But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
— James 1v14-15
There are psychologists who like to perform experiments on children. There may also, I suppose, be psychologists who do not like to perform experiments on children, but I find them altogether less interesting. One experiment I have read about involves taking a child, putting him or her in a room with a cake, or a bar of chocolate, or some other temptation of the edible variety in front of them. They tell the child, ‘I’m going to leave the room for fifteen minutes. If you don’t eat the cake, you can have two cakes when I get back.’ And then they leave. If the child doesn’t eat the cake, they get two cakes.
Naturally, two groups emerge from among the children. The first group resists the temptation, and they don’t eat the cake. The man comes back, they get two cakes. The others think to themselves, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I don’t know where this man has come from, and I don’t know where this man has gone. I don’t know if he’s coming back, and I can’t be sure he is even telling the truth: perhaps there is no second cake. What’s more, I do not know the future: he could die before he brings me the second cake, I could die before he brings the second cake. I know but one thing with any certainty: there is a cake for the having, right here and right now.’ And so they eat the cake.
Many people outside the church, and perhaps more than a few inside, think that this is essentially the nature of sin. God, we may imagine, is the great cosmic psychologist who has locked us in a room with a cake, and told us ‘I’m going to leave you with the cake for, I don’t know, somewhere between fifty and ninety years. If you don’t eat it, you can have two cakes after you’re dead.’ So now we live in a world occupied by two groups of people: those who think to themselves, ‘Well, I love cake, so I will wait, and I’ll get two cakes in heaven’, and those who think to themselves, ‘I’m not a gambler. I love cake: I’m having mine now. So we think of sin as being ultimately arbitrary: it’s only wrong because God said so, and he didn’t have much reason for doing so besides testing loyalty. In fact, not only are these sinful actions not inherently wrong: they are themselves the rewards.
Indeed, some religions think like this: drink no wine now, and there will be rivers of wine in paradise; limit yourself to four wives now, and you can have seventy-two in heaven. So we have to ask ourselves the question: if the cake is so bad that eating it here means we go to hell, why is God promising to give me more cake when I die? And why does he punish people who eat the cake now? Is he pro-cake or anti-cake? What exactly does he want?
But if we may continue to imagine a cake on the table, and knife beside it, we will find sin more like the knife than the cake. I was at a friend’s house a few months ago, and we were sitting, talking, and, as it happened, eating cake. His one-year-old son wandered in and wandered around, and came upon an enormous knife that was easily within his reach, a knife about the length of his legs. He swung it around happily, while his father exercised his powers of negotiation to persuade him to give the knife to me. It was clearly not the first time it happened. If we are thinking about the nature of sin, we will find this to be a more accurate picture: sin is not the cake, it’s the knife, and we too are children who are too stupid to know that we are going to hurt ourselves if we don’t put it down.
Why does this matter? Because category mistakes can force us into awkward situations, and strain our reading of the New Testament. If we change our cake vs knife images slightly, we see one of the differences between the Eastern and Western perspectives in the Church. Whereas the discussion of sin in Western Christianity (especially for Protestants) has been dominated by legal models and the language of justification*, Eastern Christians have tended to prioritise the image of Christ as the physician who has come to heal the sick and call sinners to repentance. Rather than having a list of seven ‘deadly sins’ (i.e. discrete actions that can be charged and convicted, to keep our legal language), the Orthodox have a nearly-identical list of eight ‘passions of the soul’**, that is, eight ways in which we are predisposed to be tempted. The difference here is highly significant: sins primarily require forgiveness, but these ‘passions of the soul’ require healing. Salvation, therefore, is not simply the forgiveness of sins: it is the liberation of the soul from the slavery to its corrupting desires that bring forth death.
