Ten 21st-century sins (and one remedy)

The funny thing about sin is how it can lure us into thinking ours isn’t so bad. Most of us who sit in church have mastered the big ones. Not all of us, obviously, but most of us don’t smoke, chew or dance with the girls who do (as we say in the South). We grew out of getting drunk. We don’t kill or steal.

What, then, are the sins of our generation?  The quiet, insidious ones that sneak up on us and steal our joy? Here are ten thoughts to challenge your ideas about sin and your place in this fallen world:

1. Entitlement. Another generation might have called it greed. One of my friends wisely noted that a sense of entitlement actually disables our ability to connect with others, perhaps because it fosters a spirit of competition (which kills community). We condition ourselves to weigh everything and everyone against some unattainable ideal or against what we think we deserve. I deserve what you have or I deserve more or you deserve less.

2. Fear. Related to this one is shame and unforgiveness, both of which are generated out of a spirit of fear. Shame is “in” these days (google it), so we’re finally calling out this base emotion that keeps us trapped in immaturity. It refuses to acknowledge that the One who lives in me is greater than the one who lives in the world. It also causes me to practice a self-protective posture. A self-protective (read “fearful”) crouch is fundamentally opposed to the personality of Jesus.

3. Jealousy. One of my Facebook friends also mentioned “professional jealousy,” which is an insightful twist on a very biblical sin (“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1). We wouldn’t think as adults of voicing our jealousy over a friend’s car, raise, or more functional spouse. But we won’t think twice about subtly sabotaging successful co-workers. Subtlety in this context is another term for passive aggression, which I personally consider to be among the most evil of community-destroying behaviors.

4. Anonymous anger. Yet another version of passive aggression, this one often manifests itself online (an addiction to being online gets an honorable mention here as a valid 21st-century sin). The heart beneath anonymous anger — the kind that shows up in traffic, in the comment sections of news sites, in gossip, in tweets about people we don’t personally know — reveals a lack of compassion. This is a heart sickness that comes back to bite us. Paul says as much. “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

5. Passivity/ sloth. The other end of active anger is emotional disconnection. This one will sneak up on us from behind. Over-stimulated by so much aggressiveness and so many words, we find ourselves disappearing into binge-sessions of NCIS (preaching to myself here) or worse yet, reality TV (where we can feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not them).

6. Instant gratification. Trolling website after website, gathering pictures of stuff on our Pinterest pages, which we then become impatient to own or make. No boundaries. No patience.

7. Self-deception. One friend says this is us “trying to convince ourselves that we as individuals are more valuable than those around us.” Related to entitlement, self-deception takes us a step further down the road, adding fantasy to frustrated destiny. When we are not honest with ourselves, that gap between who we are and who we want to be is a breeding ground for frustration.

8. Objectification. Clumping people into piles then slapping broad labels on them, we learn to treat people who aren’t like us as if they have nothing to teach us. That includes those who live in other political camps and even those who live in other sin camps. But what if the people who are least like us are actually doorways into the Kingdom?

9. Narcissism. The friend who voted this one onto the list specifically mentioned selfies, which seem innocent (and probably are) until the accumulation of them begins to make us believe that we are the center of our universe around which everyone else is circling, hitting the “like” button as they pass by.

10. Pride. The deep root out of which all our contemporary sins sprout turns out to be the oldest sin in the Book. As a sin, pride never seems to go out of style. Oddly, its bedfellow is self-hatred. Pride and self-hatred are two sides of the same coin. It is us, like the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” doing our best to make ourselves appear more powerful than we are so we won’t be labeled worthless, which is what we actually believe.

Which of these is your personal battle?

Choose your sin, and the remedy is the same: humility. Or Jesus, whose primary personality trait is humility. It is the willingness to get outside ourselves, to get over ourselves, to believe in something bigger than ourselves. To place our time and emphasis on loving God and loving others rather than protecting self.

Humility. An old remedy for what ends up being the oldest (only?) sin … pride.

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Spin, excuses and denial (or, What pride sounds like)

“This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” — John 3:19-21 (The Message)

Because I’m so hopelessly in love with the community of Christ, I’ve spent a bit of mental time contemplating how healthy community works. That line of thinking naturally leads to a conversation about pride and humility and the ways they manifest themselves in our relationships. Pride is the big killer of community and it affects our communication at a most fundamental level.

