Thursday, March 6, 2014

Father Brown's Secret

One of G. K. Chesterton's creations is the fictional detective, Father Brown. This unprepossessing sleuth shows himself consistently able to solve perplexing mysteries that baffle those around him. When badgered by an American acquaintance, Mr. Chace, he ends up revealing his secret. Father Brown says he solves crimes by putting himself in the state of mind of the one who committed them. And by doing so, he identifies the culprit. This method shocks the healthy-minded Chace, who wants to see criminals as a breed apart and completely different from normal people. These represent two opposite ways to avoid criminal behavior. Chace's viewpoint convinces people to shun criminal behavior because it is so horrible the upright citizen would not even consider it. But Father Brown's view sees criminality as something we are all capable of  and therefore must be constantly on our guard to avoid.

Father Brown's approach fits the Christian perspective on sin in general. Scripture says that we are all sinners and should be aware of our own weakness in this respect (Romans 3:23; 7:14-25; 1 John 1:8-10). Therefore, we must use caution to avoid being dragged down by our propensity to sin (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). But in Evangelicalism we have too often adopted Chace's approach. We have tried to get people not to sin by emphasizing how heinous and abnormal certain sins are. And I am convinced this is a serious error. Because once you encounter those who are doing the thing in question and find they are otherwise normal, it undermines your resolve to avoid such actions. Therefore, there is a tendency that whenever a thing becomes popular, it becomes acceptable. Also, this viewpoint makes it difficult to reach out to those involved in or struggling with the behavior involved. Or to admit you are  struggling with such desires yourself. It reinforces the idea that this could never happen to me, leaving people unprepared and more likely to yield when faced with temptation. Therefore, in attempting to scare people away from sin, we can make them more likely to succumb to it.

But Scripture takes a different approach. Jesus, the only perfect man, reaches out to crooked tax collectors, women with questionable pasts, and other sinners (Matthew 9:9-13; John 4:7-18;  Luke 19:1-10). For sinners are offered forgiveness through the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:3-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-16). But those who regard themselves as fundamentally distinct from sinners are rebuked (Luke 18:9-14; 7:36-50; Romans 2:1). Therefore, we should not see ourselves as those who are somehow immune to sin, but be on guard against our natural tendency to do wrong. And teach others to approach the issue in the same way.

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