Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (E)–The Walls of Wrath

Dear James,

You’ve asked a couple of questions that I’ll respond to specifically. First, am I “suggesting that all sin is a distraction from duty?” I have indeed linked many of these reflections on sin to distraction, but it doesn’t follow that the essence of sin is itself distraction. Rather, I think that distraction is a frequent byproduct of our sinfulness. Trapped in sin, we fail our duty (which further complicates sin!). So, not all sin is distraction, but in sin I am almost always distracted from my God-given duty.

Second, “To what degree can a sin be purely a matter of the body, and to what degree can we have a sin which is purely of the soul?” In the tradition, sins like Lust and Sloth were considered to be purely bodily sins, and therefore of a lesser significance that more spiritual sins, like Pride and Greed. But I am wary, first of all, of overly dividing the body and soul. Is it really possible to commit a physical sin that doesn’t in some sense impact my spirit? And is it really possible to commit a spiritual sin which doesn’t have some necessary impact on my body? As I’ve treated our sins so far, I’ve made an explicit point to try and exhibit them in both bodily and spiritual form, not dividing one from the other. This seems like good sense. Additionally, I’ve avoided ranking them, especially because I feel that the essence of sin is something that separates us from God. If a sin of the first rank can separate us from God just as effectively as the sin ranked seventh, then the rankings are clearly irrelevant.

Does this suggest that all sin is equal? In one sense, yes. In another, no. All sin is equal in its capacity to separate us from God, and in this adultery is every bit as bad as murder or theft or covetousness. But in the no sense, sins are unequal in their effects on other people. So while the consequence of Envy could potentially affect only me (ruining my capacity for joy), the consequence of Murder necessarily affects another person. My sin is not merely a sin of the inner life, nor a sin against my own body, but a sin against someone else’s body. In this sense, it seems to me that some sins are clearly worse than others.

This suggests that we can view sin in three different capacities—sin as it affects the inner life, sin as it affects the body, and sin as it affects the community around me. Consider, for example, Wrath. As a sin of the inner life, Wrath seems to involve the undue embrace of anger at another person or situation. In this, you are angry when you have no right to be. Now we have lots of reasons to be angry (and for the record I think anger is one of God’s gifts to us). But we have times to be angry, and purposes for our anger, and Godly means of exercising, discharging, and dispensing with our anger—and these are conditions which I would suggest are always filled by God’s Wrath in the Scriptures. Sinful Wrath, to me, seems to involve a failure at one of these points—angry at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose, and discharged without Godliness. Paul famously commands us to “be angry and do not sin.” Be angry. Feel what is wrong with your life. Experience this particular pain. But do not sin in it! Wrath is sinning in anger.

The bodily aspect of the sin of Wrath may seem opaque at first, but I think it clear enough upon reflection. When we prioritize our anger it has a habit of flattening out all our other emotions. The man who lives in the grip of an ongoing rage feels little else—sadness, joy, melancholy, interest, happiness, etc. Ironically, sometimes, I’ve found that people will almost subconsciously adopt Wrath as their dominating emotion simply so that they won’t have to feel anything else. Their hearts are wrapped in a Wrath of self-protection. Wrath is then a sin against the body by limiting my capacity to experience the world God has given me, in all its joys and sorrows.

With regard to community, Wrath generates what we might call a dishonest distortion. Instead of seeing a person, I see red; instead of really hearing, I hear only talking points for arguments. Wrath, having flattened my own emotional life, then flattens my perception of other persons as well. This is perhaps something of what is going on in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that calling our brother “fool” and “emptyhead” leads to a murder of the heart. Instead of receiving his accusation that I’ve done wrong, I dismiss and label him. Once labeled and dismissed, in Wrath I can do away with them in my heart. It’s a kind of murder, certainly.

In this, Wrath is the sin which builds up walls around the heart. It keeps other people, and other emotions, at arm’s length. It is a self-protective sin, and it seems to me that times of quiet prayer and meditation can especially provoke those strongholds of Wrath. God, after all, pursues us in those places where we try to hide, where we are attempting to cover up. And I wonder if what is often our Wrath at God is not the manifestation of the walls we’ve erected to keep Him out? Not that we can’t be angry at God (the Psalms make that possibility clear!), but when our anger becomes a habit of life, ongoing, undischarged, and disallowing of other emotional states.

I remember counseling a man who lived in the grip of Wrath to listen to sad music. It seemed to me fairly clear that if he would open his heart to experiences other than anger, then perhaps it might jumpstart his capacity to feel other emotions on a more regular basis. How many men, I wonder, have simply forgotten how to feel any other emotions?

The church service you mention sounds marvelous. I’ve enjoyed a fair share of the “smells and bells” services in my time, and you’re absolutely right that our material worship matters for our spiritual capacities for worship. What a medieval insight!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Ashley Madison , City Slickers, and John Donne

ashley-madisonAbout six months ago my wife told me that she’d seen a television commercial about a service called “Ashley Madison.” We looked up the website together and discovered, to our mutual horror, that it offered to facilitate adultery hookups between married persons. I wished, at that time, that it would be the last I’d hear of such a thing.

Fast forward to just the other day, and Ashley Madison was once again in the news. This time because an anonymous group had hacked their database and released the user data from the website into the public. This user data included email addresses, credit card information, and user profile information (covering preferences and desires for these illicit encounters). The scandal was both immediate and prurient. Immediate because many people who had trusted the web service to hide their data were suddenly exposed; immediate because a number of public figures were revealed to own accounts (possibly the worst of which was Josh Duggar, a Christian involved with the Family Research Council). But the release was also prurient because it invited the curiosity of many. Spouses could search for the email addresses of loved ones. Pastors could search for the email addresses of congregants. What is more, suddenly everyone had access to the private desires of a host of people, and a sense of public shaming made it okay to look. In other words, it is permissible to savor the sordid details because these people shouldn’t have been doing this anyway–a kind of schadenfreude perverted by voyeurism.

