I spent quite a bit of time as a missionary seeking out Evangelicals to talk with. (I spent 8 months of my mission within a mile of Azusa Pacific University, and I would tract through the student housing for fun.) Most of the Evangelicals that I met approached me with one of two attitudes: (1) ridicule, and (2 ) fear. I have never felt anyone fear me like I have felt in the presence of some true-believing Evangelicals when I was a missionary. I can chalk some of this up to pure physical presence (I was 6″2, and built a sort of like a skinny orangutan) but I am not a particularly hostile person, and I had made it clear that I was there to learn from them if they were.
It seemed that most of the fear came when I expressed my faith with both confidence and demonstrated knowledge of the Bible. I seemed to be able to explain my faith better than they could, and in a more confident spirit. Because they “knew” I was wrong, this made them fear that they did not have the prowess or ability to correct me, so they simply wanted escape. They saw me as a representative of the devil, when I knew I was a representative of God. I knew I was not from the devil, I knew I was there to save them, and they seemed to fear the salvation on offer. Their fear made me think that the Gospel they believed in must be deeply confused.
Of the dozens of conversations I had with traditional Christians of all stripes, only one discussion opened my mind to the possibility that at least some Evangelicals were not afraid or in contempt of the Gospel I had or afraid the Gospel they had to offer. His name was John, he was over 50 and had longish blond hair, he was an out-of-work minister and he never smiled during out discussion but he was unafraid, without contempt, and profoundly sincere. We were introduced by the person he was temporarily staying with. After about about a hour of back and forth questions and discussion, I questioned whether he would consider being open to something new about Chtist, he looked me with eyes that clearly expressed a broken heart, and said that he understood where I was coming from but that I might not have had enough pain in my life to really understand what Jesus offered. This, I could not deny. My life was nearly pain-free up to that point. I had no problems worth mentioning: amazing parents, good health, physical and academic talent, and deep love from many sources, and a deep faith in God, supported by profound spiritual experience. I did not see what I was missing, I only saw what he was missing.
If I could put my finger now on what I was missing, it was a simple understanding of the fact of sin. At that point in my life, I was plenty aware of the strength that God had given me. It was demonstrated. The Spirit had led me to paths of rigor but they were joyful paths. I did not believe the Gospel because it made sense, I believed it because it worked. It was not until the reality of Sin hit me hard in the face and left me reeling for years did I recognize what I missing what John saw.
Paul Tillich’s words might help me explain what I was missing:
The first step to an understanding of the Christian message that is called “good news” is to dispel the image of sin that implies a catalogue of sins. Those who are bound to this image are also those who find it most difficult to receive the message of acceptance of the unacceptable, the good news of Christianity. Their half-sinfulness and half-righteousness makes them insensitive to a message that states the presence of total sinfulness and total righteousness in the same man at the same moment. They never find the courage to make a total judgment against themselves, and therefore, they can never find the courage to believe in a total acceptance of themselves. Those, however, who have experienced in their hearts that sin is more than the trespassing of a list of rules, know that all sins are manifestations of Sin, of the power of estrangement and inner conflict. Sin dwells in us, it controls us, and makes us do what we don’t want to do. It produces a split in us that makes us lose identity with ourselves. Paul writes of this split twice: “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.” Those who have suffered this split know how unexpected and terrifying it can be. . . .
It is dangerous to preach about sin, because it may induce us to brood over our sinfulness. Perhaps one should not preach about it at all. I myself have hesitated for many years. But sometimes it must be risked in order to remove the distortions which increase sin, if, by the persistence of wrong thoughts, wrong ways of living are inevitable.
I believe it possible to conquer the dangers implied in the concentration on sin, if we look at it indirectly, in the light of that which enables us to resist it – reunion overcoming estrangement. Sin is our act of turning away from participation in the divine Ground from which we come and to which we go. Sin is the turning towards ourselves, and making ourselves the center of our world and of ourselves, Sin is the drive in everyone, even those who exercise the most self-restraint, to draw as much as possible of the world into oneself. But we can be fully aware of this only if we have found a certain level of life above ourselves. Whoever has found himself after he has lost himself knows how deep his loss of self was. If we look at our estrangement from the point of reunion, we are no longer in danger of brooding over our estrangement. We can speak of Sin, because its power over us is broken. It is certainly not broken by ourselves.
The attempt to break the power of sin by the power of good will has been described by Paul as the attempt to fulfill the law, the law in our mind, in our innermost self that is the law of God. The result of this attempt is failure, guilt and despair. The law, with its commands and prohibitions, despite its function in revealing and restricting evil, provokes resistance against itself. In a language both poetic and profoundly psychological, Paul says that the sin that dwells in our members is asleep until the moment in which it is awakened by the “thou shalt not.” Sin uses the commandments in order to become alive. Prohibition awakens sleeping desire. It arouses the power and consciousness of sin, but cannot break its power. Only if we accept with our whole being the message that it is broken, is it also broken in us.
This picture of sin is a picture full of ugliness, suffering and shame, and, at the same time, drama and passion. It is the picture of us as the battleground of powers greater than we. It does not divide men into categories of black and white, or good and evil. It does not appear as the threatening finger of an authority urging us – do not sin! But it is the vision of something infinitely important, that happens on this small planet, in our bodies and minds. It raises mankind to a level in the universe where decisive things happen in every moment, decisive for the ultimate meaning of all existence. In each of us such decisions occur, in us, and through us. This is our burden. This is our despair. This is our greatness. “
(From the sermon “The Good that I will, I do not” in The Eternal Now)