This sermon is part of the sermon series "Wicked". See series.
The early Christian movement had a list that is famous to this day: "The Seven Deadly Sins." The seven sins on the list were pride, envy, anger, laziness, greed, gluttony, and lust. I've committed all seven—repeatedly. And not just before I became a follower of Christ, but after. This very week, in fact. In other words, I am a sinner.
And that creates a problem. How do I live with my sin? How do I understand it? What is it doing to me? Why do I sin over and over again? And where is God in all my sin? How does he look at it, feel about it, react to it? Is it okay if it's just one time, but after a while—particularly when it's the same sin, over and over—does he just give up on me? Turn away in disgust? Withdraw himself from my life? Is the relationship over?
In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes these words:
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.
Is that you? Well, it's me. And I'm not alone. Listen to these words from the Bible from the apostle Paul:
I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do …. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Rom. 7:14-15; 18-19).
Today we begin a series called "Wicked"—a look at the complexities of our spiritual life in relation to our sin. As I've wrestled with this in my own life and worked with others wrestling with it in theirs, there are four big questions that we must dig into:
Who am I when I sin?
Who am I after I sin?
Who is God when I sin?
Who is God after I sin?
And I'm convinced that if we let the Bible answer those questions for us—and I mean dig deep and let God really say to us what he most wants us to understand—it will be life-changing.
I read the words of the apostle Paul a moment ago, but I didn't finish. Here's how he ended:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
In other words, as The message puts it, Paul is saying, "I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?"
Isn't that the real question we're asking? And the answer is,
Thank God, Jesus Christ can and does help. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different (Rom. 7:24-25).
That's what this series is going to explore—how God, through Jesus, brings what we need into our life to sort out the insanity of our sin and the desire of our hearts. We will also look at how he does this in the context of a relationship that interacts with our sin in pivotal ways. So if you're game to go deep on this, let's begin with the first of our big questions: Who am I when I sin?
I know I'm not who I want to be, much less who I was created to be. So who am I at that moment? What am I giving myself over to?
The first and only story
To answer that, let's go back to sin's first appearance in the human story. Because it's still the story of our lives. Let me read it to you, and then we'll unpack it a bit:
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:1-6).
The tree: rebellious
That's what happens when we sin. And it involves a tree, a serpent, and fruit. Let's start with the tree. God had created a paradise for Adam and Eve, and said, "It's all yours—the beauty, the pleasure, the wonderment of all that I've created. So run free, play, enjoy, create, eat from any tree, and drink from any stream." But then God said: "… but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
What was up with that? Why did God set aside one and only one tree, and say, "Whatever you do, don't eat from that one?" It's actually something that lies at the heart of our relationship with him. God created an opportunity—a choice—to make sure that the relationship between him and human beings was really going to be a relationship. That it was going to be something they chose to enter into, to honor, to give themselves to. It didn't have to be a tree he set aside—it could have been anything. But it was called "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" because it represented the decision as to whether they were going to determine good and evil for themselves, or follow God in that area.
They had a choice. They could do what God said—obey him, honor him—or they could determine what was good and evil for themselves. They could be their own gods. So the choice was not just about whether to obey, but whether or not to continue in the relationship. And they chose to go against God, just like we do. That's what sin is. At its heart, sin is always about rebellion.
So who are you when you sin? First and foremost, you are a rebel. We're like little kids whose parents tell them not to do something. A line is drawn that we're told not to cross. So what do we do? We go right up to the line and put our toe over it. I know we don't like to say that's who we are.
I'll never forget about a conversation Bill Hybels, who pastors a church outside of Chicago, had with someone early in the life of his church. After Bill had given a talk on sin, a guy came up to him after the service and said, "All this talk about sin is making me feel really bad. I for one don't consider myself a sinner."
Bill felt he could shoot straight with this guy, so he said, "Well, maybe you're not. Let me ask you a few questions. You've been married twenty-five years. Have you been absolutely one hundred percent faithful to your wife the whole time?" He laughed and said, "Well, you know, I'm in sales. I travel a lot." They both knew what he was admitting to.
"Okay," Bill said. "When you fill out your expense account, do you ever add something that wasn't strictly business?" "Everybody does that," he replied.
