Amazing Grace

Image result for operating table

God loves you. This statement is at the foundation of Christianity. God loves you. Period.

God loves you so much that even when you turn your back on God, God pursues you. The Bible as a whole points in that direction. Humans, having received the goodness of God, turn away from God, but God continues to move toward humans. Nothing humans do can change this fact. It’s not influenced by any action that you perform, whether “good” or “bad.”

Because God loves you, God must do something about the reality of sin. In my opinion, the Bible is less clear on the origin of sin than I have often assumed previously. It speaks on the topic from different angles. But the one thing the various voices of Scripture hold in common is the reality of sin. Human living is marked by sinfulness.

What God must do about sin depends on what sin is. For some Christians, sin is primarily about humans having performed evil acts that deserve punishment. What God must do, then, is enact justice. Justice, in this situation, might be about handing out the punishment required. What God does in Jesus then becomes God taking the punishment humans deserve into himself. In this context, Christians will often talk about God’s grace as a way of describing this act of God taking the punishment owed us for sin. It’s as if we were sitting in a courtroom, guilty of a crime. After the judge has issued the verdict, someone else stands up and offers to take our place.

But what if that’s not the only or best way to think about sin? One thread of discussion that has run throughout the church’s history considers sin not mainly in terms of individual acts that are wrong or harmful. Rather, it looks at sin as a disease. Sin is like a malignant tumor on the brain. Sure, the symptoms are readily available — changed mood, erratic behavior, pain — but those symptoms are not mainly the problem. Instead, the problem is the tumor.

How would this view of sin change the conversation about what God must do in response to sin? What would “grace” mean in this situation?

Barbara Lipska, a neuroscientist, went for a run a few years ago. She was an avid runner, so this activity was not surprising. What was surprising, however, was that she squirted hair dye on her hair and covered it with a plastic bag before taking off. Further, she didn’t wear typical running clothes; instead, she wore quite revealing clothes. She ran around her neighborhood for two hours. She didn’t see anything wrong with her behavior. Doctors discovered twenty tumors on her brain.

Literal tumors on the brain, such as this woman experienced, can drastically alter behavior, leading the person suffering from the tumors to perform actions that might even be called unacceptable or wrong. But the solution with someone like Barbara Lipska is not simply to call her actions wrong and then to punish her for them. What good, for instance, would a fine from the police for indecent exposure have done for Barbara? How would that be justice? No, Barbara didn’t need a police officer or a judge; she needed a doctor.

Sin, then, is a cancer that needs to be removed.

How might this affect talk about God’s grace? Grace shows up in the willingness of someone to embrace us, despite our behavior. It exists in this person’s insistence that something is not right with our actions, and that we need medical assistance. It then is realized in the doctor’s actions in diagnosing and treating the cancer.

So what might this mean for talk about God? No matter what we do — good or bad — good looks on us favorably, as God’s beloved children. Even when we spurn God, God pursues us. God doesn’t end the matter by simply looking on us with favor or pity, though. God desires our healing. God wants to pull us into the operating room and remove the tumor. God removes the cancer so that we can live fully human lives, as God intended.