In N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, he argues that all world-stories (I like that term better than world-views, largely because it doesn’t try to turn moving pictures into static landscapes) have some notion of what’s wrong and what, if anything, sets that wrong to rights. What makes such world-stories interesting is that, when one examines them next to each other, narratives about what makes bad things bad, how things got bad, and why human beings should care can vary wildly.
As the season of Lent draws near (next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent), I’ve been thinking about how I tend to situate sin when I’m telling the big-picture world-story (not the same as a metanarrative, but that’s for another conversation) of creation and redemption and such. And since I write this weekly (most weeks, anyway) Bible post as part of my sermon prep, I’m going to try out the structure that I’ve got outlined here to see if the dog will hunt. So pardon if I go away from the standard essay format of the weekly lectionary reflection here, but I’m going to be preaching Psalm 32 on Sunday, and I’m going to structure the homily as a series of responses to sin-questions.
When is a sin a sin?
I’ve seen a dozen systematic definitions of what makes human acts, human dispositions, social systems, and other things sins, sinful, manifestations of capital-S Sin, and so on. And Psalm 32 certainly seems to be in the same neighborhood, even as the emphasis here takes the big question of sin in a direction I usually don’t spend time thinking on, namely that sins are always part of a narrative of redemption, and until they’re part of that narrative, they might not be sins at all.
Now don’t get me wrong here–I’m not making some sort of reductionist or relativist move and saying that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder or anything like that. I am saying, however, that the Psalm is concerned first and foremost with confession and forgiveness, two moments in the story of sin that refuse to consider sin in the abstract. For the Psalm, the worst sort of sin is the sin unconfessed, the act that lingers in the shadowy space encompassed neither by stories of salvation and witness-bearning nor by stories of wrong-doing and giving-account for the wrong act. To leave an act lying in that darkness between stories, to neglect it or even willfully refuse to bring it into the story of forgiven failures, means that I have not named it as evil and thus continue to allow it to live too close, its deathly influence remaining because I will not speak it as something that I was wrong to do. Whether I try to insulate myself from the deed by rationalizing why I “had to” do it, or whether I attempt to make it a positive good by some sort of dishonest “higher aim” in which it participates, the unconfessed sin is deadly precisely because it is not a sin yet and thus cannot be confessed as such.
When is a sinner righteous?
The Psalm reminds the faithful that the humility that comes with confession does no harm but actually allows for a good life that emerges only out of forgiveness. When the Psalmist sings (and we sing with the Psalmist) “I will confess,” we become, by the force of that confessions, sinners. No longer does the unnamed act define the Psalmist’s character (or ours); instead, the confession becomes the central act, the shape of the life, and the sin becomes merely an early act in an ultimately redemptive drama, the captivity in Egypt before the Exodus, the Babylonian exile from which Israel has returned.
In other words, forgiveness is righteousness. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve wondered often whether the Garden of Eden doesn’t tell us more about the move from youth to adulthood than it does about an abstract “rebellion” in which all human beings participate. After all, most of us don’t develop what I’d call a knowledge of good and evil as children; instead, someone beyond myself tells me to do this, not to do that, and so on. Then adulthood happens when our fears, usually extrapolated from rather than recalled from authoritative commandments (in other words, the move from “don’t eat that” to “if you even touch that you’ll die”), dissolve before us, and we find ourselves not only knowing good from harmful but usually also working some sort of sweat-inducing job and sometimes facing the prospects of living with our own children.
But confession of sins doesn’t always work that way, and the really powerful moments of confession, at least in my memory, result not from my acknowledging that I’ve done something wrong just for the sake of doing wrong (I’m not even sure what that would look like) but pursuing something that in the moment seems good but later, when I tell the story of that previous episode, stands as a captivity to desires that did not deserve the loyalty that I granted them. Such stories always involve something gracious, gratuitous, even: after all, if I had the capacity to see an act as bad, I would not have wanted to do it. Instead, some agency, whether a conversation or a book or some other experience that jars my mind–and here I’d invoke the notion of secondary causation to say that God is somewhere in there–entered into my own story, and I suddenly had the will and the ability to confess what once was good, now as a sin.
When can the wretched be blessed?
Like so many other Psalms, Psalm 32 takes a surprising turn at the end, the speaker no longer addressing YHWH in a mode of narrative but turning to the assembled listeners and taking on the role of a wisdom-teacher. The faithful must live in covenant, whether because wisdom guides them to seek out forgiveness for love of righteousness or whether YHWH must treat them like animals, controlling them with bit and bridle. Thus the Psalm wraps up with a call to blessedness, but not by means simply of speaking one’s blessedness. Instead, the righteous, who are always the forgiven, stand to live within the hesed, the extended benevolence of YHWH, the good life that awaits only those who will sing their own songs of deliverance.
Ultimately that’s what interests me about the season of Lent: the same big-picture movement from wretchedness to deliverance that marks the story of Joseph’s journey into Egypt and Moses’s out of Egypt, the confession that we were unable even to see our sins as Sin before grace gave us ability to confess, is not something that the Church, in its centuries-long wisdom, trusts us to remember. Instead, in the shape of the Christian calendar, just as spring begins (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), as we’re inclined to think of regeneration as something that will happen without a will to tell the story differently, our Scripture readings (and sometimes other parts of our liturgy as well) insist that ours is no mere winter of the soul but a season where we rushed to worship idols, desired partial goods and neglected ultimate Goodness, abandoned the love that is due only to God for the love of ourselves-as-gods. Lent reminds us to be forgiven by becoming sinners, to receive the gift of redemption by speaking out loud that we weren’t all that gifted to begin with. And for forty days out of the year, that’s not a bad thing to remember.
May our confessions tell our stories truthfully. May our sins be strong, and may our faith be stronger.