"Okay," Bill said. "And when you are out there selling your product, do you ever exaggerate—say it will do something it won't, or promise to ship it tomorrow when you know it won't go out until next Tuesday?" The guy replied, "That's the industry standard."
Then Bill looked straight at him and said, "Do you realize what you have just told me? You just told me that you are an adulterer, a cheater, and a liar." The guy's eyes looked like they were going to explode. He said, "Those are awful words! Don't use words like that. I only said there was a little something on the side, a little this and a little that." And Bill said, "Friend, nothing is gained by watering this down. Just say it like it is. You're an adulterer, a cheater, and a liar."
I once heard Andy Stanley talk about this. He said that we want to say, "I didn't sin. I didn't rebel. I just made a mistake." The dictionary calls a mistake an "error in action," or "poor reasoning." So when it happens, we can say, "Aw, my bad, my mistake." But there's a big difference between a sin and a mistake. If everything is dumbed-down to a mistake, then that makes me a "mistaker." If you're just a mistaker, you just have to do better.
If I'm a sinner, that isn't going to be enough. I know that what I did was intentional—it wasn't a mistake. It was a choice. It was the tree.
So if we're going to look at sin in the face—or maybe more to the point, look ourselves in the face and see our sin—we need to see that we're not just mistakers; we're sinners. And when we sin, we choose the tree. We choose to rebel. We choose to go against a relationship with God.
The serpent: deception
This brings us to the serpent, which was the guise Satan chose to take when he approached Adam and Eve. Satan is known by many names: the Devil, Lucifer, the Evil One, the Tempter, the Deceiver, the Adversary, and the Prince of Darkness. The Bible teaches that Satan was a fallen angel who chose to enter into rebellion against God, leading at least one-third of the angels with him.
Surveys show that most people believe in God and angels and heaven—even hell. But Satan comes up short. But Jesus believed in Satan. He didn't think he was a myth. He didn't think he was a figment of someone's imagination, or some cartoon character. He didn't think he was a mere projection of our minds in order to explain away the mysteries of evil. Jesus believed him to be a real, live spiritual being. He took Satan very seriously and wanted his followers to do the same. Satan's goal is to lead you away from God. To destroy you spiritually. To lead you to embrace and engage in sin. And his method is deception.
Coming to Adam and Eve in the garden this way might not seem all that deceptive to you. Let's see, talking snake: good or bad? Not exactly subtle, right? Actually, it was for Eve. Apparently in the Garden of Eden, talking creatures weren't a big deal. So for her, this was an innocent approach. She didn't have her guard up. So she listened and believed what she heard.
So who are you when you sin? Deceived. And the deception is always the same: you are led to believe that something bad is good. That something God has said not to do is okay. That what is right is wrong, and what is wrong is right.
Notice his words: "Did God really say that you shouldn't do that?" You might not think you are easily deceived this way. But you might be more vulnerable to this than you realize—you may be someone who is rationalizing things in your life right now, and you don't know that's who you are.
One of the most famous psychological experiments in history was conducted by a young psychologist at Yale in the 1960's. His name was Stanley Milgram. He wanted to know the answer to a simple question: if someone told you to press a button to deliver a 450-volt electrical shock to an innocent person in an adjacent room, would you do it? You wouldn't think so, right? You'd be wrong.
He found that about two-thirds of his subjects were willing to inflict what they believed were increasingly painful shocks on an innocent person when the experimenter told them to—even when the victim screamed and pleaded for them not to.
Here's how the experiment worked. He set up a fake shock machine, and invited people to serve as a teacher to a "learner" in another room: someone she didn't see, but could hear. The participant was told that she had to teach the student to memorize a pair of words, and the punishment for a wrong answer was a shock from the machine. The teacher sat in front of the machine, which had 30 levers, each one representing an additional 15 volts. With each mistake the student made, the teacher had to pull the next lever to deliver a more painful punishment.
The machine was a fake and the screams from the other room were from an actor. But the teacher believed she was actually shocking someone. If the teacher didn't want to keep going, they were told by the experimenter that the experiment had to go on. That it mattered to science. That it was okay to do it. And more than 65 percent said, "Oh, okay." All the way to the 450 volts—to the point that the screams ended and the victim passed out.