What do we know about pride? For starters, pride manifests as self hatred.

Self hatred distorts how we communicate, because it creates a focus on the SELF. We tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. It is our nature to preserve our survival, whether physical or emotional. When we feel threatened — when the survival of our “self” feels attacked even from within — we will go to any length to protect it. Becoming focused on the self for the sake of self-defense necessarily means taking our attention off other things, including God.

How does pride or self hatred manifest in our conversations?

Self defense begins with denial. “It isn’t my fault!” How often do our responses begin there, even if only internally? To uphold my delusional sense of self I have to externalize the blame and make others the problem. This thing you’re saying about me or blaming me for can’t be my fault — not if I’m responsible for the survival of my identity.

To own responsibility means I’d have to my own woundedness or inadequacy. That kind of admission is a threat to a weak identity.

Externalizing leads to excuse-making — the language of victims. Now I am a victim of others’ bad behavior. If they would act right, we’d all be fine but since they won’t I now have to claim them as the problem.

So I make excuses.

Externalizing is a big issue for those whose sense of self feels threatened. We can’t afford the risk of taking responsibility (remember? We are already in a weakened state) so we flail about to find someone or something external to ourselves who must be the cause of our pain or inadequacy. It must be my parents’ fault or my spouse’s fault or maybe this is about a co-worker or team member or … someone. Just not me, because I can’t emotionally afford to take the hit.

A more subtle kind of excuse making is “spin” — the habit of changing the facts so they more comfortably fit my reality. I present a view that frames me and my behavior or circumstances in the most positive light. Usually my spin will be at the expense of someone else’s reality, but in my need to frame myself as positively as possible I must ignore the collateral damage.

Spin, excuses and denial are all ways we hide. Hiding is the habit of people who are threatened. We hide because we are convinced that if we expose the truth of our inadequacy we will be destroyed or at least further wounded. This is the point of John 3 (see above). Jesus tells us we’ll hide things, but only because we are afraid of the light.

We not only hide the truth from others; we hide it from ourselves. But here’s the thing: If a person can actually get to the place of asking, “Why do I feel threatened?” and can follow that out to its logical conclusion, s/he will likely discover the threat is not real. The defenses we launch wouldn’t survive rational analysis because our fearful, defensive thoughts are themselves lies, encouraged by the father of lies.

A more subtle and insidious form of self-protection is passive aggression. Passive aggression is another way to hide. It reveals a deep weakness in identity formation and is the opposite of courage. It is just what the name implies — a form of indirect hostility masked by a subtle brand of lies. Passive aggression looks like procrastination (“I will say I’ll do this, but I’ll drag my feet so I control if and when it actually happens.”), negative emotions (“I will express my feelings not with words but with how I love someone.”), ignoring responsibility (“I will listen to what is expected, but I will only do what I choose to do.”).

Passive aggressive communication is slipping unspoken signals into our behavior so we passively communicate a negative message. It is sneaking in our anger, disapproval or disagreement without actually owning the courage to state it maturely and directly. It is any behavior that keeps us from submitting out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) to a relationship with which we’re internally at odds.

Passive aggressive people lie by not directly expressing their feelings or by hiding the script, as someone has said. When confronted, they often deny having a hidden agenda. What a passive aggressive person is after is control which manifests as silent rebellion.

The most glaring dysfunction in the communication of self-haters is conscious lying.

This is a hard, fast truth: addicts lie. What we don’t often acknowledge is the variety of forms in which addiction manifests. I can be addicted to myself and to self-preservation just as surely and destructively as I can be addicted to a chemical. In fact, self addiction is chemically fueled, in that the unhealthy stress hormones released by feelings of failure or inadequacy become compelling triggers motivating me to avoid truth.

All these levels of dysfunctional communication spring from the same root: self protection. We are guarding against any reality that might force us to change from our current ways of behaving while we desperately protect an identity we feel is in danger.

Self protection centers on one key word: SELF. It is the enemy’s first line of defense. He doesn’t care if I love myself too much (narcissism is a pathological form of pride we’ll save for another conversation) or hate myself even a little; either end of that spectrum works. In either case, my mental posture will keep me focused on SELF which means I will have less room for God.

