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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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Christmas death death penalty guilt law murder myth religion sin suffering violence

First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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Christians fear guilt jesus spiritual life theology trust

Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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