Milgram actually had a bigger question he was after. How could scores of SS officers in Nazi Germany have shot, gassed, noosed, and tortured millions people to death, supposedly simply on orders from their commanders in chief. His conclusion: they could do it the same way we could do it. All it takes is a persuasive situation, one where we allow ourselves to be deceived. And no greater deception exists than the one Satan offered to Adam and Eve, and offers to us to this day: did God really say you shouldn't do that? When we sin, we say, "Maybe you're right. Maybe he didn't."
The fruit: temptation
Finally, this brings us to the fruit. If we are a rebel and deceived when we sin, we are also one more thing: tempted. Rebellion is at the heart of our choice to sin. Deception has us believe the lie that it's not really rebellion. But we give in to temptation when we actually cross the line.
Did you catch what it is about the fruit that draws us in? This is a textbook case. Three things are mentioned—three things so powerful that they form the heart of our temptation time after time.
It's all in that last verse: "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it" (Gen. 3:6). Did you catch the big three?
Good for food
First, Eve said that the fruit was "good for food." Translation: the sin played to an instant pleasure. It offered an immediate physical hit. It was like surfing the net and coming across a free porn site that says, "Click me."
Pleasing to the eye
Second, she noted that it was pleasing to the eye. It was something she wanted to have, to own, to possess. It glittered and it shined—like a porn site that throws in a sports car.
Desirable for gaining wisdom
Finally, she said that it was desirable for gaining wisdom. It promised a hit for her ego. She would know more, be more. She wanted to be a celebrity, famous, known, recognized. She wouldn't have to answer to anyone. So add it up: porn site, sports car, and winning American Idol.
And those are the big three: lust, materialism, and pride. So who am I when I sin? I am a rebel against God—purposefully walking right up to the lines he's drawn and crossing the line. I am someone who is allowing himself to be deceived, believing a lie. And I am someone who is giving in to the temptation to the dark side of my life—the darkness of lust, greed, and pride.
So do you like who you are when you sin? Probably not. Not any more than I like who I am when I sin. But it's good to remember why we don't like that person, why we don't like who we are when we sin. As John Ortberg has written, it's because it leads us to chase our shadow mission, instead of our real mission. To live our life in a gutter, when we could be on our feet and running toward the prize.
John writes how a friend of his talked him into going on one of those discover-the-wild-inner-hairy-warrior-within-you men's weekends. It was held at a remote and primitive quasi-military campground. During the weekend they chanted. They marched unclad through the snow. For two days they ate bark and berries. They howled at the moon. They sat on their haunches in a Chippewa warrior teepee/sauna purifying their souls in the glandular fellowship of sweat.
John writes that, strangely enough, in the middle of all the psychobabble and melodrama came a single moment of unforgettable insight. They talked about how they were created for a mission. And one of the speakers said that if they didn't embrace their true mission, they would end up pursuing what he called a "shadow mission." He then explained that living a life chasing a "shadow mission" was living a life of thoughts and actions based on temptations and rebellion and deceit that would lead them to betray their deepest values. And that kind of life could only result in two things: regret and guilt.
The leader then went on to tell them what his particular shadow mission consisted of. He said, "My shadow mission is to watch TV and masturbate while the world goes to hell." After the initial shock, there was some nervous laughter among the men. Then he said, "I'm going to say it again. Only this time I want you to listen and not laugh. My shadow mission is to watch TV and masturbate while the world goes to hell."
Folks, who you are when you sin is not who you want to be. It's following a shadow mission, not your true one. So who are you when you sin? A sinner. Not a mistaker, but a sinner. Someone who chose to rebel, allowed themselves to be deceived, and who willingly gave in to temptation. Not who you want to be. And not who you are supposed to be.
Getting that is everything. Because if you're just a mistaker, then you don't have any sin in your life. And if you don't have any sin in your life, then you're not a sinner. And if you're not a sinner, then there's no need to think about God. You can just keep living your shadow mission.
Or you can answer the question differently. You can answer the question, "Who am I when I sin?" with the only answer that can change your life: Yes, you are a sinner. But God loves sinners and has sent a Savior on your behalf.
This brings us full circle, back to the words of the apostle Paul:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Rom. 7:24-25).
James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a consulting editor to Leadership Journal. He is author of Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, and blogs at churchandculture.org.