advice.  He’s also a scheming, overbearing windbag and generally crap father.  Basically, Polonius was virtue signalling, and Eliphaz is kind of doing the same thing.

What I love about this passage though is that Eliphaz doesn’t even know how right he is.  God will indeed save Job from seven calamities (a figurative number just meaning “a lot” not necessarily seven exactly), his property and health will be restored, and his children will, indeed, be many.  Even his parables are spot on without realizing it.  Eliphaz talks about his a fool’s children being “crushed in court without a defender.”  (v. 4)  Well, with Satan as “the Accuser” in the heavenly court, that is basically what happened to Job’s children.  The only difference is that Job isn’t a fool, and has God as his defender.  And through all his long laments in this chapter, Job is “laying his cause before Him,” as Eliphaz counsels him to in v. 8.  If Eliphaz weren’t so busy pontificating then maybe he could see that Job is already doing exactly what he said to do.

One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received from my MIL is, “go through life like a dog: if you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.”  It’s silly on the surface, but good advice at it’s core – kind of the opposite of Eliphaz self-righteous “if it were I” talk of this first speech.  And that, I think, it what we can learn from this little Biblical episode:  We are going to come across trying people.  But, as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata says, “even the dull and ignorant, they too have their stories.”  Let us glean what truths and good we can from people, even if we aren’t in full agreement with them.  I know it’s not always easy, but we don’t have to take their foolishness to heart.  In fact, in the next chapter Job is about to call Eliphaz out on his bullshit.  So yes, listen to what people have to say, but then weigh it against your own life, your own conscious; talk it over with God.  If it doesn’t hold water, then leave it.  You’ll be better off.