The cause of social misery

Here is a brief Wesleyan account of the root causes of social evils. In a word, the cause is sin.

In his treatise on Original Sin, John Wesley gives the following example of the ways misery and poverty are ultimately traced back to sin.

Many families are miserable through want. They have not the conveniences, if the necessaries, of life. Why have they not? Because they will not work: Were they diligent, they would want nothing. Or, if not idle, they are wasteful; they squander away, in a short time, what might have served for many years. Others, indeed, are diligent and frugal too; but a treacherous friend, or a malicious enemy, has ruined them.; or they groan under the hand of an oppressor; or the extortioner has entered into their labours. You see, then, in all these cases, want (though in various ways) is the effect of sin. But is there no rich man near? none that could relieve these innocent sufferers, without impairing his own fortune? Yes; but he thinks of nothing less. They may rot and perish for him. See, more sin is implied in their suffering.

Wesley argues that miseries of many kinds — from that of individuals to that of nations — can be traced back to sin. And these sins are always a case of willful actions or omissions. Wesley did not look to impersonal or systematic causes of social evils. Sin was the cause and sinners were in one way or another the agents of misery.

The role of the church in the face of these things was to identify the sin, convict the sinner, and thereby relieve the suffering and redeem souls at the same time.

This is slow work, of course. And in a culture where people reject the gospel out of hand, it is a solution that many people cannot even contemplate. In such cases, it falls to the church to care for those who suffer, to continue to witness to the gospel, and to lay down its life for others so long as sin runs free.

This is what the church has done through the ages when it is at its best.

Male sin vs. female sin?

I’ve heard variations on this idea before. Do you think it is the case — as presented here — that men and women are tempted to different kinds of sin?

Many women have negated self so much that we no longer have a self to surrender to God. The primary meaning many of us find is in identification with the lives of others. When the husband or children are joyful, sad, or pensive, we feel likewise, taking on the feelings of others, instead of being a self that is related to God apart from these relationships. Women are not inherently more “good” than males. Women are just as sinful, but in different ways. Valerie Saiving provided a valid list of the sins women are tempted toward: sins of distraction, diffuseness, triviality, sentimentality, avoiding responsibility, mistrusting reason, lacking centeredness, disrespect of boundaries, and passivity. These temptations seem trivial to males (and may even appear to males as virtues). But for women, they’re sins just as much as lust, rage, and power-seeking. Women can be tempted to find their identity completely in others instead of God and are tempted to give their entire selves to others, leaving no self left to surrender to God.

Are these things evil?

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

Here is my question today: Are these things evil or not?

I’m not interested in whether we would say these things are imprudent or potentially contrary to our own interests.

Are they, as Jesus says, evil?

Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?

When grammar changes theology

John Wesley loved 1 John. He wrote that it contained the essence of biblical faith, and many of his particular doctrinal emphases can be found in that book.

It is one of those books where translation versions make important differences in what you read. For instance, here is 1 John 3:6 in the NIV:

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

And here it is in the NRSV:

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

I’ve heard a preacher using the NIV text to argue that the point being made by the apostle is that if we persist in sinning we do not live in Christ. Of course, the preacher said, we all sin. The important issue is whether we make a habit of it or whether we keep on sinning.

This is not John Wesley’s take on this text, which reads in the King James much more like the NRSV than the NIV. For Wesley, here and elsewhere the point of the apostle is that being in Christ is incompatible with any sin. As it says in 1 John 1:5, God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

For Wesley, abiding in Christ is a moment by moment thing sustained by the active co-operation of the Spirit entering the believer and believer breathing out love and prayer in the Spirit. While we abide in Christ we cannot sin.

I don’t know whether the grammar of the Greek supports the Wesleyan reading or the NIV translation. The verb tense here, though, carries a lot of meaning. Or it seems to.

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.