We have talked about sin as darkness and we have talked about sin as chains. In this post I want to talk about sin as failure, which when connected with the other two should lead to our final post on this topic.
The term that the New Testament uses most often to describe sin is ἁμαρτία (hamartia) which derives from another word meaning “to miss a mark,” or “to err.” In its original sense it was archery jargon, but philosophers, including Aristotle, used it to describe a willful transgression of the laws of the gods, and its eventual Christian sense was born.
That original idea, missing the mark, is at least as valuable to an understanding of sin as the fuller concept that sin is willful and against God. Why is this? 2 reasons: Because missing a target is common and most of the time is not sinful, and a target may or may not be set by the individual missing it. Let’s look at each.
How common is failure? To mess up or mess something up is a normal component of life, not an aberration. It is the basis for several processes that are fundamental to who we are. Though a substantial portion of physical growth, including much of our mental development, is involuntary, much of what we would call growth, perhaps even a majority, is a process that we individually have a hand in. Growing in this manner is all about gauging a distant target and aspiring towards it, and where goals are involved, falling short of them is part of the process.
In sports, music, or mathematics, practice is predicated on the notion that we will set targets, try again and again to reach them, getting better each time, until we finally achieve our goal, whereupon we set a higher one. In education, teachers steer us to meet standards, giving marks based on success in doing so or at least effort in that direction. The scientific method is based on guessing outcomes and testing them, adjusting our approaches or targets until we find consistent results.
In all of these processes, failure is simply part of the equation. No athlete is an Olympian out of the gate. No student grasps every concept intuitively. No scientist dares accept a hypothesis without experimentation. Alexander Pope was right, to err is precisely what it means to be human.
Does this mean God set us up for failure? No. But we were made good, not perfect, by which I mean not finished. The end, where we are in perfect communion with God and have his law written on our hearts was not something Adam or Eve were any more ready for than we are. Getting there involves growth. In fact, if perfect means being God, we will never get there.
Nevertheless, we seek to be like Him, and I would argue that one of our key points in that process is coming to terms with our limitations.
Basic Christian theology tells us God is unlimited. That’s what infinite means. All the omni’s, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. describe aspects of God that stand in stark contradistinction to our own limited existence.
Meaning we are subject to limits instead of standing beyond them. Instead of the power to control the world around us as God does, we find ourselves controlled by our emotions and impulses, not to mention defeated by the frailty or inadequacy of our bodies and minds. Indeed, among other things, our bodies, desires, social pressures, physical realities, and time itself have more claim to controlling our lives than we do. It is when we think we are in control that we often most painfully discover we are not.
Where God’s knowledge is infinite, we spend a significant portion of our lives reading motives into others that are not there and lamenting our lack of understanding, all the while covering up our ignorance to look smarter than we are.
Furthermore, God is literally everywhere, while if zoom and this pandemic have taught us anything, it’s how incredibly impractical it is for us to try and have a serious meeting across time zones with kids in the other room and the delivery guy coming any second with dinner.
Generally we are not even aware of our limitations until we smack into them, once again demonstrating the centrality of failure to our existence, which ultimately points all the more to God and his unlimited qualities.
But God made us limited for a reason. The one who set the boundaries of existence itself also set the boundaries to what we can do and experience, and then fully knowing those limits, still handed the keys to the cosmos to us. Which brings us to the notion that our limits, as well as our goals and our outcomes are determined by God.
So what is that purpose and where does sin fit into it? That sounds like the rest of this post, doesn’t it?
We already touched on the purpose, to run the world, but let’s ride that thought a little farther. In the Garden, Adam and Eve had limits, but they also had responsibilities. God told the pair to rule the Garden, to cultivate it, to enjoy it. And he also mentioned not eating from a certain tree.
I have read a number of people who say things like “their only limit was not to eat from the tree of knowledge.” That’s simply untrue. If there were no other limits, the devil’s message to Eve would have been meaningless. The tree would have been unappealing.
