Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some time ago I found a book, humorously written in the style of the Worst Case Scenario series, on being Lutheran. It was a pretty compact thing and appeared to contain a lot of wit so I picked it up and skimmed it.

There was, indeed, a good measure of solid advice, both on theological issues that would be of concern to any Christian, including (in not so many words) some suggestions for spiritual warfare, and on more practical matters of belonging to an ecclesial community, such as what kinds of casseroles are considered appropriate pot luck fare in different parts of the country.

Two things struck me as odd, one trivial and one a bit unsettling.

The trivial one was the portrayal of Martin Luther as a lighthearted, even jovial man. One can detect a dry sense of humor even in reading his 95 Theses, if you're a little familiar with the context, but for some reason I always tended to picture Luther as a man who, after spending numerous fruitless hours in the confessional, would come out totally devoid of consolation from either his confessor or directly from God; a man of mounting frustration who perhaps vented it through acerbic wisecracks and biting sarcasm.  I see this kind of thing here and there on the Internet, where certain personalities seem to have trigger topics that, once broached, send them off on massive, solidly if hastily reasoned, rants that go on and on and eventually touch on every related subject that the writer has been nursing a grudge for.

Still, I have no reason to think my original mental image is more accurate; it was just interesting to see a different perspective, one that provided a better window into his personality than I've ever looked through before.

The unsettling thing was one of the tactics suggested for spiritual combat.

One of Luther's catch phrases, I suppose you could say, was "Sin boldly." The idea, if I may digest it a bit, is that since in the long run we won't avoid committing sin, we may as well do so with gusto, as an act and show of robust faith in Christ's saving grace, which is greater than any sin or infirmity.

Faith and freedom from second-guessing are good things, no doubt, but I can't candone being cavalier towards sin. We shouldn't despair over the fate of our souls, but contrition is not the same thing as despair, and it is a better antidote to pride than something that amounts to recklessness.

I haven't gotten to the combat tactic yet: the questionable suggestion in the book was that, if you were mired in a spell of temptation to do some great sin, then you should commit some different minor sin to "throw the devil off."

I would really like to know who came up with this idea. It's wrong on so many levels.

First and foremost, it is never a good idea to commit a sin, of any magnitude. The ends will not justify the means; we're not talking "Take a course of action many would find ill-chosen but falls into the category of prudential judgment," we're talking "Commit a sin in order to escape another sin." Paul explicitly warned us not to promote sin in order to multiply grace, but this book's advice is materially contradicting that command. You're not accepting the lesser of two evils as a prudent effort to reduce harm, you're positively choosing evil in a misguided attempt to confuse the author of confusion.

If this advice is the fruit of "Sin boldly," then bold sin is a losing proposition right out of the gate. God never provides us a challenge without also supplying the grace to face it; can anyone argue that God's grace will specifically take the form of an opportunity for a "distracting" evil to disrupt the devil's efforts to bring you down in some other way?

"When I get the urge to kill, I masturbate until the rage goes away."  "I couldn't take my eyes off her, so I went to the park and made fun of the kids there until I stopped thinking about her."  Does any practice that resembles these sound like a good idea?

All I can imagine is that the author has observed that when he's tempted to do something heinous, if he does something a little less heinous, the inclination to commit the worse sin goes away. For one thing, it's a lack of faith, not a sign of it, in God's providence and generosity to resort to one sin in order to escape another.

For another, what is "throw the devil off" supposed to mean? Satan might be tempting someone with lust; is the person instead supposed to go and eat a whole chocolate cake because a sin that Satan wasn't immediately pushing somehow doesn't count?

It all counts. There isn't some tactical game you can play, hoping you can lose just one battle in order to win the war; Christ already won it for us so there's no reason other than scratching that sinful itch to cave in. Satan doesn't care how you sin; he'll take whatever disobedience from God he can get out of you, and being cunning, Satan probably anticipated your most likely immoral avenues of escape from the primary pressure he's exerting on you. The devil sends errors into the world in pairs, so that in fleeing one you embrace the other, for this very reason.  He might even be pushing lust on you simply to trick you into committing gluttony, because he knows it will be a more destructive avenue for you in the long run. Maybe that act of gluttony is less grave than the act of lust you were contemplating, but the devil still gets what he wants: your acquiescence to sin.

Either way, your resistance to sin gets worn down; if at first you show reluctant acceptance of small sin in order to avoid a great one, soon you will show a willingness to do so, and then an openness to doing so with greater and greater sins in order to avoid lesser and lesser ones that, in being consistently tempted to commit, you have come to believe you are especially prone to.

It's a simple high-pressure sales technique. "Can I interest you in a new computer? Then how about a cell phone instead?" "Are you still considering a new computer? How about a digital camera too? Or just the camera?" "Would you like to try our latest computer? Why not get a new hard drive as a backup for your old one instead?" Whether you buy a computer, a phone, a camera, a hard drive, or go in a different direction and get a multimedia device, the salesman isn't going to care: you're still in his store, and you're still buying his product; if you acquiesce to buying one thing, you may acquiesce to buying accessories to it or to buying the other things he's selling. One way or another, in one fell swoop or by a thousand increments, you're giving him your money, and possibly much more than if you'd caved to the first item he offered and then left the store too chagrined to be interested in anything else.

It also leads to pride.  I can't speak universally, but I can sum up some personal anecdotes.

I know of two general kinds of people who abstain from alcohol:  recovering alcoholics, and principled teetotalers.  The alcoholics I know best understand that not everyone is necessarily prone to the same temptations for substance abuse or have the same inability to moderate their behavior in certain activities.  Aside from the people who were never alcoholics but abstain merely as a religious discipline, the way Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays but don't think twice about Protestants having cookouts at the end of the week, I have known people who don't imbibe because of all the harm that alcoholism could bring, who have managed to cultivate an air of disdain for folks like me who appear reckless, who aren't insightful or holy enough to take a purer, less carnal and more gnostic path of holiness.  God knows I can understand how easy it is to feel smug about how much other people wallow in sin and in the near occasions of sin--I'd be posting twice as frequently if I weren't trying to keep that attitude in check when writing about things in the world that really need to be answered.

But when I hear, in word or in tone, a comment like "Oh, you had a beer once?  I'm disappointed," my gut reaction is "Maybe I was young and foolish, but all of a sudden, now I am too.  But I'd rather be drunk than judgmental."

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