Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 14

A Trinitarian Understanding of Sin

Larry Crabb

The Trinity is a party happening, and we’ve been invited.

Nietzsche once wrote, “To grow wise, you must listen to the wild dogs barking in the cellar.”

 I’m no Nietzschean scholar, but I don’t think he was talking about the wild dogs of depravity. The evil beasts he had in mind, I’m guessing, were what he thought to be the “givens” of existence: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and the intolerable burden of freedom that requires us to make choices in a random world that guarantees no certain outcome.

Listen to those wild dogs bark, and you’ll understand existential despair. You want immortality? You’re going to die, and after that, nothing. You want purpose? There is none. Objective meaning does not exist—let alone eternal meaning.

You want connection? Face it: you’re fundamentally alone. You can meet people, know and love and help people, and they can do the same for you. But your secret center can’t be entered. Your essence, the real you, is locked in solitary confinement.

And freedom. You want freedom? It’s yours. You can do whatever you want to. But it’s not what you were hoping for. You want the freedom to make good choices with a good outcome promised by a good ultimate power, who runs a well-ordered, good world. That’s a pipe dream. The freedom to live with few regrets and to make a temporary difference in other people’s lives is as good as it gets.

But we can’t stop wanting to feel happy. So we distract ourselves with “upstairs” noise—busy schedules, great meals, new cars, exciting worship if we’re religious.

Embrace that desire, regard it as the most profoundly human desire within you, and let it guide you toward a relatively satisfying, though necessarily impermanent, life of self-arranged identity and fulfillment. And that’s wisdom. So thought Nietzsche.

01.  God Is a Community

And Jesus agrees, but only up to a point. He, too, wants us to listen to cellar-dwelling dogs. Discovering desire within you that nothing in this world can satisfy is a good thing. Refusing to ask this life to give you what you can’t stop wanting, but life can never provide, makes sense.

But when Nietzsche tells us to make the best of this world because there is no other, Jesus takes sharp exception. Followers of Jesus believe that the inexpressible longing for beauty, awe, meaning, and love that cannot be found in this world is itself at least suggestive evidence that another world exists, and this inexplicable longing offers both reason and opportunity to look for that world.

Christians believe that the other world is not a comforting hope born of cowardly wish fulfillment. Nor is it merely a world “out there,” a better place without thorns and thistles that will one day be our home.

The other world that followers of Jesus are confidently wanting is a community, a world of interdependent relating, where individuals connect without losing their individuality, where they discover their personhood in relating, where the joy of eternal connecting is theirs.

This other world is God’s country. The center of that world is the Trinity, three distinct Persons who live together in full, unchallenged equality, glad submission to each other, joyful intimacy with each other, and mutual deference in the pursuit of always agreed-upon objectives. Mark Shaw, Doing Theology with Huck and Jim (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 62. Quoted in Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006) 35. By its very nature, this happy community is effusively welcoming, always outgoing, perfectly other-centered, defined by the energy of passionate, sacrificial love. This love is the eternal movement of God. C. S. Lewis put it this way:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that “God is love.” But they seem not to notice that the words “God is love” have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before this world was made, He was not love. . . . [Christians] believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1958, 1980) 174–175.

He then adds that the love relationship between the Father and Son is “such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person—the Holy Spirit.” Seamands comments, “For Christians, then, to say ‘God is love’ is to say ‘God is three persons, blessed Trinity.’ God’s eternal self-differentiation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is because God is love.” Seamands, 163.

(It deserves notice that Satan is not a community. In him, self-interest completely replaces God-worship. He ends up alone—and evil. Satan has confederates, but no community. He has followers, but no friends. Follow him and you’re alone with yourself forever.)

I like to think of the Trinity as the only small group that gets along perfectly all the time because each member is radically other-centered.

