It had been way too long since I’d set aside a significant chunk of time for reflection and prayer, so this morning I went to Vasquez Rocks. I have some messages and decisions coming up so the timing was perfect, and I want to share some of the fruit of my time up there. I’ve been thinking lots lately about sin and idolatry and that sort of thing. (It’s made me extra cheery and fun to be around, I’m sure!) I think that a clear understanding of how sin works both personally and societally, and specifically the dynamics of idolatry, will go a long way in helping us understand the mess our world is in and hopefully how to move towards healing it. Today I’ll write about the five stages or steps of the downward spiral we call “sin” and tomorrow I’ll write about how Jesus overcomes this problem piece by piece.
1. We refuse to trustfully acknowledge God as superior, and so we set up ourselves as competition. This is clearly the issue in Genesis 3 – we want to be like God, knowing all the things that he did. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 1, we refused to thank him and glorify him as God. The root of this is fear that God can’t be trusted; we don’t think he really has our best interests in mind; we think he’s holding out on us. It is rooted in a denial of God’s love for us. I’d call this first step rebellion.
2. We assign sacredness to some other group (our team, family, country, clique, etc) or symbolic object (the sun, a flag, a clothing brand, dollar bills, the Bible) or idea (liberty, happiness, art, socialism, capitalism, religion, etc); we, however, are still in control (or so we think). We are choosing what to value – to make ultimate, to devote ourselves to – but it is something other than God. This is again what Paul talks about in Romans 1, echoing the mocking of human-made idols we see all over the prophets (Isaiah 44.9-20; Psalm 115.1-8). This second step I’d specifically call idolatry.
3. We become like what we worship and so spiral downward into something less than truly human. One of the basic biblical truths about worship is that we end up looking like what we make ultimate in our lives (2 Kings 17.15; Psalm 115.8; Jeremiah 2.5; Hosea 9.10). Again this is part of what Paul is describing in Romans 1 – we trade in lives and a world made in God’s image for lives and a world made in the image of something much smaller, so our humanity shrinks. We become less human and more beast-like, tearing one another apart at the seams. Witness Genesis 4-11, for example. I’d call this step corruption.
4. We find ourselves controlled by the system, unable to break free from the huge suicide machine we’ve constructed. Think about the problem of corporate greed, neglect of the poor, and abuse of the environment. These things are inescapably sinful, but the people making the harmful decisions often feel like they have no decision at all; they feel trapped – trapped by their history, trapped by a competitive market, trapped by an unaware public, etc. The same is true in families; marriages spiral downward until spouses have forgotten how to show one another love even if they wanted to; and they’re afraid to want to because their love efforts might not be reciprocated. This is the enslavement described in John 8, Romans 6, Titus 3, etc. I’d call this stage bondage.
5. We resign ourselves to despair, believing the lie that our dungeon is actually paradise, or the lie that though it is indeed a dungeon there’s nothing we can do about it. There are two tracks this can take. One is that we end up “calling evil good” as Paul talked about in Romans 1. We accept a purposeless existence where anything goes; of course this only makes the problem worse, but who cares, right? Or the second track is that we see problems and feel totally helpless to do anything significant about them. So we give up and we settle for a decent existence with an adequate house, 2.5 kids, a car that runs, and maybe a few church or humanitarian donations to ease our conscience. I’d call this step depravity or despair, since it really is twofold.
So the spiral here is rebellion, idolatry, corruption, bondage, and depravity or despair. I really do believe that this provides a solid base from which we could understand everything happening in our world. I know it’s oversimplified and you might as well just read Romans 1 rather than my pale attempt to do something similar to what Paul does there, but it was very helpful for me to lay this out, and I hope it may help some of you too!