What is the alternative? Here are a few questions to sit with in the presence of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Do any of my responses reflect a posture of self-defense? Do I have a protective crouch?
  2. Do I use my emotions in an attempt to manipulate others’ behavior?
  3. How do I hide? Why do I feel threatened?
  4. What prayer of confession will help me bring these things into the light of truth?

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Curing pride (or, what makes us real)

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real. — Thomas Merton

Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. — Ephesians 2:8-10 (The Message)

Humility is the antidote to pride. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality.

Humility manifests as self acceptance, which is the opposite of self centeredness. At its highest and best, self acceptance is a kind of personal forgetfulness that is more focused on others than self. It is not the same as humiliation and doesn’t look like self-deprecation, both of which are still focused negatively on self.

A person practicing humility has no need for self-protection because the preservation of self is not the dire need. When I am at peace with who I am — when I accept myself as I am — I no longer fear losing my identity (I won’t, in fact, because my identity is safe in Christ), nor am I obsessed with constructing my own identity. I accept that it is what it is and I am not ashamed of it nor protective of it.

Self-acceptance creates a posture that points toward God. Because I am not my focus, I have the time, luxury and room to focus on God. What a glorious release! What a sweet posture!

Do you remember what we said early on in the post about pride? We said that we tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. No wonder Jesus calls us to find our identity in him! Knowing who and whose we are and being confident in that fact becomes a critical piece linking us to humility.

Jesus’ antidote for pride or self hatred comes as a three-part formula:

Deny your SELF. The key word here is not denial so much as self. This is about focus. One of our team members says that in her studies, she has learned that “to deny myself means to deny my own lordship.  My focus moves from me to Jesus. It doesn’t mean to deny my feelings, happiness, or sense of worth.  And to be honest, if I don’t find happiness, worth, and joy in following Jesus, then I’m doing it wrong.”

To deny self is to deny its survival the power to control my responses to life. But don’t I want my “self” to survive? Of course, but I’m not the one who can make that happen. Ultimately, that is God’s job. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work.” My worst responses will be at the point of my believing that I am the one responsible for my own salvation and identity.

Take up your cross. This means taking responsibility for this life as it is. This invitation to take up my cross and die to self is actually a lavish and attractive invitation. It is an invitation to learn how to “adult,” which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. Our culture encourages us to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal.  We are encouraged to spend far more time accommodating (protecting, hiding) the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

This is an invitation not to meaningless suffering but to take on the challenge of growing into everything we are created to be. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

Taking up a cross is a call to the good life.

“Follow me.” Not focusing on self is only half the equation. In his sentence (“follow me”), both words matter but the first is dependent on the second. I can’t follow Jesus if I’m not focused on Jesus. However, when I focus on Jesus, he gives me my sense of identity. It is rooted in him and he is goodness and light and truth and life. When his identity becomes mine, I will naturally accept myself. This isn’t self-glorification; this is Christ-glorification. Christ in me is my hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)! Hallelujah!

Where do I begin if I want to move forward in my sense of self identity and acceptance?

Allow these questions to jump-start a conversation with the Holy Spirit about where the gaps are in your spiritual maturity and where you might begin if you are ready to move forward:

  1. Listen for how often you talk about yourself and the language you use. Do you tend to be defensive or self-promoting?
  2. Listen for how you defend yourself, and how often. What are your triggers?
  3. Listen to the internal conversations you have. Around whom are they centered?
  4. Observe how you listen to others. How much of the time is spent waiting for them to stop talking so you can begin? How focused are you on the other person, and how focused are you on yourself?
  5. Listen for that interior voice of judgment. How much of your thought life is spent exercising the habit of externalization of blame?
  6. Listen to your prayer life. How much time is spent complaining? How truthful are you with God? How much time is spent listening?
  7. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God?
  8. How much of your prayer life is spent listening for God’s voice? How much time is spent journaling what you hear? Are you honestly interested in learning and growing in grace?
  9. When is the last time you allowed others to honestly share with you what they see in you, for the sake of your own spiritual, emotional and vocational improvement? How do you approach evaluation — as a threat, or as a tool for renewal?
  10. How much time to you spend gazing on the face of Christ?

Remember: there is no shame in Christ. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

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