This reframing can help us out of tricky questions, such as how we are to read passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. It is par for the course in many evangelical churches to approach the Sermon like this: the Lord here is setting an impossibly high standard, and in doing so demonstrates that we cannot obey him, and so are in need of salvation, which Jesus provides by taking the punishment for our sins. There is, of course, much truth to this: the standard of perfection is indeed impossibly high, and without the atoning work of Christ and the help of the Spirit, no one can be saved. The riddle then becomes what we are supposed to do having left church after such a sermon. We feel sufficiently guilty to be certain that the Lord has spoken to us, so there is no problem there, but what do we do now? Continue trying to live up to it, and failing? Or are we to ignore it, since the righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees is simply imputed to us? More often than not, we try to live by it, without being entirely sure why we should, or whether we need to. We wrestle with this question: ‘Is Jesus saying that I must to this in order to be saved? Is Paul saying that if I don’t do this, I’m not really a Christian, and I’m still going to hell? What happened to justification by faith alone?’
These questions, though not insignificant (having profound pastoral implications touching on our assurance of salvation), still get us off on the wrong foot because the questions often assume a cake-y image of sin rather than a knife-y image of sin. If we start with a cake image of sin, then we will read the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles as a list of things we are not allowed to do now, so that we will be rewarded later. However, if we understand sin to be the knife that it is, then we understand the call to repentance not as a call to delayed gratification, but the call to stop playing with the things that will corrupt your soul to the point of damnation. To put it another way: the Lord Jesus is not saying, ‘don’t fulfil this desire now, so that it will be rewarded later’, but rather, ‘your disordered desires themselves are what got you into this mess in the first place.’ God, we find, is very much pro-cake, both pro-having-it and pro-eating-it. However, in our current circumstances, it is more urgent to recognise that he is very much anti-children-playing-with-knives. The question we must ask ourselves then shifts from being ‘how do I resist eating the cake?’, and becomes, ‘why do I enjoy playing with knives so much, when it never ends well for me?’
In this light, then Sermon on the Mount, and other exhortations of Christ and Paul, for example, takes on a different complexion: the Sermon is not a ‘how to get saved by your good deeds’ sermon, nor a ‘beat ‘em up then give ‘em Jesus’ guilt-trip preceding the altar call. It’s not the route to salvation, it’s what salvation itself looks like, the life that grows increasingly free from the power of lust, anger, and avarice over it, the soul ascending towards God. Salvation is far more than merely deliverance from the consequences of our sin, it is deliverance from sin itself.
To give an example from the gospels: when the Lord Jesus commands the rich young man to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him, he is not telling him to forgo the cake that he may become rich in the world to come (though indeed, he is offering riches beyond comparison), he is asking him to put down the knife before someone gets hurt. It is not an arbitrary test or commandment, and it is more than shrewd a tactic to expose his first love, though it does masterfully do just that. The love of money was corrupting his soul, and so Jesus commanded him to repent of it, before things got worse.
Sin’s power to corrupt and destroy is clear from all the pages of the New Testament. As St James puts it in his epistle, evil desires, such as the rich young man’s desire for wealth, do not stop where they are, but give birth to sin, and sin brings forth death. As St Peter puts it in 1 Peter 1v14, we must not ‘be conformed to the passions of [our] former ignorance’, since either we master our desires, or quickly find that our desires start to master us. St Paul also warns Timothy of the power of our desires, specifically avarice, in 1 Timothy 6v9, warning that ‘those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.’
As we try, by the grace of God, to live lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called, and as we try to explain the nature of sin and salvation to a post-Christian culture, it is vital that we understand and communicate sin, with its temporal and eternal consequences, in a way that is internally consistent. Many people, perhaps as high a proportion of believers as unbelievers, find the idea of eternal judgement based on whether or not we obey certain commandments hard to understand, and hard to sympathise with. Judging anecdotally from conversations I have had with Christians and non-Christians alike, I suggest that much of this misunderstanding over what the call to repentance is comes from this misunderstanding of the nature of sin. There is much more that could be said here about the implications of this for the Christian life, and our practices of asceticism, as well as for our evangelism, but I’ll leave that for your own imagination. Suffice it to say here the good news: when Jesus calls us to repent, he is not asking us to forgo eating cakes, but to stop playing with knives.
* For the record, I don’t think the Orthodox pay sufficient attention to the language of justification, but that’s by the by.
** For the curious, the seven sins are pride, lust, wrath, envy, sloth/akedia, avarice, and gluttony. These seven are also found in the Eastern lists of the passions of the soul, the eighth being despair.