02.  Welcome to the Party

And the good news for us is that the Trinity’s outgoing nature extends beyond themselves. Like a secure married couple, they can invite others into their communion without feeling threatened, though of course, as with the married couple, welcomed guests go only so far; we never become members of the Trinity.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann believed that because the trinitarian Persons are eternally open to one another, the Trinity is “open for its own sending . . . open in order that it may make itself open, open to man, open to the world, and open to time.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Trans. Margaret Kohl. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 64. Quoted in Seamands, 163–164. (I am indebted to Seamands’ excellent book, Ministry in the Image of God, especially in these paragraphs.)

Let me put that more simply. The Trinity is a party happening, and we’ve been invited. Their other-centeredness reaches to us. And that’s the gospel, the best news that otherwise despairing people could ever hear.

We’re not going to stop existing. We’re going to live forever, with every desire satisfied, every capacity filled. Our lives are not pointless. We get to extend the nature of the divine community into this lonely world of disconnected people by relating to others as the members of the Trinity relate among themselves and to us.

We’re not isolated. We’re not floating alone in an endless void. God indwells us. Think of it! And in a strange way, we indwell God, by surrendering ourselves to the flow of the Spirit, drawing on the passion of Christ, for the glory of the Father. Jesus prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21, NRSV Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved., emphasis added).

And we’re free, not to live apart from God, but to live with God and for God. We’re free to abandon ourselves to this three-person community so that we discover our vital personhood, our true selves; and then, in the freedom of realized personhood, we can express ourselves authentically in all that we do.

That’s freedom, and it’s no burden. It’s joy.

03.  Eternity Starts Here

But we live on the surface. So many days, I’m just trying to survive life. I rear-ended a truck yesterday. My fault. When the thud released the air bag, my first thought was not “another chance to dance with the Trinity.”

What am I to do? I long to live in union with God, whether I’m ramming a truck or feeling irritated with a friend. But it doesn’t always happen. What’s the obstacle to my union with God?

Part of the answer is weak desire, unaroused desire. And I rather like it that way. To want what I cannot find is torture, like a desert traveler dying for water and seeing only a mirage. Better to pretend, if you can, that you’re not thirsty.

It’s good to heed Nietzsche’s wisdom and listen to the wild dogs remind me that my deepest longings cannot be met in this world. As a Christian who knows that final reality is the loving community I most want, I need to listen to the message from the cellar. From the depths of my spirit, the Holy Spirit releases my heart to say, “Larry, you want more than an accident-free day. You want more than a wonderful family, great friends, and good health. You yearn for something that is not available in this world but is available in the real world, the unseen world of the Trinity. You long for eternal life, eternal meaning, eternal community, and eternal freedom to live according to the eternal design. It’s all yours, now. Eternity begins today. Follow the desires of your heart into the presence of God.”

Spiritual direction taps into that desire. It’s the relational opportunity to walk with another toward union with God, and the process includes the awakening of desire, an awakening of our soul’s deepest yearning that lies beneath the everydayness of life.

Friends quarrel; we want harmony. Colleagues run into tension; we want peace. A loved one dies, a divorce looms, the medical test reveals a serious disease, money problems arise, and the desire for union with God seems less pressing than our wish for a quick exit from pain, for blessings in this life now.

The wild dogs of desire, barking for satisfaction that only God can provide, need to be heard. Our most profound longings need awakening.

04.  The Dogs from Hell

But more is needed. Dormant desire is not the only obstacle to union with God. There’s another pack of dogs in a darker corner of the cellar—and this pack is evil. They are harder to hear. When our desire for God is awakened, when we determine to pursue Him till we find Him—it is then that the other dogs can be heard. And when we do hear them, their barking can sound like music; their evil growl can be as seductive as the sweet invitation of the adulteress.

Listen to Paul: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law”—Paul’s desire for God had been roused—“but I see another law”—another pack of dogs, bad dogs—“at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin” (Romans 7:21–23, NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ).