As time passes, more people will doubtless be outed by this leak. Many marriages will dissolve. Hearts and families will be broken. Children will suffer. But will we be any the wiser when it’s all through?

I don’t know why people–especially Christians–continue to think that we can keep secrets about our sins. The verse which has been most prominent in my mind these past days has been 1 Timothy 5:24, “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them into judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” There are no secrets with God. There are no hidden places where we can keep things from Him. There are no deeds performed, in the open or in private, of which He is unaware. And the Scriptures also testify repeatedly that sin has a habit of coming back to harm the individual. What you sow is what you will reap–sow sin, and you will reap sin. It is as simple as that. For the men and women who have used the Ashley Madison service, there was never anything secret about it. Certainly not to God. Neither to themselves.

city_slickersIn the 1991 movie “City Slickers” three friends temporarily become cattle hands in order to rediscover the meaning in their own lives. While they ride and talk one friend muses with the other about the possibility of having a no-consequence affair. If a gorgeous alien were to descend to the earth and offer sex without consequence or commitment, would he go through with it? And Billy Crystal’s character replies with great wisdom, “Nobody would know, but I would know.”* The sin would remain in his memory, in his body, in his very soul. Las Vegas’s tourism slogan claims that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Sounds appealing enough, but a friend of mine reworked the slogan to make it more accurate: “What happens in Vegas stays in you!” Every action we perform stays with us, is implanted in us. And that means that there are always two witnesses for every sinful deed we perform–myself, and the God of the universe. And the Scriptures teach that by the testimony of two witnesses a man can be put to death. Thus we all stand condemned. Case closed.

I’m reminded of another story where hidden deeds are made known. In Revelation 20 all of humanity is assembled before God and great books are opened, and then “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:12). This “outing,” this exposure, this grand reveal will be far worse than the Ashley Madison scandal, because nobody will need to search for their email address. Your name is already in the book. And beside your name is a ledger containing every deed performed in your life, good and bad alike. Every misplaced thought. Every covetous desire. Every envious look. Every hateful word. Every disrespectful attitude. Every petty theft. Every unkind word. Every lustful thought. Every. Single. One.

During the bubonic plague members of John Donne’s congregation would wonder, as they heard the bell ringing, who had died in the night. Donne rebuked them and instructed them instead to take note of their own mortality, saying, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Don’t let your curiosity stand in the way of your necessary introspection. Don’t forget that you too live under a death sentence. Don’t forget that there is a book with your name in it as well. Don’t forget that one day all the data of that book will be opened for everyone to see. Ask not who has been outed by Ashley Madison, the scandal has outed thee.

*Originally this post incorrectly attributed the quote to Daniel Stern’s character.

The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

(Note: The contents of this post reflect a real conversation I had with a friend. However, I have edited it into simple questions and answers for readability. He contributed as much, or more, to the “Answers” as I did, even though they’re in my voice below. For the full context you’ll want to read the original post, here.)

"Excuse me, I have a question."

“Excuse me, I have a question.”

Q: You’ve claimed that the Weaker Brother Principle isn’t about personal sin but about community life, but can’t we still use the Weaker Brother Principle for some kinds of issues which are cultural in origin? For example, what about the church from the 40s and 50s–no drinking, dancing, playing cards, or cinema? If the conscience determines something is sin, isn’t it still sin, and doesn’t the principle still apply?

A: The answer to the question is “Yes, we can.” But we can only do it very advisedly.

The problem is twofold. In the first place, we must object to the manipulative use of the Weaker Brother Principle to maintain a centre while explaining outliers. The centre (who are proscribing behaviours) are by definition the weaker brothers–that’s how Paul has identified them in the passage. But they don’t apply the principle that way–they don’t actually think they are weak. To them it must be made clear that the proscription of activities which have no Scriptural or historical ground as sin is a weakness of faith (i.e., rather than an inward reality, faith is ‘proved’ by a set of predetermined actions–“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.”) The Weaker Brother Principle is, first of all, a public rebuke of sin. That’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned that Romans was originally read out loud. Don’t you see? Paul is publicly identifying one group of believers in the church as weak, and this is not a compliment but a rebuke.

The second problem is with the libertine use of the Weaker Brother Principle to permit some people in the church to abandon holiness in profligacy. These are not exercising their freedom in service but in rebellion. They cannot possibly fulfill the command because they have no actual strength of faith to lend to the brother who is weak in faith.

So, to round this out, for the Weaker Brother Principle to work properly there must be both these elements of rebuke for weakness of faith as well as call to service for those strong in faith. The Weaker Brother Principle exists to strengthen community, not to explain sin.

Q: Still, what about the conscience? If I can’t look at sexual content in movies because I recognize in myself that opening those doors will lead to sin, am I not still weaker? Are you not still stronger?

SmokingA: Perhaps you are weaker, and perhaps I am stronger, but that weakness and strength has nothing to do with our faith. This, in focus, was also the problem with the understanding of faith and holiness in the church from the 40s to 80s (or so). Leaders in the church defined ‘faith’ as a set of actions–it was a way of determining who was in and out of fellowship. If you drank, smoked, and danced, you were clearly out; if you avoided those activities you were clearly in. Public perceptions of sin, in other words, came to determine who belonged or didn’t belong in the church. But these were all about outward conduct, and had little to do with inward reality (although the two are, admittedly, linked).

In other words, honoring your conscience by not presenting you with sexual material doesn’t fall under the Weaker Brother Principle–it falls, rather, under the law of love from Romans 13–for if I am loving you, how can I possibly want to do you harm? Again, this is simple courtesy, not necessarily accommodation to weakness.

