“Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be” by Cornelius Plantinga

Make no mistake, this is a book about sin. It is about the hideous nature of sin, the way it corrupts, destroys, and slowly sucks the life out of people. It is not the kind of thing most people want to talk about these days. Sin has been replaced with “dysfunction”, “addiction”, “syndrome” and a host of other terms that remove any responsibility from us, all in a vain effort to alleviate our guilt and shame. Plantinga pulls no punches when he discusses the nature of sin and the motivators behind it.

Crucial to Plantinga’s approach is a biblical understanding of Shalom, or Peace. When talking about Shalom, he dreams, along with the writers of the Bible, of a time when true peace would reign. Shalom is more than an absence of war, rather it is the presence of so much that is good and desirable; “a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people would go to sleep without weapons in their laps”. pg 9

Sin destroys peace. It destroys the Shalom between God and man and within humanity. According to Plantinga, sin is not just the breaking of some arbitrary law. It is the breaking of a covenant relationship with our creator and a breaking of relationship with our fellow human beings. “Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God” pg 13 For people who chafe against rules for rules sake and want to claim that we should have the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, this definition of sin should cause them pause. In a very real way at least two someones are alway hurt by our rebellion, us and God. We violate and vandalize the peace we have with God when we sin.

Among the many ways Plantinga talks about sin, perhaps the two that most took hold of me were sin as a parasite and sin as self-swindling. As a parasite sin has no life of its own. It must attach itself to me in order to feed itself. In the process it slowly sucks the life out of me. It is a tick that you don’t even acknowledge until it has begun to bury its head under your skin and chew its way deeper into you. You can remove the visible part on the surface but risk leaving the head inside to continue its damage. The picture of sin as a self-swindler brings out how easily we fool ourselves into thinking this will be something good, something harmless, something meaningless. In the end we find that the swindler has raided our personal accounts and walked off with everything leaving us destitute and guilty of self-destruction.

As harsh as this book may sound it is in fact a very encouraging book. Not in the sense that you will walk away from it filled with delight, but rather you will walk away from it with courage and conviction. There is something about the way Plantinga portrays sin with such honesty and visceral clarity that is actually refreshing. I had the feeling that finally someone was talking sense about sin and even though it was painful to see myself in so many of his examples, there was hope in the honesty. The way sin has been mostly dealt with in our day is to down play its impact, try to convince us that it is not as serious as we think it is and to just relax. Yet I feel that most of us, if we are honest, have long had a sense that as Plantinga says, this is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. Something is seriously wrong and we are being told, don’t worry you will be fine. It’s like going to a doctor because you have this nagging sense that something is desperately wrong with your heart, you can feel it, sense it, it pains you. You go to the doctor, he does a less than cursory exam and says, “Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it. Everyone has this”. It bugs you and nags you for years until one day another doctor looks at you and says, “This is serious. You have a condition that could kill you at any moment. That anxiety you have been experiencing is well placed. We need to correct this now”. As hard as it would be to hear that doctor’s diagnosis there would be a sense of relief that finally you have someone being honest with you about the deadly nature of your disease. That is exactly what Plantinga does. And like any good doctor he provides a treatment, through Christ, to deal with that sin and bring true Shalom into your life.

At under 200 pages and with the honor of being the 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year, there is no excuse for not reading this book.

Blessed are the Merciful: The Irony of Angry Christians

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I continue to be perplexed at the anger and rejection that so many Christians heap on people whose sin is obvious and public. What befuddles me is that this is about as far from doing what Jesus did as you can get. I look at how Jesus treats the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or the drunks and prostitutes. What I see in Jesus is a savior who was completely committed to holiness and glorifying God in all he did. Yet, He did not allow that commitment on His part to result in condemnation of those who consistently wrestled with sin and lost. Rather Jesus showed great mercy to those people. He certainly called out their sin and challenged them to live a holy life. But at the same time He empathized with their weakness and sought to lift them to higher things. And He did this even though He never sinned and therefore never needed that kind of mercy.
In the beatitudes Jesus has made it clear that we are spiritually bankrupt and in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy. If you are a follower of Christ you have received that mercy, countless times over. Knowing that we have received such wonderful mercy, how can we do other than to pass that mercy on to others?
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. It is about a man who was forgiven a monstrous debt by his master. The debt was so large that it would take the average worker in Jesus day, 200,000 years to earn that much. He was forgiven something he could never pay. The servant later comes upon a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of about three months wages. That fellow servant asks for time to pay the debt. The man refuses to give him time and in great anger, throws him in debtors prison along with his wife and children. Later, the master hears of this and in his just anger, throws the servant in prison for the rest of his days. Jesus makes the point that He is the master and we are the servants who, because of the cross and resurrection, have been forgiven a debt we could never pay. In light of that, how dare we spout vitriol and anger at people who have sinned against us in significantly smaller ways. How dare we not show mercy to a fellow debtor.
Giving people mercy simply means to not push on them the punishment that they deserve for what they have done. If you throw yourself on the “mercy of the court” you are saying, yes I am guilty but please do not punish me to the extent I deserve”. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have thrown yourself on the mercy of His cosmic court. And you have received mercy. Having freely received, we are to freely give. It doesn’t mean that we fail to call sin what it is. It means that we call it what it is, but we let a person know, we will not heap anger, rejection, punishment or suffering on them, because we have received a far great mercy from the Lord.
There is a symbiotic relationship at work here. We have received mercy from the Lord so we give mercy to others. When we do, we will continue to receive mercy. When we don’t give that mercy, we can be assured that we will not be receiving it. The unforgiving servant learned that sad lesson.