Paul listened to his depths, to his inner being. He heard both packs of dogs, both the cry of desire and the snarl of sin. He “found” the evil energy within him when he responded to his desire for God. Until his longing for union with the divine consumed him, he could not hear the evil dogs barking.

It is one thing to know theoretically that I sin. It is quite another to see the core of sin as it presses for release every day of my life. Not many do. And those who do not see sin’s power, who do not feel its strength, are under its dominion. In my discussion of sin, I am indebted to John Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers. Carlisle, Penna.: Banner of Truth, 1967.

It is this “law of sin,” remaining in every genuine seeker after God, that constitutes the most serious obstacle to union with God. The more we find it, recognize it, see it for what it

is and hate it, the more we discover the only power that can subdue it.

It’s vital that we understand, as much as we can, the subtle, well-disguised essence of sin. We must hear these dogs barking, and realize that what sounds like music from heaven may in fact be noise from hell. It is my strong conviction that we will find the source of sin in ourselves only when we perceive its relational nature.

05.  Atom, Ocean, or Relationship?

Harold Turner, authority on world religions, believes that there are only three major worldviews underlying all the religions people follow. See Seamands, pp. 117–118 for a fuller discussion of Turner’s thinking.

The atomic, symbolized by a group of billiard balls, sees reality in terms of distinct individual units. Here the individual person as an autonomous center of knowing and willing is the ultimate constituent of society. The individualism prevalent in contemporary Western culture reflects this view. Seamands, 117.

Sin in atomic religions (including much of traditional Protestantism) represents an individual’s choice to willfully violate the revealed standards of God. For example, adultery: God says don’t do it. A spouse does it. That’s sin. Ending the illicit relationship, returning to the marriage as a morally faithful partner, solves the problem. It ends the sin. Or so atomic thinkers think.

But an offending spouse may come back deeply unchanged in his depths, and yet never stray again. Self-interest can produce moral behavior. It can never produce love. This view of sin is not only shallow and naive; it is dangerous. When the headache quits, is the tumor gone? Not always.

In the oceanic worldview, symbolized by the ocean, the whole is ultimate, not the individual parts. As raindrops falling onto the surface of the ocean lose their particular identity, so ultimately everything will be merged into one identity which is the soul of all that exists. This is the worldview of Hinduism and many Eastern religions. Seamonds, 118.

Here, sin is reduced to a refusal to merge into an impersonal whole, to a raindrop unwilling to fall into the ocean. Yieldedness, surrendering one’s personhood to become part of something larger, is holiness. All thought of offending a divine Person by demanding autonomy, by refusing to find oneself through union with God, is lost. The fault, according to the oceanic view, lies in the desire for individual personhood discovered and enjoyed in relationship. Destroying the very desire that God promises to fulfill becomes the path to holiness.

The third view, what Turner calls the relational view, can just as easily be referred to as the Trinitarian view. In this understanding, persons who find God never lose their personal identity, as they do in the oceanic view. Rather, they find it; they are affirmed as unique persons by entering into relationship with the community of God, not by falling into an absorbing ocean.

And then enjoyment of personhood depends not merely on conformity to behavioral standards, but more on enjoying the three Persons of God. It is that enjoyment that provides the impetus for people to reveal the divine love that exists within the Trinity by relating to others in the energy of that love. And that constitutes holiness.

I want to live that way. I want to live in union with God and to relate as he does to my wife and sons and daughters-in-law and grandkids and colleagues and friends. But when I seek to do so, something contrary rises within me. It’s that damned law of sin. That’s the right word. It is damned by God, judged, condemned. But it still has power. And I find its power—I hear the dogs bark—when I most long to be holy, to love like God.

But what is it? What is this loathsome evil within me that I can’t even see until I first recognize what true love is and want it with all my heart? What is this anti-love disposition within me that poisons my relationships with jealous feelings, impatient snippiness, proud ambition, defensive insecurity, ego-honoring demands on people I love, out-of-bounds sexual urges, justified self-pity, pleasurable revenge, self-obsessed anxiety, and determined control?