Q: But what about sins of conscience? What does it mean for one person to drink and another to abstain? For one person to view cinematic content that another must avoid?

BeerA: The answer lies in self-knowledge. Let’s take alcohol as an example. Drinking, we know, is not in itself sinful (although drunkenness is clearly proscribed by Scripture). For you and me, we can visit over beer with no ill effect (quite the contrary, when we visit over beer we have conversations like this one!). But for another brother who struggles with alcoholism that beer–or even the smell of the beer–may be enough to tempt him into falling away from his sobriety. Now sin for our alcoholic brother is not in the alcohol itself but in the moment when he chooses against his conscience and his own limitations. Sin on our part is placing before him a condition which could make him stumble despite our knowing of his limitations. In matters of personal conscience, therefore, if the Weaker Brother Principle obtains it obtains at the level of self-knowledge. You are aware of your personal limitations when it comes to content of movies, as am I of my own for that matter, but we have different limits. It is not that I am particularly ‘free’ to watch whatever I wish–I, equally, am under constraints, but I have to attend to my own conscience to know when I am watching for the right or wrong reasons. That, really, is where sins of conscience fall–not in the activity itself (which, if it is a candidate for this kind of activity, cannot be a sin proscribed by Scripture), but in the limits of the conscience for the individual believer. Now if–and this is a big if–if the Weaker Brother Principle is going to work, then my strength of self-knowledge and maturity of conscience must be converted in accommodation to serve the weakness of your self-knowledge and immaturity of conscience. The goal, for us both, will be greater Christlikeness. But just to clarify, here again the failings of applying the principle to personal sin arise–in what way is an alcoholic’s inability to drink alcohol a ‘weakness of faith’? In what way is the gambling addict’s inability to play cards a ‘weakness of faith’? The Principle can only help to strengthen community, when it comes to matters of conscience and personal sin, when we are strengthening one another in self-knowledge in Christ.

Q: Okay, but how does this all tie in with Paul’s words about idolatry and idol’s feasts in 1 Corinthians 6?

A: It’s funny you should bring that up–weren’t you the one who was just talking to me about Helmut Thielicke’s thoughts on this very subject? In fact, here’s the book now, and here are the relevant paragraphs:

Helmut ThielickeThe statements occur in a discussion of the question whether the Christian may eat meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods. In brief, Paul’s position is as follows. In principle there can be no objection, since we have only one God, the Father of Jesus Christ (8:6). To that extent there are for us no other gods. No sacrifices can be made to beings that do not exist and have no significance for us. Hence the meat offered to them is only meat for us. It has no sacral implication. It is simply a means of nourishment. In principle eating idol meat is an adiaphoron, a matter of indifference.

If nevertheless Paul asks the Corinthians to refrain from eating it, this is for different reasons. Christians might participate whose spiritual understanding is undeveloped so that they do not yet see that idols are unreal. Their situation is thus very different from that of mature Christians who can eat without scruples. Since the immature still regard idols as realities, by eating they would be deciding against Christ, not accepting him as the only Lord. Hence those for whom Christ died might be destroyed (8:11). For they would be coming under the power of demons and letting ungodly forces come between them and the one Lord (10:18-22). In simple terms, the reasons why Christians should abstain from idol meats are not theological (there can be no theological reasons in view of the unreality of idols). They are ethical reasons which demand regard for weak and spiritually immature brethren.

The difference between the theological and ethical aspects reflects the ambivalence of what is said about the gods.

Theologically, since there is only one God, the gods are a negligible quantity. Ethically, however, their nothingness can suddenly become a real power which can captivate the weaker brother, who is not yet rendered immune by faith, if he comes under their influence (8:10ff). Perhaps one might put it this way. Whereas God calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), unbelief calls what is not as thought it were. It enables the idol’s nothingness to become a demonic power (1 Corinthians 10:20). Its nothingness is intrinsically an occasion for achieving freedom over it (10:23, 29). The moment, however, that God is no longer the one and only Lord for me, I am deprived of my freedom by what is outside God. This takes his place as a demonic alter ego. I come under the sway of a power that is nothing in itself but is something for me. It is because the mature Christian cannot let this happen that he must freely abstain from anything that might rob another of his freedom (10:24, 33). (Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 96, bold emphasis added)

I think Thielicke ties up our discussion nicely. These aren’t questions of sin per se (i.e., they are not “theological” questions), they are questions of idolatry and culture. Those who are free in Christ recognize that Christ is Lord over all and are free in their conduct. Those who are not yet mature in Christ continue to view the world and culture as having power. This is their weakness (one worthy of public rebuke!), and viewing these things as powers they give to them power. The idol meat is not idolatrous because it is idol meat (because an idol is nothing at all); it is idolatrous because the weak-faithed believer, out of his weakness, gives it power. The Weaker Brother Principle, then, is really about applying my strength of faith to help weaker brothers gain victory in Christ. And this is not a victory of conduct-holiness (proscribing certain behaviours, which is often how we speak of victory), but rather a victory that comes from the ingested knowledge of Christ’s absolute lordship over all things, powers, cultures, histories, events, and so forth. Naturally, when Christ indwells us in power more fully our conduct will change accordingly, holiness being a byproduct of Christlikeness, but the metrics of holiness are outside the Weaker Brother Principle, which is ultimately about knowledge of Christ’s absolute Lordship leading to service for the saints.

To Carry the Weaker Brother–Romans 14 and 15 in Focus

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

“For if on account of food your brother is grieved, no longer according to love do you live. Not by means of your food shall you destroy another on whose behalf Christ died. Do not therefore blaspheme your good.” Romans 14:15-16

A friend and I share interest in international film—in particular, Asian crime dramas. When he sees one he thinks I’ll like, he passes me the info. When I see one I think he’ll like, I pass him the info. It’s a convenient arrangement. However, whenever I consider recommending a film for him I always attend especially to any sexual content. I am not particularly troubled by it, but I know that it troubles him. Therefore I don’t recommend films to him that I perceive have content he doesn’t want to see. In certain cases where I judge the film to be worth viewing in spite of its content, I make sure to warn him specifically.

