Posted by: dacalu | 18 February 2015

Pain, Tension, and Sin

Pain associated with stress often comes from tensing our muscles. Headaches, backaches, even stomach aches result when we tighten our muscles and don’t release them. A simple way of relaxing involves stretching or intentionally tensing the muscles even further. These actions remind our bodies that they have more than one state – they can be more tense or they can be more relaxed. Awareness of sin works much the same way.

Our default picture of sin looks like ink spilled on cotton; sin is a stain. At best we can avoid it. At worst we can wash it away afterwards. This picture doesn’t help. Think about muscle tension. Worrying about avoiding tension leads to more tension. You have to contract your muscles if you want to get things done. You can’t avoid muscle tension. Instead you have to contract and release at the right times. Trying to wash the tension away would be an even sillier idea. Tension is not something to be removed, but a force to be relaxed. No amount of new force will make the old force go away.

Jesus speaks to this theme over and over again in the gospels. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:9) “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:27) Jesus responds by saying, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Paul devotes the entire letter of Romans to it (3:23-24 “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”) Stop thinking of sin as something to be shunned, fixed up, or mollified. How we can forget this as Christians never ceased to amaze me. [Proverbs 17:13; Matthew 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-45; Romans 12:17; I Peter 2:23; 3:8-13] No amount of new force will make the old force go away. No amount of pain will eliminate the pain. No amount of hatred will eliminate hatred, even hatred of sin.

What can we do? We can become aware of pain. We can admit that we are sinful, and by this, I mean we can look within ourselves and find the tension we will not let go. We can see the areas of conflict where we push against ourselves and where we strive against one another. Sin is not God’s dissatisfaction with us, but our dissatisfaction with ourselves. We must actually believe that if the gospel is to make sense. We must actually demonstrate it in our lives, if we are to help others in demonstrating it.

And here is the key – and the great challenge. I do not identify tension and conflict for the sake of resolving it. I identify it for the sake of recognition, so that I can stop ignoring and avoiding it. I recognize the forces moving within myself (and between me and you). And I live with them.

So easily we jump to fixing. Christianity is not about fixing. The problem has been solved, the price paid, the consequences dealt with. That’s the good news. We can let our troubles come to light without fear of God taking advantage of our weakness and without fear they will overwhelm us. We can live with our tensions.

Tread carefully now. I can just hear you saying, “But what good does it do? Why should we be aware of our sins? Aren’t we better off leaving them covered up?” I want to explain how the awareness can help. I am not explaining why the awareness helps. It is not awareness for the sake of fixing, but awareness for the sake of awareness. It works in this way, but this is not the purpose of it working. Once you think of awareness for the sake of judging or fixing, it ceases to be awareness and starts to be judging. It starts to be unhealthy again. We love our defense mechanisms. They stop us from noticing the tension and conflict – even when we cannot avoid the pain they cause. Since you asked – since we all want to know – I will explain how awareness can help. But remember my caution.

Just like with muscles, simply being aware of spiritual tension reminds us that we can exist in more than one state. We recall sin and practice righteousness in the same way a dancer or a martial artist practices their set routines. Ideally the body moves gracefully, without recourse to set points and postures. Ideally we flow with the current, with the music. Still, we must remind our bodies and our souls that they can occupy all these states. We must warm them up and familiarize them with their full range of motion, so that when the current comes, they can move with it.

We all hope to be carried away. We all hope to float. That, I think, comes very close to the concept of grace, to drift in the current of God’s will, to be at one with the motion of the cosmos. We tense and relax our spiritual muscles to remind us of the range of motion. We cannot achieve grace on our own; nor would we want to. We want to dance. We want to float. Who would think that tension would serve that end? Who would think that creating conflict might help? But it does.

We cannot deny sin any more than we can embrace it. Sin arises in our own conflicts. Sometimes I do what I do not want. Sometimes I want two incompatible things. This cannot be washed away or eliminated. Still, when we are aware of them, they become part of the normal process of life. We can let them go and get on with the business of being who we want to be.


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