Perseverance in the Right Direction

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 13, 2015)

If you google, “What happened to sin?”…you discover that lots of people have written about that question.

One piece I found was written by Philip Yancey in March of 2014, titled “Whatever Happened to the Word Sin?” Listen to his words:

“Although almost every sermon in my childhood church centered on sin, the word has vanished in the years since then.

Christians did not invent the concept of sin… Anthropologists find something similar, acts of wrongdoing that cause a sense of guilt, in every culture. How did this most basic insight into human nature simply vanish from the radar screen of modern thought? And what are we missing if we delete the word from our vocabulary?”

Last week we began a journey as a congregation, reading the book of James and studying it together. I introduced some of the major themes of the book last week, and this week and next week we will look at the first chapter of James. The part that drew my attention and that I want to have guide this message are verses 12-18. The word “sin” is definitely in it, so I get to go against the grain and prove Philip Yancey wrong by talking about it!

I want to invite you to open your bibles to James 1. Listen and read along with verses 12-18.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation–since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each of you is tempted when you are dragged away by your own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full- grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:12-18, TNIV)

Today I want to talk about and acknowledge sin, but I do not want it to become the central focus…because I do not believe that sin is James’ central focus.

Rather, I want to focus on what I brought up last week as one of the major themes of this entire letter of James: We are called and invited to a single-minded pursuit of God, not being distracted or deceived into pursuing other things, other things that hurt our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Today I’m inviting us to listen to some of our young adults, and in doing so, I hope you are encouraged (as I have been) by listening to their thoughtfulness.

What I found to my great joy is some of our most thoughtful young adults have most definitely not erased the concept of sin from their lives. What I found is a careful and actually very sophisticated critique of some ways the church has caused damage; what I found are some ways our young adults are more faithful to James’ understanding of sin then the church has sometimes been.

I will be sharing the thoughts of several who grew up at or are a current part of Newberg Friends: Mareesa Fawver, Natalie Koskela, Connor Magee, and Riley Sump. I will also share thoughts from Katie Comfort and Melanie Kent who grew up in other churches. All of these were raised in Christian environments; some have always stayed there, others have had times when their questions or doubts have made them reluctant to claim being part of the church. I have permission to name all of them. Some preferred not having their specific comments named, so I will honor this by not naming who spoke any of the individual quotes…otherwise, you could probably figure it out by process of elimination.

I started conversation by asking them a version of what Philip Yancey noticed: How do you respond when someone says you have thrown out the concept of sin? Here’s what one said:

“We started talking about sin being throw out by young adults and realized that part of the reason that is happening is because the common definition of sin is so very black and white and so very legalistic seeming… If sin is defined as a list of what not to do, then yes, young people have thrown that out. But if sin is seen as actions, mindsets, etc that distance oneself from righteousness- right relationship with God (and others)- then no, I don’t think we have abandoned the idea of sin at all.”

Another said:

“I think sometimes there’s room to talk about sin in a more practical way then we often do. Instead of “don’t lie because the bible says you shouldn’t” maybe something like “don’t lie because it’s damaging to relationships and because Jesus set an example of right relationship that we should pursue.””

I could read several more with exactly the same theme.

Each one not only refuses to deny sin exists, but demonstrates exactly the heart of what James teaches about sin in these verses. In the context of James, purity and single-mindedness come when nothing distracts us from our pursuit of God. Sin begins with our wrong desires for things that claim our allegiance over God. These aren’t lists of things not to do; these include actions and mindsets that break right relationship with God.

They’ve got that exactly right. One said:

“I believe in sin, just that its relative.  I might do an action that is sinful, but for someone else, it might not be. Most behavior is not innately sinful, it just depends on context.”

Another explained that more fully:

“I think we have more of an individualistic view of sin. Like what might be sin for me is not sin for you…Like for me, physicality and romantic relationship feels more [dangerous and] sinful than drinking. But some of my other friends know they shouldn’t grab the bottle because of what that enables within them.”

This isn’t trying to get away with more by calling it relative. This is the recognition that we’re called to a higher standard…that doing the work of discernment might mean something that is ok for you is not ok for me. They recognize this is more difficult than just having a list, but they also recognize that the lists have difficulty to. One said:

“[When sins have been listed] like a grocery list, [they have] been also suspiciously applied solely to [the] part of our lives that have to do with alcohol, drugs and sex, without real concern sometimes for a deeper whole those things relate to. Living those things properly needs to be put in perspective of a life that also takes the poor and marginalized seriously, that takes emotional wholeness seriously.”

These friends are rightly calling us not to abandon the idea of sin, but to think of it as James and as Jesus did.

We are held to a higher standard; we must let nothing get in the way of our love of God or love of others. Those barriers, those things that harm our relationship with God and others…that’s what is sin. That’s what causes the damage.

I heard in their words what I also believe the bible teaches: we all fail and fall short. No one always gets it right, so we all sin. But that leads to another critique that we should listen to. One said:

“I hate when people take the fact that we all sin and turn it into “we’re all innately evil with no innate goodness in us.” People in the church (I’m speaking in huge generalizations) seem to forget that all people are created in the image of God. God saw us and called us good. And perhaps even more importantly, people seem to forget the power of God’s grace/ the power of the cross to take away our sin and continually make us new. So we aren’t defined by our sin. We aren’t simply “sinners” and that’s the end. I think to understand the beauty of that grace that we don’t deserve it IS important to talk about sin… But I feel like so often when churches talk about sin it’s just about people being damned to hell. They miss the good news entirely. They miss the point.”

And one of the others:

“I think that we are not persuaded of our complete evilness… We feel we have some dignity… We’re suspicious of feeling like a dirty sinner while in comparison to apparently holy folks — something smells of hypocrisy.”