This situation came to mind the other day while I was watching—you guessed it—an Asian crime drama. But it struck me as significant because, for the past months, I have been engaging in a close study of the book of Romans. I’ve been translating it, making notes from the Greek, and attempting to summarize Paul’s arguments in my own words. Near the end of Paul’s letter he speaks about members of the Church with weaker faith—specifically about taking care not to make a weaker brother stumble. As I reflected on my arrangement with my friend—Paul’s words fresh in my mind—it occurred to me that our dispositions relative to the content of cinema have precisely nothing to do with the “weaker brother” principle from Scripture.

For as long as I can remember the “weaker brother” passages from Romans 14 and 15 have been used in this way. There are certain ‘worldly’ activities which some Christians can continue to engage in, from which other members of the Church must refrain. Some Christians can watch movies, others cannot. Some Christians can drink alcohol, others cannot. Some Christians can gamble, or work on Sundays, while others cannot. “Freedom in Christ,” under this logic, is the freedom of some Christians to engage in specific behaviours that would be sin to other Christians.

I think this is completely wrong, and it is wrong for a variety of reasons.

Strength and WeaknessFirst, it is wrong because I don’t believe that my friend’s ‘inability’ to view sexual content reflects weakness of faith on his part. It might, quite the contrary, reflect a deeper appreciation of holiness, in which case it would not be that my faith is strong and I am free, but rather that my faith is weak and I lack the maturity that he has. Aside from that (distinct) possibility, I don’t conclude that my ‘ability’ to view a variety of cinematic content reflects particular strength of faith on my part. It might be a gift, or it might be a call (since I am able to review content for others without the same adverse effects), or it might, upon deeper spiritual reflection, actually turn out to be a vice which needs correction. Either way, I take no notion about my own strength from this situation.

Second, it is wrong in light of Romans 15:1, which says: “Now we who are powerful ought to endure the weaknesses of the powerless and not to please ourselves.” Note that Paul commands us to “endure” the weaknesses of the powerless, but that word “endure” also means “carry” or “bear.” It is not only that the strong are asked to put up with the weak, but that the strong are commanded to carry the weak. It is almost as if we are Israel once again in the wilderness—do we abandon the infirm because they are slow? By no means! We endure/carry them along with us. Now as I’ve already observed, it is common when we talk about the “weaker brother” to speak of specific areas of sin which are debated in culture—entertainment choices, alcohol consumption, trips to Vegas, sexuality, working on the Sabbath. The common application of the “weaker brother” principle—especially when I was a young legalist—was for the ‘weak’ to use it to try and limit, or at least section away, the so-called ‘freedom’ of others. The goal was to preserve a centre of holiness and at the same time explain the moral outliers. But given the command of Romans 15:1 we are left with a troubling, unanswered question: if these brothers and sisters who can engage in these activities are, by definition, the “stronger brothers,” how is their strength serving to benefit the fellowship? In what sense is it possible for me to enjoy many kinds of cinema and drink alcohol while fulfilling this command? How is my ‘freedom’ a show of spiritual strength that enables me to benefit my brother who is weak in his faith?

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

By extension from this, at no moment have I ever felt that I am ‘accommodating’ or needing to ‘bear’ my brother in faith because of his ‘weakness.’ At the very minimum, our arrangement is a manifestation of courtesy. More likely, it is simple consideration—I want to honor both him and his conscience. More specifically, because I regard him as a brother and know his preferences, why would I knowingly present him with something that he has expressed concern about? Knowing that he dislikes mushrooms, why would I offer him mushroom soup? Knowing he has a date with his wife, why would I pressure him to join me at the pub?

A third reason why this application of the “weaker brother” principle is wrong because I do not believe that the particular aspects of conduct to which we apply the “weaker brother” principle are reflections of ‘freedom in Christ.’ My ability to watch movies is not really about freedom in Christ, nor for that matter is my ability to drink alcohol. One of my former pastors is a recovered alcoholic—am I to assume, under our common interpretation of this passage, that his continued inability to consume alcohol reflects a weakness in his faith? That if he had more ‘freedom in Christ’ he would be strengthened to drink alcohol again? Far from it!

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

The root of this confusion stems from our false definition of freedom. We presume that ‘freedom’ means freedom from something—freedom from laws, from strictures, from limitations. But freedom, in the Scriptural sense, is always freedom for something. We are not released from the Law in order to do as we please, we are released in order that we can perform that function for which the Law existed in the first place (that is, love of God and neighbor). I am free from food laws not because the food laws don’t matter, but because God abolished the food laws as a way to prepare the way for one new people no longer divided by food.

