I sometimes don’t understand the point of the cross. I don’t feel like I did anything bad enough for Jesus to die for. Some lustful thoughts that aren’t hurting anyone, an occasional lie that (again) doesn’t have consequences…Im not a great person, but almost nothing I or any “normal” person could do seems bad enough to earn Hell, or Jesus’s death. I want to feel thankful for it, but it’s hard when it also seems kinda unfair to make Jesus (or us) go through such wrath for such small things.
My friend, I know exactly what you mean, and I hope you will allow me the grace to dig deep on this one and perhaps challenge our thinking together. I won’t try to convince you that you’re so bad and sinful and evil, and I also think it’s way more complicated than that. We’re also free to disagree here, because I know that most of us do not see eye-to-eye on this one.
Before I even look at the idea of “sin,” I think it’s way more helpful to talk about our idea of “good.” In my entire pastoral ministry, I never had difficulty talking about “sin” to the addicts, the ex-convicts, the struggling, the criminals. They already knew they’ve messed it up.
My difficulty was always with very “good people,” because what could I say? They weren’t in desperate need for correction, for a Savior. They would hear the sermon and say, “Oh yeah, I already do all that stuff.” Most people in general are not doing black tar heroin or punching animals.
I came to Christ very late in life, and as an atheist, I absolutely believed that everyone was capable of moral good. I still do believe that. My morality back then was simple: I believed we all have a common human decency, and we ought to respect each other out of dignity. Anyone who didn’t do this was a jerk. I didn’t want to be a jerk. I thought this was common sense. If you needed a “God” to love people, then I thought: you’re already a terrible person.
When I heard about Jesus “dying for my sin,” I felt two things. 1) This is absolutely stupid, because I didn’t ask for anyone to die for me, and 2) I was aware of the wrong things I did, and so at the very least, Jesus made a pretty nice gesture.
Here’s where my logic turned into Swiss cheese: and as I’ve said before, we might not agree, and our journeys might look very different from here.
The Bible made it clear that my self-inflation and self-comparison were merely self-righteousness. To say, “I don’t want to be a jerk” is still a jerk-ish thing to say, because I’m instantly condemning others. My morality for “common human decency” was rigging my heart by pride, so that my motivation was to look like a good neighbor and upstanding citizen. I would look down on others if they were not.
On one hand, the “fear of God” is the worst kind of motivation to be a good person, but on the other hand, the fear of lettings others down or letting myself down was an equally false motivation. Even respecting each other out of “dignity” was grading myself on a moral paradigm of performance that would crush me or crush others. I was tricking my behavior while never really changing on the inside. I was using shame and guilt-trips to motivate me into morality: and we all do it.
If we’re motivated to do good to look good and get good back, then of course: none of this is very good. We need a pure motivation, a piercing kind of goodness that doesn’t need self-inflation.
Some of us are simply “bad” because we fall into being very “good.” Trying to escape your life by thrills is just as toxic as trying to elevate yourself by self-will.
In Colossians 2, Paul doesn’t call out the obvious bad things that we do. He says that our drive to be good people is a “deceptive philosophy.” It’s a sort of inner-flagellation with an “appearance of wisdom” and “self-worship” and “false humility,” and it “lacks any value to restrain sensual indulgence.” In other words: the only reason we’re good is so we don’t look bad, and it’s bad when that’s your only reason to be good.
The problem isn’t so much that I’m a “bad person,” but that I need healing from my selfishness. We can do good, but it’s always for the wrong reasons. I’m in constant seeking of approval and affirmation by my actions; I long for a love to tell me “You’re okay, you did great.” We yearn to hear, “Well done.” We want to be both fully known and fully loved, and until we get to Jesus and the love of his cross, we’re still in this desperate sin-filled race of validation.
Now it’s true that many of us might not do many wrong things. But our capacity for evil also runs way deeper than we think. No one is so bad that they’re beyond redemption, but no one is so good that they’re beyond corruption. This is the plotline of nearly every successful movie and TV show, from Breaking Bad to The Dark Knight to Rugrats.
