The wages of sin

Dear M,

The central theme of the Abrahamic religions is that the whole world went wrong because you're a turd.  All the viruses, earthquakes, stillborn children, car accidents, cancers and frumpy grumpy middle-aged women happen because a long time ago someone decided to not "do the right thing," his kid decided to not do the right thing, and we have decided to not do the right thing ever since*. 

We don't know exactly who's responsible for this theory, but this is what it is; and the essential belief of Judaism is that if you would just do the right thing, your entire country would be safe.  It has nothing really to do with geopolitics or economics or irrigation methods or diplomacy, and the question worth asking every time a famine strikes or city gets sacked is, 
who sinned?

The Jews had their answers, ranging anywhere from gay prostitutes to rich people to people who don’t pay tithe; but the most telling one, found in the Book of Numbers, is when the whole army got wrecked because a single rando got caught banging a Midianite.  The lesson here was simple.  God was perfect, and because He was perfect, one sin could put them all in His crosshairs.  The witch hunt forms the essence of Judaism.

The rules themselves were impossible to keep.  Not in the sense that people were lazy, but in the sense that the whole thing was rigged.  When Moses wrote 
Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength he condemned his descendants to a lifetime of paranoia; and this rule, which nobody except the narcissist or the megalomaniac would ever try to quantify or prove about himself, ended the matter by making everybody a villain.  When Jesus arrived He did the rudest thing and made the matter tangible.  He added you shall love your neighbor as yourself — a commandment found not in The Ten but in the boondocks of Leviticus. Thus with a single stroke He made every honest person as guilty with their neighbors as they already felt with worship.

A smart man who reads the Old Testament can feel the New Testament coming.  It was only a matter of time before even a thick-headed people like the ancient Jews cried uncle. And the answer, as we now know, is that God would
declare some of us good; and that He would do it by switching our badness with Somebody Else's goodness — and switching said goodness on a matter of "faith."  We believe, then we receive.  Which then made salvation a question of “believing.”

Outside of the Book of Acts there was, of course, no confirmation that you believed; and the process of accepting Christ wasn’t notarized by angels or heralded by visions.  It was said that once you believed in Christ, you would receive the Holy Spirit; and it was said furthermore that the proof of this was 
walking like Christ.  Thus we respectively got the Pentacostals and the Puritans.

Once again we were in a quandary.  The Christians had provided a solution only to find themselves another problem.  The New Man was indwelt by God — but did this make him 
like God?  If he was, then shouldn't he be holy — clean — perfect?  If he wasn't, then how could he know he was indwelt?

This led back to the eternal paranoia; and millions of honest men realized, upon looking in the mirror, that they were not Christ, or even too much like Christ, or what passes as spiritually "clean."  They wondered why their thoughts were so filthy.  They wondered how He walked and how He talked and what He would have done in their place; and this torrent of unanswerable questions led them to question the reality of their salvation.  Perfection was impossible, so the most honest men gave up being perfect, which led to the church becoming corrupt.

Others tried to be perfect and turned into monsters.  They tried to clean what couldn’t be cleaned and ended up piling lies and pride on top of filth. Others claimed spiritual gifts and turned themselves into lunatics.  As salvation came from beyond us, many others sought outward signs and charms, piling relics upon rites and rites upon relics, until the internal observation of Christianity, which is very accurately described as an observation, gave way to an unprecedented and superficial complex of superstition.

But if the solutions were so radically different the problem was always the same:
How do I know that I'm saved?  For the sake of your health and happiness be wary of how a man tries to answer it.


*People who say "the wages of sin is death" are only examining half of the problem.  Die for too good a reason and they'll start saying you were too good for this world and they'll call you a saint; and the truth, as it stands in most cases, lies somewhere in the middle.  It isn't the meek who inherit the earth but the mediocre.  The sinner and the saint get some other place.

**It was Christ Himself who said that
a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruit you will recognize them.  I won't dare to contradict Jesus here, but your mirror will; and every time you look at your reflection you’ll see, unbelievably, the thing He said you wouldn't.  Christians have been trying to reconcile this passage with reality for two millennia now, and the reason they haven't is because of the one thing they have more knowledge of than anything else — themselves.


  1. Many Lutherans would posit that it is the evangelicals (Reformed, etc.) who by seeing the sacraments as mere symbols have denied themselves the assurance promised therein. They end up looking within to see if they have *truly* believed, repented, etc., an unending introspection. But the person who sincerely desires forgiveness, Baptism and the Eucharist are tangible assurances of grace. Thoughts?

  2. First time visiting your blog, so pardon me if this is answered elsewhere, but I'm curious about this - When Jesus arrived He did the uncharitable thing and made the matter worse. He added you shall love your neighbor as yourself -- a commandment found not in The Ten but in the boondocks of Leviticus -- and made the most intelligent among us as paranoid with our neighbors as we already were with our worship.

    I've got a pretty wide circle of zealous Catholic friends and I have never in my life heard that love your neighbor made anyone paranoid. Is that common with the people you know?

    I suppose if I went back into my library of Christian books, I might be able to find that concept, but only if I was actively trying to see it. For me, one of the beauties of Christianity is how it helps me relax. I find that it works almost all the time to improve my life an my relationships. I don't get the paranoid thing at all.

    1. The paranoia isn't common with people I know: it was common with me. This is just as much a short essay on the factions of the church as it is a spiritual autobiography; and the paranoia I express is very carefully defined in my essays "All life is precious," "Never bring a Christian leftist to the zoo," and several others.

      My problem is that there were parts of me that were never "fixed," regardless of how hard I tried, and that I discovered, after doing a lot of reading, that people in the early church struggled with the same question. You'll notice that the essay ends in the one place I haven't yet been -- in the rites and faith of the Catholic Church. This may only be a phase. I have no faith, but I count the church of Rome as a possible future option.

      I hope that if you didn't agree with the essay you at least enjoyed reading it; and if it didn't change your mind it gave you something to chew on.

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  4. Coming into the Catholic Church from another Christian tradition is like entering the ocean after being in a play pool. It's all water, but the Catholic Church is an ocean of saintly examples, writings, careful logical analysis, methods of discernment and spiritualities and, of course, the Mass and Eucharist--all founded in the reality and presence of Jesus Christ. A large number of Catholics miss out on this ocean of possibilities. The spiritual opportunities for growth and sanctification are very real whenever we are ready.


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