This gets us quite close, in fact, to what Paul is really on about in Romans 12-15. The trouble that occasions the letter to the Romans is this new people, called the Church, who are composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is at pains to give grounds for existence to both groups—to the Jews to explain how the Gentiles are the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan, to the Gentiles to explain their newfound heritage in the traditions of Israel. One group is not prioritized over the other; what is prioritized is the reality and new life of the Church.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

In Romans 1-11 Paul writes his argument for this new people of God. In Romans 12-15 he offers specific commands on how to live this new life together. He speaks about love, about love as the fulfillment of the law, and about relations with one another. At the end of his argument, in 14 and 15, Paul speaks about food. Now let us be clear: when Paul is speaking about food in these passages, what he has in mind is the Jewish food laws. These laws were longstanding traditions of the Israelite people which Jesus had specifically removed. Paul is keenly aware of Jesus’ commands (which is why, I suspect, he is comfortable publicly labelling some members of the church ‘weak’ and others ‘strong’—don’t forget that the letter would have been read aloud originally!). In 14:13 Paul even quotes Jesus when he said that it was not what goes in a man which makes him unclean, but what comes out of a man (Mark 7:14-16). Jesus’ point in that passage was to show that it is the inner condition of a man which makes him clean, not his ritualistic activities. The other occasion when Jesus declared all foods clean was in his vision to Peter on the rooftop (Acts 10). On that occasion, the declaration that “all foods are clean” was made in preparation for Cornelius’s arrival. In other words, all foods are clean as a way to prepare for the new people of God, composed of Jews and Gentiles. Paul is aware of these things—he even (Galatians 2) once went toe-to-toe with Peter about it.

But there is a curious phrase in the second half of Romans 14:14. It says this: “I know and I have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing unclean is through a man, except such a thing as he reasons to be unclean, in that thing it is unclean.” In the first part of the sentence Paul quotes Jesus, in the second part he seems to contradict Jesus. Why does Paul elevate the conscience above the word of Christ? Are not the brothers stronger in faith—those obeying the command of Jesus fully—performing Jesus’ will, while the weaker brothers are disobeying?

The answer to this lies in the purpose for which Jesus abolished the food laws. Simply put, Jesus removes them to prepare the way for God’s new people, the Church—one that would be characterized by inward and not ritual holiness, and one that would include all, and not ethnically particular, people. The food laws are removed so that the Church can exist. The freedom from the food laws is really freedom for us to be the Church. And perhaps now Paul’s logic becomes clear: if an issue of food destroys the faith of a brother for whom Christ died—that is, if our genuine freedom in Christ has become an obstacle to fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ came and died—then it is better to limit ourselves. In this way, the strength of those with stronger faith carries along the weakness of those who lack power. We who are strong limit ourselves so that we can walk together with our weaker brethren.

To put this clearly, freedom from the food laws is given so that we can be one new people, the Church. But if food divides us still, then we aren’t fulfilling the intention of either the law or the freedom. This is why Paul rebukes the Church—because in their eating they were dividing God’s holy people.

Hey, Man! It's my freedom in Christ!

Hey, Man! It’s my freedom in Christ!

In view of all this, to take the “weaker brother” passages and use them as a crib for sin seems to me grossly inappropriate. The Church is not divided into two classes of people—the weak and strong of faith—along a boundary line defined by particular sins in culture. It is inappropriate to use these passages to attempt to manage sin in community. And maybe that’s the real bait and switch that I don’t like. Paul isn’t talking about sin, as if some people can get hammered while others have to be sober, or as if some people can sleep around while others have to remain celibate. No, he’s speaking about a highly unique aspect of community life and giving advice on how to maintain the greater fellowship despite these challenging differences. He is teaching us how to live together under the new unity of God’s people by the command of love. He’s using this principle of accommodation to defend the purpose of freedom; that is, the community of the Church.

But there’s one further irony to our abuse of this passage. Paul gives a command to those stronger in faith to help those weaker. Today, those ‘weaker’ in faith typically use this passage to manipulate the ‘stronger.’ There is no accommodation or strengthening at work, only limitation. In return—and I have witnessed this many times firsthand—those ‘stronger’ ones appeal to their freedom with an air of rebelliousness. They drink, watch what they wish, curse, and sleep around with an air of smug superiority, while they are not, in truth, any stronger in faith. They are merely using the Scriptures as a pretext to sin.

How, then, are we then to interpret this passage? After all, there is not a class of believers in the Church today who, because of unified heritage and tradition, have a special struggle with certain aspects of our freedom in Christ. But perhaps by rephrasing the question we can find some clarity. Where, we can ask, are the stumbling blocks that genuinely threaten the weakened faith of the Church? What are the places where we who are strong in faith are called to “carry along” those brothers and sisters most likely to stumble?

It's one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

It’s one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

Framed that way, I think we get some real clarity, because Paul’s use of the stone of stumbling imagery is another reference to Jesus’ teaching. Specifically, it references our Lord’s command to place no stone of stumbling before any of his “little ones,” and pronouncement of woes upon anyone who did (Mt 18:6, et al). We have been warned, in other words, in the strictest of terms, to cause no loss of faith among the members of the Church. Paul, expanding upon Jesus’ explicit teaching, commands us to take stock of our own strengths and consider how to employ them for the service of the Church—to carry one another along this journey. The principle to which he appeals throughout the passage (14:1-3, 15:7) is to ‘accommodate’ or ‘take along’ one another in the same way that Christ, our Lord, has accommodated or taken us along. Christ converted his strength into service for the Saints, so also we must convert our strengths into service for one another.

With these two pieces in place, we are prepared to apply the passage. Where do we stumble today? Where is faith weak in the church today? Where am I, especially, as a minister of the Gospel called to use strength to benefit the weak of faith? I think there are three areas of particular weakness today; first, the Church today is weak in identity (Who am I?); second, it is weak in integrity (Can I trust you?); third, it is weak in reasons to believe (Can I trust God?). These are the stumbling stones which threaten to undo our fellowship, and to which we must train the faithful to be strong for the service of others.

Ned FlandersThe issues of identity stem from our interaction with culture. Despite our best efforts culture has been more successful in defining Christian identity than Christians have. Cinema, entertainment, news, and opinion all collide to create a Christian identity that is a bizarre caricature of real faith. If you are a Christian according to culture you are someone who believes despite evidence, believes in the face of contrary evidence, are defined by hatred, are legalistic, are attempting to push a foreign agenda on an unwilling world, are unkind, are stupid, are naïve, are backwards, are ‘medieval,’ and are complicit with abuses financial, sexual, familial, and cultural. Is it any wonder that members of the Church struggle with their identity? Are they called to defend abusers? Make excuses? Apologize? What of new believers? How do we rightly bring them into fellowship that appears, to all outward views, to be so colloquial?