The limits they experienced were likely not too different from those familiar to us. In order for Satan’s temptation to mean anything, those limits themselves had to have become a hindrance to them, something holding them back from what they thought they should be.
Isn’t that just speculation? Not really. Satan’s temptation was specific, to be like God, knowing everything. And the means he proposed of becoming like God was to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. For this temptation to be meaningful to Eve, it had to be desirable. That much and why is directly given us in Genesis 3:6, it was desirable to gain wisdom. So if wisdom or knowledge is desired, a felt lack of wisdom or knowledge is implied.
My sons have all at various points struggled with acquiring various skills of daily life, such as brushing teeth, tying shoes, or wearing pants. That last is presently a particular issue for my youngest. Don’t get me wrong. Putting on pants themselves is no problem, but for him backward and forward is interchangeable. Admittedly on several pairs, this makes no difference, but on a few, having the pants on the wrong way makes tasks such as going to the bathroom exceedingly perilous.
To help mitigate the woes involved therein, we try to catch him at the beginning of the day and make sure his pants have been put on correctly. Yet one might think we were extracting molars. We say, “Take them off and turn them around,” and in a pitiful mien he cries, “Why do they make pants like this?”
When my son shows frustration at the challenges of mastering the art of wearing trousers, he is not disdaining clothing or the wearing of it, but rather lamenting that he is in the midst of a learning process that is both necessary and not done yet. And if we are honest, this is true of anyone in just about any given learning situation, especially when the interest wears off.
All of us have struggled with math problems, musical scales, or finishing up the dishes. Learning how to fly a quadcopter drone, scale a rock wall quickly, deal with bullies on the bus, or time a jump just right in a video game can all fall into this kind of situation. Learning can be exciting, but it can also be tedious and at times even painful. Growth may clearly be under way, but we are so done with the process now. We just want it to end. Adam and Eve were no different.
Now I am not saying there was a “woe is me” mentality in the Garden, such wallowing is more fallen world than Eden, but the Devil knew his craft even there. Eating from the tree was expressly forbidden by God, and not just because God said so. The tree is named which means it likely has special properties. The tree of life did. If consumption of the fruit of life gave life, it would stand to reason that consumption of the fruit of knowledge would give knowledge.
And a picture of what they struggled with becomes clear.
Knowledge is arguably part of the component of our beings that is most related to God and most distinct from the rest of creation. Our minds are incredibly powerful. But even so they are still limited.
One could imagine that Adam and Eve keenly felt these limitations; they were the first to do anything. I remember how daunting it was to pull onto a freeway for the first time behind a steering wheel. I remember the fear as I held my firstborn son shortly after birth and watched the clock as my wife remained in surgery, thinking “I can’t do this alone!” Firsts are scary precisely because of the number of things we don’t know.
And God had handed Adam and Eve command of the cosmos.
There is so much complexity to this universe they were suddenly at the front of. Atheists casually dismiss any teleological arguments for the existence of God as “God in the gaps” forms of thinking, ironically holding absurd faith in the prospect that humanity will through the power of science one day somehow come to understand all of it. But we have limits! The system God created is too complex for us to begin to fully comprehend; we simply aren’t capable of it.
If we were, the weatherman would be right more often. Astronomical is too small a word for how complex our cosmos is.
Take air and its movement. When it gets wonkie, we get turbulence, such as when your airplane starts bouncing like a kid’s bathtub toy. You would think we have a pretty good idea how turbulence works, but scientists have been working over the last couple centuries to figure it out and haven’t gotten very close. Some incredibly great minds, like Heisenberg, the guy who basically invented Quantum Physics, couldn’t figure it out.
What makes it so complicated? The air we do not see is full of particles and while the movement of those particles may seem clear and orderly, its order is very elaborate, especially when the volume of particles becomes too dense. In those cases the movement of air, or any other fluid for that matter, is too elaborate for the best of our minds with the best computers to figure out. The math never adds up, creating enormous uncertainty, resulting in everything from bouncing planes to the weatherman’s stellar track record for predicting your holiday climate.