These friends are saying, and I agree, that holding on to the concept of sin is not the same thing as communicating that people are complete sinners, completely corrupt.

To go back to Philip Yancey, we realize there is nothing new under the sun. The church often struggles to get this tension right, this tension of acknowledging the damage sin causes without creating a damaging judgment of people. Yancey writes:

“A misconception of sin has turned people away from faith. Nathaniel Hawthorne reacted against the stern judgment of New England Puritans by writing stories that exposed their hypocrisy. John Muir fled the harshness of his Scottish Presbyterian father, who scorned his son’s interest in nature as frivolous and ungodly… George Orwell lost his faith at an English boarding school where the staff beat him and condemned him as a sinner every time he wet the bed. Instead of helping people understand the world, the notion of sin alienated them.”

When we see other people doing things that would be sinful for us…I wonder if our anxiety over that sometimes causes us to shame others in judgmental ways? I wonder if our anxiety makes it difficult to trust that others might follow God, and come to different conclusions? Listen to these two:

“Saying that the younger generation has abandoned the concept of sin displays what comes across as an enormous lack of trust in our ability to seek God, which is something Friends teach we can all do, regardless of age. Saying that we have abandoned the concept of sin amounts to saying that we are not seeking God.”

“I think it also is really validating for people to hear from the front that they are smart enough to be given something more complicated than a formula to follow in every situation.”

Not only do I want to validate that all of you ARE able to wrestle with the complexity of listening to God for what is blocking your relationship with God…I want to challenge each and every one of you that your task is exactly that! My task as a pastor, like what James was doing here in James, is to encourage and challenge you to seek God with a single-minded devotion, and to respond in obedience when God tells you harmful things in your life must stop.

Is God trustworthy and does God have the ability to keep us from the things that harm our relationship with God and with others?

Let’s go back to James, where we find the answer is an unequivocal yes!!

As I said earlier, sin is not the central focus for James. The central focus is the goodness and the generosity of God. Look at verse 5: Ask God for wisdom, God who gives generously to all without finding fault. In verse 12, God will give the crown of life; it’s a promise to those who steadfastly pursue God. Verse 13, God doesn’t tempt. Verse 17, God gives every good and perfect gift that is in the world. Verse 18, God birthed in us (a stronger and more powerful birth than the way desire “births” sin) God birthed US through the word of truth, so that we can be held up as the best offering, the first fruits of all God created, a mature and complete celebration of God’s transformation!

Michelle Akins sent me this quote from Joshua Ryan Butler’s book, “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”:

“Jesus himself has issued an invitation to us to join him in the new creation: he wants to pardon our countless sins, heal us, and make us fit for his kingdom.”

God is trustworthy! God gives wisdom and all good gifts! God doesn’t want to make us fail, God wants us to have the crown of life and be the first fruits offering. Sin loses all power in the face of God’s greatest gift, Jesus Christ. The key is not focusing on sin so that we know how to avoid it. The key is pursuing our good God with a single-minded focus, saying no to our wrong desires lead to sin which breaks relationship with God.

One of God’s very gifts is to work in us as we persevere in trying to follow. We don’t have to wipe out sin-God does that. Our job is to persevere in the right direction, in the pursuit of God.

I think that requires a belief that God has accepted us and loved us and is worth our singleminded pursuit.

What I found in these conversations is agreement that sin exists and is damaging to our relationship with God.

Where I think there might be some disagreement is in how we call out sin. Some of us grew up hearing preachers call us to conviction by addressing sin from up front. Sometimes this led to meaningful repentance, while other times it felt manipulative and damaging. These young adults are handling it differently:

“I think that calling out [sin] needs to be done in the context of a safe, mutual, authentic relationship.”

“I do think, in proper settings, people in our generation do share convictions with friends when they’re worried about choices friends are making/ things friends are doing/ ways friends are living…”

“Experientially, I have found that being a part of even a small community of people I can be vulnerable, honest, and open with, and who are actively trying to be Christ-like together helps me to work in that direction myself.”

James recognized we needed to be able to trust that God loves us and wants what’s best for us in order to be led to turn away from our own desires and turn toward God. These Friends are reminding us that we need to be able to trust that PEOPLE love us and want what’s best for us, if we are going to respond well to a challenge to repent of our sin and pursue God.

These Friends are reminding us that we have sometimes failed to demonstrate that love and safety, have sometimes not been mutual but rather one-sided in telling others how to live. I stand with them to say that in my life, the people who have been most effective in helping me realize where my desires were giving birth to sin were those I trusted, those who were in mutual relationship with me, those who made it safe for me to be vulnerable.

I want to end with a story from this week that shows how important this is.

These conversations were so encouraging to me. I’ve known most of these young adults for virtually their whole lives. I know they trust me, and I think that trust comes because I have always tried to treat them with love and respect. After having these great conversations, I got a text from one of them late Friday night. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t an abstract conversation about a sermon. It was real, and personal, and raw, and deep.

This one trusted me enough to be vulnerable to share some things, saying: “I’m super ashamed of both of these things. I don’t want them any more. I’ve been trying to convince myself these are just who I am. That it’s okay. But they aren’t. They’re hurting me.”

This is exactly the way we should respond to our wrong desires and sin. We bring them out of hiding and into the light. We face them and stop hiding them. We acknowledge that they are not ok, they are hurting me and my relationship with God…and we say “I don’t want them any more.” This is how sin should be addressed.

I am convinced this response happened because this person knew our relationship had proven safe and mutual and authentic over time. I am convinced that this vulnerability and honesty happened because like James so often spoke, God’s love and acceptance were made the central focus, not sin.

May we be people who demonstrate our love and acceptance, as an example of God’s gracious love and acceptance. May we communicate God’s loving desire that all who pursue him will be made mature and complete and whole and perfect.

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