But more even than the false caricature generated by the world, the issue of identity pulses through the Church. Brothers and sisters are eager to know who they are, why they are here, and what God wants for them. Into their hearts the world has sown vast seeds of doubt about identity—sexual, familial, cultural, racial, economic. Never have we been more confused about who we are. Never have we more needed ministry that reveals to us who God is. The strength of those strong in faith must be the strength of those who know God and know themselves—and I suggest to you particularly, in this age of malformed identity, that it will be knowledge of the Father which is the tonic for our confusion. I say this because Jesus’ own identity is grounded in the will and knowledge of the Father. Our strength must be strength that is similarly grounded in God our Father.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that 'success' is more common than we recognize.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that ‘success’ is more common than we recognize.

Integrity is the second stumbling stone, and quite frankly this is because nothing has done more to discredit the belief of the Church than the behaviour of some of the clergy. The scales aren’t fair, of course. For every clergyman who has fallen from grace another five have served faithfully. It is just that our failures shine more memorably than successes. Still, the people of the Church need clergy they can trust, and that means clergy who are committed to the faith, who are committed to holiness, and who are committed to service. The work of seminaries, whatever else they perform, will be meaningless unless men of character and self-sacrifice are trained to serve the Church with their God-given strengths.

Lastly, the Church is weak in reasons to believe. Doubt and confusion are at epidemic levels. These doubts are sourced in both lack of good teaching and false definitions of faith. In the first place, it is my conviction that the story of Jesus ratifies itself, but we have appealed to other sources, accommodating culture rather than the truth. We have spoken self-help sermons, and through our inattention to the gospel message paved the way for the empty wash of moral therapeutic deism. We reason that belief matters less than feeling, and try to make people feel a certain way in order to keep them in faith. We forget that there is no substitute for the story of Jesus, and that the claims of Christ are claims upon our souls, and not merely our emotions.

Not only this, but ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ regularly work actively to discredit the Christian faith—many of them from positions that claim to be inside the faith itself. J.B. Phillips, who translated the New Testament into plain language, was angered that modern scholars were undermining faith through their cavalier and irreverent approach to knowledge. He wrote: “But I say quite bluntly that some of the intellectuals… who write so cleverly and devastatingly about the Christian faith appear to have no personal knowledge of the living God. They lack awe, they lack humility, and they lack the responsibility which every Christian owes to his weaker brother” (Ring of Truth, 20). Woe to the teacher who teaches doubt! Woe to the professor who professes matters which weaken faith!

In this vein there is a category of ‘Christian’ bloggers and writers who in the name of inquiry have done more damage to the faith of the Church than any fallen pastor or any goofball boondock fellowship. In the spirit of free inquiry these thinkers equivocate truth, they misrepresent Scripture, and through and through they prove that they are voices not for faith but for culture. They are all the more dangerous because they believe, and present themselves, as the new face of Christianity, as the face of Christianity that can weather the storm of culture by cutting loose our anchors. I say, without naming names, that they have violated the people of God, and the spirit of Romans 12-15, and that their faith is the destruction of faith.

Against these trends, ministers of the gospel must offer reasons to believe—not false reasons, not emotional reasons, but reasons which are grounded in the truth of the Christian story and the work of the Spirit in the Church and in history. Our strength of belief must itself be a boon for the weak-kneed faith of today’s Church. And this must not be belief that is blind and closed-eyed to the world, but belief that is grounded in the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. On these three things we live or die.

(NB: There is a Part 2 to this post which clarifies several further points in a Q&A format. Click this link to reach it.)

The Two Sins of Judas

Dante’s vision of the final circle of Hell was Satan eternally chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (three greatest traitors in history).

Judas, right after Peter, stands out as the most compelling figure among the disciples, and, indeed, as one of the most mysterious personalities of the whole New Testament.

Part of the mystery stems from lack of information: there is little that we know about Judas other than his betrayal. What we do know makes his betrayal seem even more startling. After all, he was one of the twelve. When Jesus healed, preached, and exorcised demons, Judas was a direct witness. When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach and empowered them to cast out demons and heal the sick, Judas went out, preached the kingdom, cast out demons, and healed the sick. Judas, we must never forget, was a man who knew and experienced the power of Jesus firsthand.

And yet, for all this, Judas’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery. How could a person who knew Jesus so well, who experienced Jesus’ power, betray him in the end? Could such a person really betray Jesus merely for money? If it was really all about money and greed, then why did he take his own life?

Judas is compelling because he figures so prominently in the narrative of Jesus’ life. He is mysterious because we know so little about his life and motivations. But, in addition to these, Judas is also one of the most unsettling figures in the Bible because his betrayal presents us with a theodicy. How can God ordain that Judas should betray Jesus, then condemn him for doing what he had no choice but to do? Jesus states clearly at Matthew 26:24 that “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Jesus’ death was prophesied, but woe to the man who betrayed him! And this makes us ask: If Judas was clearly destined to betray Jesus, does that also mean he was destined to die as he did? Was the aftermath of his betrayal bound by the same necessity as his betrayal? Is Judas a special case in the history of salvation—the one man God could never, and would never, save? Did God, who destined Judas to betray Jesus, also destine Judas for eternal damnation?

I propose to you that the answer to those questions is “no.” That Judas, while destined to betray Jesus, was not of necessity bound to die because of it. In fact, when we examine the story of Judas in the Gospel of Matthew we discover a series of curious parallels that force us to ask a critical question. The parallels are between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial, and the critical question is: What is it that separates these two men? The answer, I believe, is in two sins Judas commits, implicitly, between his betrayal and death. They are sins worth examining both to answer for Judas’s untimely death, and because they are sins into which every Christ-follower is equally prone to fall.