Why is it so complex? It’s because air particles actually have mass, and they interact with each other, and how they interact with each other is governed by a number of fundamental forces like gravity that blow away our ability to process. If there were only two particles, we could handle the math, but adding a third particle, a third body, means the factors for calculating movement multiply continuously and exponentially and in fairly short order move beyond our ability to follow. The math goes crazy, the possibilities, endless. We pull it off in limited contexts, which is how we figure out the cool workings of things like n95 masks or rocket science, but over time all our models fail.
And we are only talking 3 particles. There are considerably more than that in a single gust of wind.
How many gusts of wind make up a storm front? How many storms fronts does it take to cross a continent? How many continental air masses shape a climate? Does the climate in LA affect the weather in Shanghai? Dubai? Venus? Are we sure it doesn’t?
I am not suggesting that Adam and Eve were responsible for micro-managing weather patterns on Mars; apart from being beyond their abilities, they didn’t need to.
God made them stewards of the world, not micro-managers. In that way they were more like restaurant or factory managers than the technicians or employees who run the machines that keep the place going. The manager does not need to know how every machine works. He certainly does not need to have designed them, nor does he need to be able to repair them. He just needs to make sure that the right people are in the right places at the right time so that the machines can run properly, as they were designed to.
His goal is the proper functioning of the factory. His understanding of how that happens is only necessary inasmuch as it contributes to the fulfillment of that functioning. In our fallen world that at times might mean the manager steps into the role of an operator or tech, but if that is more than a temporary state of affairs, the manager is all but guaranteeing burnout or a system collapse.
We don’t know exactly what Adam and Eve’s role entailed, but it is almost certain that they were not supposed to micro-manage it, which means that they, no less than we, had to take the continued operation of significant spheres of what was allegedly under their control on faith. It is easy, then, to imagine them sometimes sitting down at the end of a rough day, looking out at the magnitude of the night’s sky, and saying, “I don’t know if I can do this.” For Satan’s temptation to stick, they had to feel the need, at times, for relief.
Their sin was not that they needed help. It was going to the wrong place to get it. And now we need to look at how sinless failure became sinfully missing the mark.
We do not know to what extent Adam and Eve were responsible for the basic functions of existence. God made them as beginners, and I would argue that the garden environment and even the prohibition on the tree itself were a divine recognition of their nursery school status. In any case, it seems implausible that their responsibilities would have been very significant, nevertheless, a steward does have extraordinary power and influence, especially in a system designed specifically to be run by that steward.
I mentioned the teleological arguments for God above, basically that our cosmos is too complex for anything but God to have made it. The same is ultimately true for even running it. If just one little detail gets off to the slightest degree, it all comes apart.
Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s strictures was tantamount to a factory manager deciding to torch the place, no, not deciding to, accidentally doing it on a bender. It’s a pretty big detail to have go awry. But this is so much more than a mere factory.
Our world is like a precision formula 1 racing car that some idiot put 87 octane leaded gas into. It’s a gloriously beautiful birthday cake that was sweetened with salt instead of sugar. It should taste so much better than it does. This is why the Bible says “creation groans.” Every tear, every wound, every horrible instant of oppression, every devastating disaster is the result of our ancestor’s stupidly blind mismanagement of our world. And the sad part is, as part of this horribly disfigured reality, even if we wanted to change it, we couldn’t. It’s too broken.
The only reason it is still here is because our God, far from abandoning creation to either our profligacy or its own disintegration, is constantly supporting it. That it continues is a testament to his love for us, he hasn’t just gotten fed up and walked away. He has a purpose and an end he has in mind for all of those who have chosen to love him back and is constantly working to ensure that our existence does not unravel and pass quietly into the night, even as the overwhelming majority of those he designed to actually do that job revel themselves into oblivion.
Failure is not wrong. But deliberate failure to achieve rebellious aims is nothing short of sabotage. That is the sin that broke the world. When we join in that deliberate failure, we sabotage our future, that of our children, and ultimately the future of the world as a whole, all because, like a kid who put his pants on the wrong way, “I want to do it my way.”