Bad to the Bone: Original Sin
By Audrey Stallsmith
In my first novel Genna Leon admits, "It is difficult, finding out that you’re not a nice person after all. I remember when it happened to me. It was when your dog was a puppy. He blundered through a bed of very delicate seedlings I’d just set out because he was so eager to see me, and I smacked him for it.
"It suddenly occurred to me that that’s how they show someone is a villain in a book, by having them take out their temper on animals. So then, of course, I had to try to prove to myself that I really wasn’t that bad. Only I couldn’t."
With the exception that the puppy involved was my own, that incident actually happened to me. Modern proponents of positive-thinking and self-affirmation would, no doubt, argue the whole thing was quite trivial. They would probably also advise that I smile approvingly at my reflection in the mirror every morning while repeating firmly, "I am a good person. I am a good person."
It wouldn’t work because, deep down, I would never believe it. That incident was, after all, only one of many leading me to the conclusion that I was rotten at the core. As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce, "You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did." Jeremiah expressed it even more emphatically. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)
Positive thinkers would probably blame my sense of guilt on my fundamentalist upbringing. But, like Philip Yancey, I don’t regret my conservative religious background.
As he asserted in I Was Just Wondering, guilt does have its uses, one of those being to keep us humble, "a state which Jesus required as a prerequisite for inheriting the kingdom of God." Knowledge of our own weakness makes us less likely to judge others too!
Fundamentalism is, after all, only an adherence to fundamentals--to basics, to essentials. And one of those fundamentals is that, because the first humans chose to detach themselves from God, we are all born alienated from our Creator. Since God is the source of all good, as long as we keep our distance from Him, we naturally incline in the other direction.
This doctrine didn’t make me feel uptight and repressed like some think it must. Rather, it brought a large sense of relief, because it explained my difficulty. If I had not been made aware from the pulpit every Sunday that my problem was one common to all humanity, a younger and much more melodramatic me probably would have deduced I must be an aberration.
I think it was Chesterton who described the doctrine of original sin as the only part of Christianity that can be proved. Our founding fathers were well aware of man’s basic weakness when they made it constitutionally impossible for any one politician to get too much power.
I compare the person who has become aware of his spiritual defect to the person who knows he is seriously ill, only to have doctor after doctor assure him it’s all in his mind. When the patient finally meets a physician who can actually tell him what is wrong with him, he will fall on the M.D.’s neck with cries of relief. The patient is not happy he’s sick. He’s overjoyed because, now he knows what the disease is, he can find treatment for it.
The fact of our being inclined towards evil does not, of course, excuse our giving in to it. We each have a different besetting sin or sins. But people who say they can’t help yielding to theirs because they were born that way imply that, like puppets, they have no control over their actions.
They’re also calling God a liar, since He made it quite plain from the beginning that we have the power to choose. After all, if we slavishly gave in to all of our inclinations, a large number of us would eat junk food all day and die before we were forty!
We often do succeed in teaching ourselves to like what is good for us physically. And, some self-disciplined people might succeed, on their own, in avoiding outward sins. But it’s the inner ones that will get you! Only God’s Spirit--returning to fill up the vacuum in us left by His absence--can change us from the inside out and restore in us a taste for righteousness.
Genna describes her attempt at self-justification as "sort of like those wretched heels I was wearing today. They might make my legs look good and give me a little artificial height. But they pinch and warp in the process, not to mention making me all teetery and insecure. Kicking off my delusions about myself was a little lowering to begin with, but it got rid of a lot of tension."
Or, as Lewis phrased it, "We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living."
Lest this seem like a form of the fatalism Christianity abhors, I will hasten to add that this relief is not a giving up. Rather, it is a delayed acknowledgement of the reality that we cannot cure our congenital spiritual condition on our own. By surrendering to the Physician who has been trying to catch up with us all along, we are finally taking action against our malady.
But many of us still persist in seeing Francis Thompson’s "Hound of Heaven," who follows with "unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace," as our adversary. In our fallen condition we cannot help but find His presence painful, after all. Like the dazzling glare of winter sun off of snow, His holiness illuminates the filth in lives we thought reasonably clean.
In one of my favorite romantic suspense novels, Madam, Will You Talk? one of Mary Stewart’s heroines is chased all over France by a man she has been told is a killer. Anybody who knows romances will have no trouble deducing that the pursuer turns out to be the hero. But, for the first several chapters, the poor girl never stops running long enough to find out what he’s really like.
In nightmares also, if you quit fleeing and turn to confront your stalker, you will often discover him to be a friend after all. But, unfortunately, in a world that glorifies those who "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" (a physical impossibility, by the way), too many are unwilling to admit they need help.
In Dante, The Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers posits pride as "the head and root of all sin, both original and actual. . .making self instead of God, the centre about which the will and desire revolve." Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking agrees sin is "whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes God and others away."
Sayers also expands the definition of sloth to encompass the attitude behind sin in general, describing it as, "that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference. . .extends to the deliberate refusal of joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair."
We can combine these ideas by saying original sin is a form of selfishness, the kind of pride that feels the compulsion to protect and exalt itself even when, to do so, is to wall itself off from joy. But, fortunately, God wasn’t willing to let us go that easily. He came down here, not only to pay for our sins with His own life, but to show us the drastic cure for our condition.
Among the dozens of truths illustrated by His crucifixion is the requirement that we must stop protecting (excusing) ourselves, and allow our old prideful natures to be crucified instead. "Die before you die," one of Lewis’s characters advises bluntly in Till We Have Faces. "There’s no chance after."
In Stewart’s novel, once the heroine has really met the hero, she capitulates quickly. She tells him what he needs to know before he even has a chance to explain himself to her. The hero is properly humbled by that trust because he knows he doesn’t deserve it.
God, on the other hand, does. And, after Calvary, we cannot say He never revealed His true nature to us. He is also the only one who can reveal our true natures to us--what we were originally intended to be.
People who decry fundamentalism seem to forget it also teaches that we were made in God’s image and that He loves us more than we can comprehend. That almost-too-good-to-be-true message is one that not even the most positive thinker could have dreamed up! It means that all of us have the potential to be heroes.
God only asks that, in turn, we allow the sin He cannot tolerate to be killed, so we can come home to Him and to each other. (Whether this sanctification happens instantaneously or gradually is a thorny denominational issue that I would rather not tackle just now. I suspect that, like salvation itself, it is different for each person.)
All our self-centeredness and self-consciousness only made us miserable anyway. Humans are the happiest when they aren’t thinking about themselves, when they aren’t even aware of themselves, because they are so preoccupied with larger things.
In Lunacy and Letters, Chesterton found "the strongest personalities in the people who do not know that they have any. Waters that are rushing upwards and outwards. . .It is only the sinking waters that swirl inwards to their own center. . ."
The surprising thing about accepting your limitations is that, when you are no longer the center of it, the world suddenly seems a much larger and more fabulous place. Chesterton once said something to the effect that "Alice must grow small to be Alice in Wonderland."
When you realize you don’t deserve your forgiveness, you become like the child who, expecting punishment, receives an unexpected gift instead. Incredulous, overjoyed, and yes, relieved. As the pursuer reassures Thompson in the end, "Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,/ I am he whom thou seekest!/ Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me."