The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard 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

5 Theses on The Knowledge of God (Or, Bavinck Puts Himself in a Nutshell)

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck developed one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated theologies of revelation of the early 20th Century. I was remarking to a friend the other day that one simply has to trade out a few of the names, update a few references here and there, and Bavinck could have cranked it out last year. What’s more, it’s stunning in its comprehensiveness and continued relevance.  The first volume of the Reformed Dogmatics alone clocks in at just over 600 pages and he continues to work out some of the implications and corollaries in the first pages of volume two on God and creation.

Of course, summarizing it all would be impossible. And yet in one helpful little passage, Bavinck does us the favor of summarizing himself in five broad points on the nature of our knowledge of God in revelation:

  1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.
  2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.
  3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, this is, with the existence of finite being.
  4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God in himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his natural, in his habitual disposition to his creatures. Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.
  5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, pg. 110

To paraphrase:

If you know anything about God, it’s because God himself has revealed it. We can’t reason our way up to God, or imagine what God is like on our own power, or natural, human abilities. For us to know what God is like, he has to take the initiative to tell us.

For him to do this inevitably involves adjusting himself to our limitations, so to speak, by using human language, concepts, and created reality to point beyond itself to the uncreated. Calvin described this as a nurse talking in baby-talk to the child she’s caring for, stooping to the child’s level to be understood.

Now, this initially seems problematic. Isn’t it possibly idolatrous to compare God to creation? Bavinck says not inherently so, because God himself created everything for the purpose of revealing his glory. In other words, creation is already suited to the task by God’s own humble and glorious design, as evidenced by the fact that we, as the crown of creation, are made to be Image-bearers.

That said, all of our knowledge of God is analogical–for every human or created thing we say God is like, we also have to see he is also unlike and beyond. These created pictures don’t reveal all there is to know about God, or exhaustively capture the reality of what the analogy is pointing to. As I’ve put it elsewherewhen you’re saying something about God or reading it in the Bible–whether about his being or emotions or something else–you have to insert a little qualifier because you’re comparing the transcendent, uncreated one to something created. Kind of like, “God is good (but not exactly the way you think of good)”, or “God is strong (and that is an understatement so serious you don’t have a category for it)”, or “God is angry (but you can’t think of it like sinful human anger)”, or “God repented (but not in the way that implies he didn’t know what he was doing)”. It’s like, but also unlike.

Of course, that doesn’t mean our knowledge of God isn’t any good. Simply because we don’t know God as fully as he knows himself, that doesn’t mean we don’t know him at all, or even falsely. No, our analogous knowledge is perfectly adequate knowledge, true and trustworthy, though suited to our cognitive capabilities.

So there you have it–Bavinck in a nutshell. Hopefully, that whets your appetite for the full dosage. I mean, if he can get all that done in brief paragraph, imagine what he can do with four volumes?

Soli Deo Gloria 

Quick-Blog #3: How Do We Come to Know About God?

If God exists, then coming to know what he’s like is surely the most important task we could set ourselves. Not only would we be studying the deepest reality of the universe, but the source of all other reality–in which case, learning about him would seem crucial for knowing the deepest truth about everything else. How then do we come to know about God? William Placher helpfully points us to the simple but profound answer that Christians have been giving for centuries:

In sum, Christians say, if you want to know about God, you need to know about Jesus, and if you want to know about Jesus, you need to read some Bible stories: first stories about Jesus himself, then stories about God’s covenant history with Israel and about the early church. The stories about Jesus provide a kind of center around which we can interpret the other stories we find in the Bible, and the whole collection of biblical stories helps us understand all the other stories in the world.

-William C. Placher, The Triune God, pg. 46

It really doesn’t get more simple than that. God has come to his world in the Word, Jesus Christ. (John 1:9, 14) The word of God, the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures is where we read about him, especially in the Gospels. To understand those properly, you have to read those as the fulfillment of the long history of God’s dealings in the world with his chosen people, Israel. When you begin to immerse yourself in those stories, understand yourself in light of that grand drama, the sweep of history, the deep moments in every other story, every movie, every fable, every play that rings true, every episode in your life freighted with meaning, begins to take on its proper sense in light of the wonder of God come among us.

So, how do you come to know about God? Go read your Bible. Look for Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria