Theodore Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers. He’s a retired British physician who often worked in inner-city hospitals and prisons. Given these settings, he saw and heard a lot of nasty stuff over the years. In one of his essays he talks about how he used to believe people were basically good (Dalrymple’s not a Christian). He had been to countries where dictators ruled and people were massacred, but he thought unless you have these tyrants widespread evil was impossible. He gradually changed his mind after hearing countless stories of the horrible things his patients had experienced and done. “Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one requires people to commit it.”
Dalrymple says in a dictatorship you can understand people doing bad things to protect themselves. But in a free country like Britain no one forces you to be wicked. In fact, oftentimes you’ll be punished if you do evil. And yet people freely choose to what is evil. “Never again,” he writes, “will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature” (Our Culture, What’s Left of It, 7-8).
Sin is in every human heart. It is the villain with a thousand faces. It’s the man who gets a woman pregnant and leaves town. It’s also the reputable family man who cuts down his wife and ignores his kids. It’s the mean-spirited woman who talks bad about everyone, but it’s also the sweet lady who never says an unkind word but harbors all kind of resentment and grudges. It’s the kid who swears at his parents and blows off everyone who tries to help. It’s also the kid who gets straight A’s, keeps curfew, and smiles at church, but is one enormous bundle of pride and self-righteousness.
Sin is lust and greed and murder. But sin is also impatience, petty self-absorption, and the need to control everyone and everything. Sin is hating yourself because in your pride you want to be the most beautiful, the most intelligent, and the most athletic. Sin is being disgusted with all the judgmental people in the world that you enjoy judging. Sin is the self-importance we feel in our intellectual snobbery at those who are not as enlightened as we are, and in our aesthetic snobbery at those who don’t appreciate the fine things we appreciate.
Sin is preaching and serving and being a good Christian because others will notice and think well of us for it. Sin is talking about other people’s faults more than praying for them. Sin is refusing to give one inch of mercy to those who hurt us, even when we have been given miles of mercy in Jesus. Sin is loving people to be liked by them and helping people so we can be applauded by them. Sin is the laziness that we call a short attention span, the fear of man that we call anxiety, and the ignoring of God that we call busyness.
We desperately need the word “sin” in our vocabulary. When a famous politician or athlete sins the mea culpa is almost always in the language of “I’m sorry to have disappointed so many people.” Or, “I regret my error in judgment.” Or, “I admit this has been a struggle for me and I am seeking help.” Rarely, does anyone say “I sinned. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Even as Christians we find ways to avoid the word sin. We will speak of our imperfections, our flaws, our inadequacies, our dysfunctions, our weaknesses, our insecurities, and our growth edges. But how often do we call sin “sin”?
The Bible says sin is the problem in the world. We are rebellious traitors disloyal to our King. We are ungrateful creatures thumbing our noses at the Creator. We are foolish lovers going after other people and things that don’t satisfy. We have polluted hearts that like what is bad and don’t like what is good, corrupted hearts that seek the glory of self instead of God. Sin is the besetting sin of us all.
Except for Jesus of course. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. For sin may have a thousand faces, but salvation has only one.