Posted by: dacalu | 25 February 2012

Good Will


Today, I would like to say a word or two about the will as it relates to sin, but also as it relates to nature.  Much ink has been spilt – and no little blood – over the question of sin and fault.  I care deeply about Jesus’ good words in the sermon on the mount about sin coming from our internal motivations and not just from our actions (Matthew 5) and I am also highly skeptical of our being responsible for the sins of our mothers and fathers.  That said, I want to shift the debate away from the question of who’s fault it is, and move to the pragmatic issue of what it is, how it relates to our will, and what is to be done about it.

First, as to what it is, I know of three common concepts of sin from the Bible:  to miss the mark, to trespass, and to be in debt.  Curiously, none of these metaphors requires a willful act.  I might be a poor marksman and shoot at the target without hitting it.  Thus one may sin from lack of training.  Second, I might be walking in the woods and, without knowing it, cross over into someone else’s territory.  Thus one may sin by lack of awareness.  Third, I legitimately could be born into a country that had already squandered its resources (like Greece – or the US) and thus inherit a debt.  So sin may come through no fault of my own.

I’m not buying into original sin here (though I’m more and more tempted to do so).  All I’m saying is that the will need not be involved in sin.  And yet, we are all tempted to think it must be.  So let us explore how sin came to have it’s current meaning.

Jesus tells us that sin is not about what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it.  He argues (Mt. 15:11) against an idea of purity, that we are ritually or in some way fundamentally sullied by not obeying the letter of the law.  This was a popular conception among the Sadducees.  For them, God was like a nuclear reactor.  Righteousness is like a radiation suit, the slightest tear and you would be liable to radiation poisoning when entering the presence of God.  The Israelites were not asked to be pure for the sake of purity, but because they operated in a dangerous environment.  Notable, non-Israelites did not need to follow the same rules because they were not living in the company of God.


Jesus changes our notion of sin.  Some of the Israelites had become more interested in the protocol than they were in keeping people healthy.  So Jesus switches the metaphors.  It’s not the prescribed actions that are important, but the offenses against love.  It’s not just not committing adultery, it’s never lusting after married people.  It’s not just not killing people, it’s never acting (or even speaking) in a way that harms. It’s not about protocol, it’s about people.

I think this is often misinterpreted to mean that sin is not about what you do, but about what you want.  That interpretation, however, really doesn’t line up with the metaphors of debt, trespass, and missing the mark.  So how did it come to be so popular?  Here we come again to religion and science.

Thomas Aquinas divided the world into a spiritual creation (angels and souls) and a physical creation (animals and human bodies).  He thought that there were two completely different orders of reality that only overlapped in the human hybrid (body + soul, a la Aristotle).  For him, the physical creation had no will and, therefore, must obey the will of God.  Angels and humans, though, could fall from grace – and did.  The rest of creation either existed in a perfect state or was broken after the fall of humankind (the governors of creation).  This risks making will a bad thing.  Either go with the flow and be good, or will to move off the track and fall into sin.  Aquinas sees this trap and steps around it, but his followers didn’t always.  By the fifteenth century, the church had again fallen into the habit of thinking that specific actions were more important than their consequences.  Luther and Calvin reminded us that the protocols are for the sake of the people, not the other way around.  The law was made for humans and not humans for the law.   So they reintroduced the idea of sin as broken relationships, but by this time, people were committed to the separate creations of Aquinas, later to the body and mind of Descartes.  And so the question of faith and works had to return as well.  No it’s not just about protocol; it’s about staying healthy.  And yes contamination still occurs, but it’s a matter of predestination, not choice.

In each case, the focus has moved from what you did to what you accomplished, but what you accomplish has as much to do with your internal state – your orientation to others – as it does with your external state – your actions.  It’s a balance.  We have to fend off salvation by works on the one hand and salvation by personal choice on the other.  In both cases, we must resist moving the saving action from God to humans.

Alas, I think we’ve come around again.  Or maybe we’ve always been there.  A group of Christians now claim that you can be saved by righteousness.  Just avoid sinning.  The progressives run the risk of trusting in their social action works while the fundamentalists run the risk of trusting in their wills.  Both theories make people complacent.  If only I care about people…  If only I accept Jesus…  If only will not to sin…

But we don’t even own our own will.  Enlightenment thinkers proposed that the body was constrained, but the will might choose and outcome and seek after it.  Modern neurobiology gives lie to this, but so did Paul.  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15.  Our will is constrained.  It is God that saves.

Don’t get me wrong.  We must will to the extent of our ability, but I believe we are limited by our birth, our conditioning, perhaps even our talent.  The goal is to make the most of the options we have (sanctification) while trusting God to redeem the situation (justification).

It is not enough to not will sin.  We must will the good.  Jesus admonitions in Matthew 5 are about the options we have to overcome the default selfishness to which we are prone by evolution, the default ignorance to which we are prone by circumstance.  Sin happens when we’re not paying attention to others and to relationships.  Salvation is not about a one time reset done by God;  it’s all about our continually willing the good, nurturing relationships with God and one another, allowing God to redeem us.  That’s not a single act of will, it is a state of being, it is character.

As long as we believe in a totally free will, we cannot reconcile neurology with sin.  We must either choose neurological determinism – brains cause actions; or pretend – against all evidence – that our bodies do not affect our choices.  If, instead, we recognize that sin is a state of brokenness, into which we may fall through apathy as well as intention, then we can speak of the best choices made by a will under constraint.  Neurology again becomes a friend of ethics and theology.

So I would encourage you to think of your will as a positive thing, as a way to avoid the pitfalls of simple existence, as an opportunity to build the kingdom of God.  What is sin?  A broken relationship – or to further break a relationship.  How does it relate to will?  We may either break fellowship or allow it to dissolve through neglect.  What to do about it?  Will the good – not the single good, the single path from which all movement is deviation, but the many and infinite goods God allows us to explore.  No relationship is the default.  There is a single emptiness, where you and I are completely unconnected. There are so many glorious and varied bridges we might build.  That’s what the will is for.  That’s why I think the will is good.



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