I look at the genocide in Iraq, or the pyramid schemes of CEOs, or the 27 million slaves in the world: and I think, I’m definitely not as bad as the perpetrators of these crimes. I could never do what they did.
Then I think of myself in the same situation. I think, What if I had grown up with the same temptations, upbringing, cultural “values,” and corrupted ideologies as the oppressors? Would I be any better than them? Would I really be so much more sophisticated than the worst people in the world?
What if I was Adam or Eve in that Garden? How long before I would also rip the fruit off the tree?
You’ve heard of the Stanley Milgram Experiment. It’s quite famous for answering the question, How could these Nazi “doctors” exterminate so many people but go home to kiss their family? In other words, Did the Nazis simply follow orders? And as far as the experiment goes: it appears that most people are willing to electrocute someone against their screams, so long as we’re told to by an authority figure to keep pressing the button. Sixty-five percent of them kept going even when the subjects “died.”
Do you remember the old Twilight Zone episode called “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”? Hang with me here. This small town has its power shut off at random, and all the townspeople blame each other and start looting and setting fires and eventually kill someone. The surprise ending **spoilers** is that aliens were controlling the power to see how humans would react if you just shut off a few lights.
At the end, the aliens say this:
First Alien: Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers, throw them into darkness for a few hours, and then sit back and watch the pattern.
Second Alien: And this pattern is always the same?
First Alien: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch.
And the narrator says this:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men.
I know it’s just a TV show. But read the news long enough: and you’ll find people just like you and me, who never did a very wrong thing their whole lives, get thrown into a crazy situation and suddenly become the monsters on Maple Street.
All that to say: Each of us are capable of the worst atrocities imaginable, given the proper conflicts and resources and time. It only takes the quiet bubble of a suburban Westernized neighborhood to truly fool ourselves into thinking we’re “good people.” When you take away your roof, your toys, and your laws: we all become the enemy.
The only reason you probably haven’t killed your boss when you’re mad at him is because of the police. It’s also a lot of work to buy a shovel and dig a hole. The only reason you haven’t looted your local Walmart or punched your ex-boyfriend is because you’ve restrained yourself with societal norms.
Is that true goodness? Because in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies, we’re all the Governor. None of us are Rick. None of us are even as good as Carl.
We’re all two steps away from utter chaos.
The world is pretty crazy, but maybe we should be astonished that it’s not even as terrible as it could be.
I know who I really am inside. I’m a wretched, wicked, twisted up rebel. I’ve only been good out of self-righteous motives, to prove I’m good: which means I’ve never done any good on my own. None of us are truly altruistic at the core.
Yet such deep sin points to a deep need for a correction of the universe. How could we know things are very wrong unless there must be a very right? Why do we feel anguish at injustice unless we knew of justice? I’m sure a philosopher or psychologist or very witty blogger could beat me here point-by-point. I’ve heard them all, and frankly, I’m jaded by all the debating. I’ve lived long enough to know that we all love to justify ourselves to death, to get what we want, at the expense of each other. And this is more reason and not less to believe that a righteousness must be outside us, beyond us, supernatural, not from this world, but breaking in, in order to bring healing to a busted up people.
Jesus had to bear the curse of the hostility of a broken world, for all we could do and have done. And though he had to die for the depth of our sin, he was glad to die for the death of our sin: because he loves us.
I choose to believe, with my weak little faith, that the righteousness we need comes from Jesus. It’s out of his own self-initiated, one-way, just-because love, and he expects nothing back: which is the only way our hearts could be big enough to do the same. I believe, in the end, that the cross cuts us down to our true size and exposes our great need. But there in the cross, we also have a Great Savior, who does not say, "Look what you did to me," but instead, "Look what I’ve done for you." This is the only kind of grace that will wreck my sin and bring me back to who I was meant to be.