Following the time of the process of creation, the Bible tells us that God saw all that He had made and observed that all was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Pick up the paper today and read about deviant behaviors ranging from wrongs done to animals and the foolish misuse of natural resources to the grievous abuse and ending of human life. It isn’t always good anymore. What happened?
Karl Menninger (1893-1990) was an American psychiatrist and founder of the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1931 he published a book titled, "From Sin to Psychiatry, an Interview on the Way to Mental Health." Menninger had a way of capturing man’s struggle and suggesting ways to cope and conquer them. One of his insights came in an illustration from fishing.
When a trout gets hooked on a line and can no longer swim about freely, he begins a fight, which results in struggles and splashes. Sometimes the struggle brings about his freedom, but often, of course, the situation is simply too tough for the fish to overcome. Perhaps by now the fish is hoisted from the water into the boat or onto the dock, adding the inability to breathe to his dilemma.
Menninger comments, “In the same way the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it naturally misunderstands them.”
“It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one” observes Menninger.
In 1973, the famed psychiatrist wrote, "Whatever Became of Sin?" The book was in response to dealing with patients whose mental problems were the direct result of sin. The book addressed the idea that we rationalize and glaze over what we used to call sin. The book professes to offer new hope for real emotional health through moral values.
Menninger discerned that the word “sin” has all but vanished today. What used to be a serious word that “described a central point in every civilized human being’s life plan and style” has almost disappeared. We no longer use the word or even consider the idea. Why? Have we reached the point where we do not sin anymore? Or is it that we no longer consider anything “wrong?”
Menninger, a medical professional and not a theologian, warned that should the concept of sin become eliminated from open cultural discourse, any hope of a moral society would indeed vanish and chaos would ensue. Logically. Inevitably. Certainly.
We have begun a journey to identify the essentials of the Christian faith. What are the beliefs that we cannot negotiate? What teachings can afford not even a sliver of compromise? Today’s belief is not an easy or pleasant one. We believe that we all are sinners and that sin has a devastating effect upon life and its future.
Thomas Friskney, for years the professor of New Testament and theology at the Cincinnati Christian University, taught when we get to heaven, we will finally understand just how bad sin is to God. The question of how sin has affected us is complicated. Exactly whose sin has touched our lives? Do we wrestle from our own sins, or do we also receive an unwanted legacy from the first sins of Adam and Eve? Are we tainted by the sins of others?
While we can leave the debate of whether we are marred in sin because of Adam or ourselves or somewhere in between to theologians, the important thing to accept is not just why we sin, but that we sin.
We have followed the story of American financier Jeffrey Epstein. The state has found him guilty on some charges and is bringing more charges against him. We are appalled at his activity and behavior. Deep down inside us, we want to know why a person would commit such acts against others, exploiting his power and control, and abusing the sexuality and personhood of others for his own pleasure. No rational person would behave in such a way. Perhaps he is insane.
Psychiatrists, sociologists, counselors and social workers attempt to answer why we behave as we do. Has the person been damaged in the past so that his judgment is impaired? Have abuses been committed against him so that we can understand and somehow justify the behavior? Can these relational branches of science provide answers for why we behave as we do?
Sometimes physicians enter into the discussion. Are there medical reasons we behave as we do? Is there a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes deviant behavior? Are there medicines that he is taking that would cause such a reaction and behavior? Can this branch of science provide answers for the behavior?
As if the waters weren’t already muddied, the lawyers step in to offer opinions, as well. Is justice being served? Are the individual’s rights being denied? Is the individual being treated fairly? Is the punishment too harsh?
Science and theology need to understand that everyone is trying to answer the same question. Why do people behave as they do? We are looking at it from two different perspectives. The two don’t really disagree, they walk hand in hand. From what I know of man, this is what is happening. But from what I know of God, this adds to my understanding.
We are sinners. We have sinned so often, there is so much of it around us, sin becomes the easiest answer to the circumstance. We can try to understand it. We can try to justify it. We can attempt to explain it. Deep inside, we believe that it will take will power and work to overcome, but the truth is sin continues day after day, decade after decade.
We have not, cannot, will not act to overcome it. It will take an act of God.
— Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.