Sin’s Secret Service
Life is messy. Then again, that’s probably to be expected when spending time with sinners. When that intersects with our Christian community though, things can become a bit more puzzling. These are the people who are supposed to know right and wrong, follow Christ, and live holy lives. How should we react when coming across sin in others? Hopkins wrestled with this question, and provided his answer in poetry:
Myself unholy, from myself unholy
To the sweet living of my friends I look—
Eye-greeting doves bright-counter to the rook,
Fresh brooks to salt sand-teasing waters shoaly:—
And they are purer, but alas! not solely
The unquestion’d readings of a blotless book.
And so my trust, confused struck, and shook
Yields to the sultry siege of melancholy.
He has a sin of mine, he its near brother;
Knowing them well I can but see the fall.
This fault in one I found, that in another:
And so, though each have one while I have all,
No better serves me now, save best; no other
Save Christ: to Christ I look, on Christ I call.1
The foundation for Hopkins’s solution is actually found in the first line. In a poem dealing with despair about sin in the life of others, it is striking that the first thing that catches Hopkins’s attention is his own sin. We don’t jump in with surprise at sin in others, but rather with the recognition that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. The starting point for responding to sin in my brothers and sisters is the love I have received from Christ. Bonhoeffer reminds us of this when he writes:
When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less were we living by God’s mercy and love.2
Bonhoeffer’s suggestion that our love for fellow Christians mirrors how we are living in God’s love has serious implications. John seems to echo similar thoughts in 1 John, for example, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)3 When it comes to living life though, this means that sin in the lives of others is an opportunity for us to look back to the Gospel. Again, Bonhoeffer is thinking along these lines:
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.4
This is not to say that the sin doesn’t need to be dealt with directly. Addressing sin in each other’s lives is part of being in Christian Community. However, it does mean that there are benefits for us, in addition to assisting each other in sanctification. The sin I see around me, whether I can address it or not, is also a reminder of my inability to live a holy life without Christ. It’s an opportunity to have my focus recentered on Him before I help my brother or sister also turn their focus back to Christ.
At this point, Hopkins’s closing lines, “To Christ I look, to Christ I call,” have a richer context behind them. A fuller appreciation of the depth of my sin pushes us back to our need for Christ. Living in the wealth of “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,”5 we are able to come alongside others and show them the wealth available for their lives. Sin ends up to be a blessing in disguise, for it turns us back to Christ and the gospel. With this in mind, perhaps the following facet of Bonhoeffer’s analysis can serve as an ongoing starting point for prayer in our lives:
Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.6
When we think about Christ’s work in our lives, the Church today often seems to focus on His forgiveness and grace. How do you think we should apply His righteous justice to interactions with other Christians?
As we look to serve fellow Christians, what else have you found effective in bringing the Gospel to bear on your life?
Photo courtesy of Noe Araujo
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together translated by John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper One, 1954. 24-25.
3. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together. 28.
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together. 26-27.