So worthless, in light of eternity…

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that treats significantly with the details of Judas’s last night on earth. Curiously, within that narrative the actions of Judas and Peter are directly paralleled four distinct times. To set the stage, we must remember that Judas has agreed in Matthew 26:14-16 to betray Jesus into the hands of the Pharisees for a sum of 30 pieces of silver. (As an aside, Judas’s decision to betray Jesus falls on the heels of the ‘waste’ of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus at Bethany. Notably, all the disciples take offence at the waste, so Judas isn’t singled out. Nevertheless, we are led, by virtue of editing, to conclude that Judas is the only one to do something about it. This, of course, is merely speculation.)

This brings us to the first parallel between Judas and Peter. During the Last Supper, Jesus makes a prediction. He says (26:21), “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” He is, of course, speaking of Judas. Then, after supper, while on their way to the Mount of Olives, Jesus makes another prediction. This time he says (26:31), “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Not only would one disciple betray Jesus, the whole group would fall away that very evening. It was, to be sure, not a very good night to be a disciple.

The second parallel is in the focusing of these predictions, because both Peter and Judas present themselves to be identified as prime culprits. First, right after Jesus predicts his betrayal, the disciples seek to exonerate themselves, each saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” When Judas offers his excuse in verse 25, Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is you.” Then, when Jesus has predicted the falling away of all his disciples, Peter responds, on behalf of the group, and says (26:33), “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” To which Jesus replies that Peter would disown him three times that very night. In verse 35, observe, Peter restates his conviction, “And all the other disciples said the same.”

The kiss would help soldiers identify the correct man in the dark. (They were afraid to arrest Jesus during the day.)

These, then, are the first two parallels: a general prediction (betrayal), followed by specific identification (Judas), and a general prediction (falling away), followed by another specific identification (Peter). Both predictions, of course, and both betrayals, come true. And this, indeed, is the third parallel in Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus’ predictions are fulfilled. After the disciples arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrives with the soldiers and betrays Jesus with his kiss. Shortly after this, while Jesus is on trial, Peter disowns Jesus three times outside in the courtyard. It seems clear, from the editing of the text, that we are meant to see Peter and Judas in parallel to one another.

But there is a fourth parallel drawn between these disciples, and in order to understand this parallel we must also understand the passage Jesus quotes to his disciples when he predicts their falling away. There, in Matthew 26:31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

Zechariah’s prophecies figure prominently in Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus, but the quotation of the oracle from chapter 13:7-9 is one of the most prominent instances. An initial clue to help us understand this passage will be to know that in the Old Testament the language of ‘shepherd’ and ‘sheep’ is frequently used in the place of ‘King’ and ‘people.’ Here, then, in the passage Jesus has quoted, God has promised to strike a shepherd (His King), and scatter His sheep (the people of Israel) as judgment. In Jesus’ quotation, Jesus has envisioned himself as the shepherd and his disciples as the sheep; he was about to be struck, and they were about to be scattered. For both Jesus (in Matthew) and Israel (in Zechariah) it is a striking of judgment—Christ, in other words, is about to take the judgment of God, on our behalf, upon himself.

This process of saving judgment is something the prophet Zechariah speaks about as well, and we find, in Zechariah 12:10 (a passage immediately preceding the one Jesus quotes), the following striking oracle:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

The shepherd, Jesus, is about to be struck, or pierced, and the people of God will look upon the one who had been pierced and mourn as a response. This reveals our fourth, and most stunning parallel between Peter and Judas, because both of them look on the one they have pierced and mourn. In Matthew 26:75, immediately after Peter has denied Jesus, he “went outside and wept bitterly.” And right after this passage, in Matthew 27:3, Matthew records that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse.” Both Peter and Judas mourn bitterly for what they have done to their master. They both fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy.

Painting by James Jacques Tissot

Peter’s grief was real.

But it is here that the parallels end, for while Peter lives on to be restored by his master, Judas takes his own life. And let it be clear, at this point, from within the darkness of betrayal, that neither man has a real advantage. Both men have had their master name the betrayal/denial in them before it came to pass. Both men have actually betrayed their Lord and Master. And both men experience remorse for what they’ve done. By all accounts and purposes, and to the extent that Matthew documents this story, Judas and Peter are, at this point, in the same dismal boat.

What is it, then, that sets Peter and Judas apart? Both men betrayed their master—why does one die, and one live? Indeed, this question becomes more imperative when we remember that we also, like Peter and Judas, sometimes deny and betray Jesus—what, in the end, is the real difference? If we commit this sin of Judas and Peter, are we equally doomed to die an eternal death as a result?

The answer is “no.” We are not doomed, but we must beware two sins that Judas commits at this point, because it is these two sins—those that follow his betrayal—that condemn Judas to an eternity in hell.

For a moment, let’s return to the passage Jesus quoted from Zechariah 13, because that passage will inform our understanding here. There, the same oracle from which Jesus quotes also describes the ultimate effect of God’s divine scattering. There, in Zechariah 13:9, it is revealed that the result of this scattering will be to refine and purify God’s people. The remnant who survive this scattering, who survive the remorse of witnessing the one they have pierced, will be revealed as God’s holy people, the purified foundation of Christ’s new nation. Remember again, it was not merely Peter and Judas who betrayed Jesus that night, but the entire group of disciples that abandoned him. They were all scattered, they were all filled with remorse, but only eleven survived. What set Judas apart was not that he had remorse (which was predicted by Jesus through Zechariah), but the way he dealt with his remorse. And it is precisely here that Judas committed his two sins.

