The Self-Sustaining Function of Sin (Part 1)
[Earl D. Bland, Psy.D., is our blogger for the month of March. Earl is a licensed psychologist, professor of psychology, and Dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences and Counseling at MidAmerica Nazarene University where he teaches undergraduate and graduate students along with coordinating the Spiritual Formation & Counseling emphasis. In addition, Earl teaches at the Greater Kansas City Psychoanalytic Institute and the Brookhaven Institute for Psychoanalysis and Christian Theology. Earl is the editor (with Brad Strawn) of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation, published by IVP (2014).]
Sin is a difficult word. In some ways it’s hard to imagine that three little letters can capture and provoke so much discussion, debate and emotional apprehension. It was over 4 decades ago that psychiatrist Karl Menninger (1973) asked the mental health community whatever became of sin? Arguably we have not proffered a sufficient response despite our very sophisticated discussions about faith and psychology. Disapproving the loss of personal accountability, Menninger was attempting to correct what he viewed as the move towards classifying misbehavior in terms of a psychiatric diagnosis. He feared the dissolution of one’s need to accept personal responsibility and the guilt and shame that are supposed to spur one to repentance and more righteous action.
Of course we could all point to various examples of how our culture demonstrates Menninger’s fear, many times when people do things they ought not do they seek absolution through excuse making and self-justification. Sin taints our whole being, and what’s not to like about a good justification that allows us to avoid the very painful and self-withering experience of shame? The sad truth is that we sometimes lie to ourselves about ourselves and in many cases we are not even aware of our own self-deception. What Cornelius Plantinga (1995) calls “self-swindling” (p. 105) involves the unconscious or implicit ways we organize our self-perceptions so as to avoid pain and maintain our preferred self-image.
Perhaps this problem is most difficult to untangle for our signature sins (Mangis, 2008), or what the writer of Hebrews describes as the “sin which clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1, RSV). Mike Mangis suggests this is “a type of sin with a quality of such nearness that we forget it is there” (p. 14). The prophet Jeremiah was keenly aware of this tendency towards insidious self-deceit and pessimistically labeled us “beyond cure” (17:9, NIV). In desperate need of reclamation, we Christians struggle to shake these embedded sins and live into the freedom that redemptive forgiveness and grace provides. It is a banal reality that as God “searches the heart and examines the mind” (17:10) he often finds us slouching, tired and discouraged about our repetitive state.
This indictment of our spiritual condition is not new, I am merely echoing centuries of writers who have lamented our very human malaise. James Bryan Smith (2009) summarizes much of the contemporary movements in spiritual formation literature when he says:
“I have come to believe that the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we are not training. We have never been taught a reliable pattern of transformation” (p.20)
Key to this process of transformation and echoed in the works of Dallas Willard and Richard Foster is the slow and persistent surrender of our conscious human intentions, to yield, if you will, to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit.
As a Christian psychologist with a psychoanalytic perspective it is here where I find the revelatory nature of depth analytic work to be indispensible. It has always been true that those with keen insight into our duplicitous nature recognize that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are in John Calvin’s (2011/1536) words bound together. We cannot know ourselves truly without intimate acquaintance with the Divine, and we dare not assume we know God in isolation from a profound knowledge of self that reaches beyond mere self-reflection. Moreover, since sin is a primary barrier between God and humanity, we must construct our understanding of personal sin not simply on theological grounds in relation to God, but anthropologically and more specifically psychologically. We must ask, to what end does sinning serve? What is the self-sustaining function of sin?
I suggest that without a robust understanding of sin’s self-sustaining function we are hampering our efforts to rid ourselves of “the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1). Further, we constrain our knowledge of God if we avoid how sin operates and is maintained unconsciously, often beyond the reaches of even the sincerest of conscious efforts. In next week’s blog I will outline the specific ways sin operates in sustaining the self.
Calvin, J. (2011/1536). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Seattle, WA: Pacific Publishing Studio (Edited by H. Beveridge).
Mangis, M. (2008). Signature Sins: Taming Our Wayward Hearts. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.
Menninger, K. (1973). Whatever Became of Sin? New York: Hawthorn Books.
Plantinga, C. (1995). Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Smith, J. B. (2009). The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love With the God Jesus Knows. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.