It’s easy to suggest that if only everybody made the effort to be good, and to stop being bad, then the world’s problems would be solved. There are many Christian texts that support this view. St Paul writes “Everybody must be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself.” (Phil 2:2) But although there are many texts like this, St Paul also makes it clear that however hard we humans try to be good, we do not always succeed. He knows this because before he became a Christian he was one of those very strict Jews, that Jesus was often in conflict with, called the Pharisees. They had a very strict code of life and believed that being perfect was possible.
St Paul certainly wanted people to aim to be perfect, but also to face the reality that something more was needed if people were to be acceptable to God. He writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind.” (Romans 7:19-23) I expect we all know what that is like, when we get irritable with people we live with, and make some cutting remark, or even lose our temper and say things that later we regret. Then we might, with St Paul again say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Well maybe we wouldn’t be as dramatic as that, but we certainly wish at times like these that there was something that would stop us when we go over the top like this, and hurt someone we love!
Christianity is based on this view that however hard we humans try, sometimes we will fail. Jesus knew this only too well which is surely why he expresses again and again how much God loves us even when we mess up. It is however absolutely central to our Christian faith that we admit that we fail, that unlike some people out there in the world, we do not have a “so what” attitude. Some of you may have seen that shown on the TV recently, when a man was found parking in a disabled space, who when challenged simply said “So what?”- thus displaying no sense that he might have done something wrong. This ignorance of what is right and what is wrong is normal in a tiny child. Gradually, good parents teach their children about caring about others and sharing what they have. What is sad is that some are either never taught or never learn, and carry on being selfish even when they are adults. At its worst that leads to the violence and war that is reported to us every day, and we just wish would not happen.
Of course we think that we’re not like that, don’t we? And that is our danger. That we begin to think that we, unlike those other people, are good and kind all the time, and conveniently forget the other times when we have failed, as well as the many other times when we could have done good but didn’t. Then, we are like the son in another story told by Jesus, who said he would go and work in the vineyard, but failed to go. (Matt 21:28-32)
We Christians have a couple of technical terms that we use to describe this situation in which we find ourselves – with war and violence around us, and the failings that we can’t cope with within us. We call the whole messy situation “The Fall”. This comes from the idea that God intended us to be good and perfect from the beginning, but by giving us free will, also allowed us to fail. And fail we did! It’s expressed in the story told at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2:15-3:19) where the story teller imagines man and woman living originally in a beautiful garden in perfect harmony with each other and with the world around them. But then they become aware of other things they could do that were not good, and so everything goes wrong and they have to leave the garden for the big hard world outside. Yes – the story of Adam and Eve. That’s the Fall.
Our second technical term is the one we use to describe the way each of us seems programmed to mess up sometimes, despite our best intentions. We call this “original sin”. This is not the same as “the sins” – plural – that we commit. By sins we mean all our imperfections and failures, not just very bad things. No, original sin (singular) is something in all of us humans that we cannot solve, that leave us like St Paul, from earlier, saying “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Death!- you might say – surely it’s not as bad as that? Well yes it is, because we Christians believe that if we are to be with God in eternal life when we die, we must be perfect as he is perfect, and that is just what we cannot be, despite our best efforts. And the alternative to eternal life is eternal death.
Next week I am going to talk about the Christian solution to this mess, this problem that we humans find ourselves in; but in order for that to make sense we have to accept that we need a solution, that we need to be delivered, or to be saved – as we sometimes say. This is why we disagree with humanists and atheists. They can often be very good people – sometimes better than us – but they believe that humanity can save itself – that it is just a matter of everyone being kinder and more loving, and then the world will be at peace.
We Christians say that to think like that is to be like someone who is really ill, but doesn’t ask for help from a Doctor. People like that, who try to carry on, are simply stubborn fools who end up making the situation worse for themselves, even fatal, and make it worse for their family and friends too. We all need to ask others for help often, to be mutually interdependent – “to have a common purpose and common mind” – but we also need to turn to help from those who have the means to cure us – the Doctor if we are ill – but God – the invisible power of love – for the rest.