The first sin Judas commits is the sin of despair, and to despair is to fixate on the present hopelessness to such a degree that you remove God from the influence of your life. Emotionally, you close off the world, close out the future, and judge all of eternity in light of a present moment. Judas determined that, for him, there was no hope.

I find this image sadly fitting…

As Judas fixates in this way, he sections off outside influences. Nobody can reach him. Nobody can get through. There are no words that can reach a heart that has given itself to despair because that heart is becoming increasingly self-referential. Even subconsciously, the heart thinks, “I am the only one. There is no one who can help me. There is no one who can save me. I am alone, and alone I have no hope.” Judas had experienced the Lord; Judas had then betrayed the Lord. And if Judas knew (as we must presume he did) that the Lord was his only hope, then Judas believed he had betrayed his own hope. His logic, in a twisted way, was sound. It is the logic of a world without God. It is flawed because it doesn’t account for God.

To put this another way, Judas’s first sin is the taking Good Friday without Easter Sunday. Judas got stuck in a moment of time, and never looked to the larger picture. To this you might immediately respond, “How could Judas take Easter Sunday? He takes his life before the resurrection happens!” But that is precisely my point. Judas stops, he fixates, on Good Friday. His remorse for what he has done is the right response, but he holds on to his remorse, lets it control him, and gives in, in the end, to despair. In this, Judas is so busy looking at himself and how he feels, that he closes himself off from the world around him. And ultimately, that is precisely what his suicide is: a closing off of the world, a denial of everything but the experience of his own self. Judas took Good Friday as the final word and didn’t wait for Easter Sunday.

That this is a lesson for us should be obvious. We cannot allow our momentary despair to overshadow the work of God. We must always maintain perspective, always remember that God is good and has a plan for us. We must always remember that for every Good Friday, when things seem darkest, there is always an Easter Sunday around the corner where God’s light will shine on us again—if we have but the patience to wait! Therefore the sin of Judas is this: to fixate on our circumstances, to close off the voice of God and the voice of history and the voice of the Church in favor of our own thoughts. It is to become self-referential when we ought to be looking for forgiveness. It is to judge our present circumstances as absolute, as if there were no future possible for us. It is, in effect, to take the world as all that is, and deny the possibility of God’s goodness and providence toward us.

The second sin of Judas is the sin of power, in particular with the taking of matters into his own hands. Judas doesn’t wait on God’s power; instead he acts in his own power. Potentially, there are hints of this in Judas’s betrayal. Some have hypothesized that Judas, knowing the power of Jesus, betrayed him as a way to force him to act. All the disciples, remember, were looking for an earthly kingdom—was Judas’s betrayal his own earthly way of forcing Jesus to exert his divine power against the Romans? The hypothesis fits what we know of Judas’s character, but even more than that speculation, we see this taking of matters into his own hands most clearly in Judas’s suicide. There, rather than waiting for God to dispense His divine justice, or wait for God to reveal His ultimate plan, Judas took justice into his own hands, literally. Judas determined to mete out his own punishment, determined what he deserved, and dealt himself the killing blow. He was to himself judge, jury, and executioner.

Framed this way, the sin of power, of taking matters into our own hands, is perhaps one of the oldest of all sins. After all, if only Adam and Eve had waited a short while longer, they could have asked God what He thought about the fruit and the snake. Seen this way, taking matters into our own hands is the essence of all sin—it is the refusal to admit God’s power, to wait on His will, and to allow God’s sovereign reign. We commit it when we grow impatient with God, when we try to work our own deals. God says to us, clearly, “Wait for Sarah,” and we go and find ourselves a Hagar and mess it all up.

Peter denies Jesus but is redeemed. Judas betrays Jesus and is condemned. Alike in their betrayal, they are unalike in their outcomes, and what separates Judas and Peter are the sins of despair and power. In the end, it is these two sins that commit Judas to Hell; not his betrayal. I even suspect that if Judas had stayed his hand for two more days, he might have been restored and forgiven by the risen Lord. He, like Paul, might have been the corrupt apostle made more glorious by the redemption of the master. Instead, Judas is in Hell. But he is not there because God chose him for Hell before time began, but rather because he was self-referential, because he allowed no inbreaking of God’s greater plan, and he, from that dismal vantage, impatiently took his own life into his own hands. In fact, together these two sins—despair and power—are the sins that create hell itself. They represent a sinister and pervasive logic: “This world is all there is. My power is all I have.” By such thoughts is Hell sustained. God forgive us all for thinking them.

The mystery of Judas has long pricked the imagination of the Church, and followers of Jesus have striven to make sense of Judas. The apostles, of course, felt no such compunction—they were content to condemn him in blanket uniformity, and after his replacement in Acts 1 he is never mentioned again. But later followers of Jesus were compelled by the mystery of Judas; he remained an alluring figure. Partly because of this there was even an early, heretical, “Gospel of Judas” which attempted to resolve the theodicy by framing Judas as the hero of the story, doing Jesus’ will by inaugurating the cross. But while the disciples dismiss Judas as a thief and say no more, and early Gnostics invent stories to make sense of Judas, neither of these provides a satisfactory answer to the complexity of Judas.

Of necessity, much of Judas’s life and choices will remain a mystery. We will never, this side of eternity, know the real motivation for his choice to betray his Lord. And yet perhaps there is more to the story of Judas for our benefit—not, as with those early Gnostics, in a secret history where Judas reveals to us some long-hidden truth, but rather in the content of Judas’s story as recorded in the gospels. And from that content we see these truths: that we may betray, deny, or fall away from our Lord, but we must not despair, closing God off from our lives. And no matter what happens, under whatever circumstances, we must always trust in the power of God, rejecting the temptation to take matters into our own hands. We must reject self-reference and patiently embrace God’s power. Like Peter, and unlike Judas, we must in all things wait on God.