Kierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.
But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.
This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.
C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:
When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.
Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.
Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”
Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:
You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”
Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.
Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s. Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).
Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.
Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:
Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.
Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)
Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.
Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”
Soli Deo Gloria
This is great, Derek. Thanks for your work on this. You’re going to make it into my pulpit tomorrow!
That’s great to hear. One of my greatest prayers is it that stuff I write helps the preaching in actual churches.
Everyone cited in this post I love. Especially Kierkegaard and Barth. Thanks for this!