God tells me to mortify the deeds of the flesh, but I must also be broken by their root, by the law of sin, by the flesh itself, by the sinful mind within me. Again, what is it?

At its center, the energy of sin is hatred of God. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7, NIV).

06.  What Is God’s Law?

“A new command I give you: Love one another” (John 13:34, NIV). Jesus goes on to tell us to love each other (agapao) as He loves (agapao) us, with the same love (agapao) He received from His Father.

Christ’s law, therefore, is His invitation to join the party, to enter the dance of the Trinity, to enjoy the only fully good set of relationships in the universe.

07.  What Is the Sinful Mind?

It’s the law of sin, that inner inclination to live another way; it’s the deep conviction that there is another way to live that leads to joy and wholeness. It’s the attitude that says, in this situation—when I rear-end a truck, when my husband is hopelessly immature, when a friend is blind to his irritating ways, when disaster strikes—it is best not to love self-sacrificially, but rather to look after myself, to honor my compelling desire to protect myself from further insult and injury. Me first; others second. And God? Well, he’s useful. It’s his job to make my life go well if I jump through his hoops.

08.  Why Is It Sinful?

The sinful mind is wicked because it is enmity against God. In our society, which has pretty well eliminated the idea of deviance (and treats the worst deviants as victims), it’s a hard pill to swallow to believe that something in me right now is morally despicable.

The word “enmity” speaks of implacable hatred, a condition that’s hostile to the core. Hostile and hateful against what? Against God. Against his very nature of self-abandoning love. I naturally hate God as he is, so either I remake him into the cooperative God of consumer Christianity, or I dismiss him, Nietzsche-style.

A Trinitarian view of sin sees the core of sin as the assertion of individualism: I can and I will make it on my own, without ever willingly joining the eternal community on their terms of love. What seems right to me as I determine to take care of myself is what I will do.

It’s that willfulness that makes the new cult of desire so dangerous. The deepest desire in the heart of Jesus-followers is for God. But that desire can remain unawakened, and sinful desires disguised as legitimate and God-honoring can rule our lives. The wild dogs of sin keep barking, “It’s not right that you should be treated this way. Protect yourself. Find your voice. Define love in a way that allows you to keep your distance, to enjoy power over another.”

That bark can sound like music, so appealing to the soul whose desire for God is not yet awakened.

A Trinitarian view of sin is enmity against the Trinity and against their way of relating. In it self-protection is good because it’s necessary. Self-surrender is bad because it’s dangerous and foolish.

The sinful mind, John Owen wryly commented, “hath chosen a great enemy.” Owen, 178. The very nature of God is hated, opposed, dismissed, even mocked.

Until we find the law of sin within us, we are in danger of feeling prematurely good about our spiritual progress. But if we develop a vision of Trinitarian relationships, if we bow low enough to see the community of God high and lifted up, if our hearts awaken to our insatiable longing to live in that reality, and if we then seek God, then we will hear the wild dogs of depravity barking in the cellar of our soul. We will become painfully aware of a principle within, a desire to willfully arrange for our own well-being that competes with our sincere yearning to willingly give ourselves fully to God.

Why does all this matter? As we find the law of sin within us, we will be humbled, broken, repentant, and grateful for mercy. It is then and only then that we experience the amazing grace of God that empowers us to overcome the obstacle to union with God, that stubborn unbelief that spoils our enjoyment of the Trinitarian party.

The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting close to these thoughts:

Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” Lewis, 196–197.

Let’s listen to the dogs, both packs. It’s the way to wisdom.


LARRY CRABB is a psychologist, author, spiritual director and founder of NewWay Ministries. He currently serves as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University, and Spiritual Director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Among his more than twenty books are <em>Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off, and SoulTalk.</em> His latest book, <em>The PAPA Prayer,</em> will be released in January 2006.