Everyday Christian: confronting the dark side of myself

Take 20 men of different ages, skill levels and walks of life. Give half of them a goal and the other half, the opposite goal. Pit them against one another in a battle just physical enough for tempers to flare but not physical enough to resolve the tension. At the end, tell one half they were better and the other half they were worse. And, most importantly, hire a 16-year-old kid with a whistle to keep everyone in check.

What could go wrong?

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with fierce competition, and no one loves sport more than me.

In a real sense, the sporting arena distills the experience of life into a game with clear rules and lessons. Not only is it clear when you’ve fallen short or missed the mark; it’s clear when you’ve crossed the line.

Sometimes I dance right up to the line. But two weeks ago, I crossed it.


Our culture has a complicated relationship with line-crossing. For many, transgressing boundaries is actually virtuous, not – to use the dreaded word – sinful. I suspect this is partly a reaction against the legalism, perceived and often real, of previous generations. I suspect it is partly a result of inadequate theology in an age disturbed by the very concept of judgement – of an authoritative right and wrong.

But I think that both our contempt for sin as a concept and our blindness to sin as a personal reality ultimately stem from the insidious deceitfulness of sin itself.

I’m not sure we can deny that right and wrong exist. It’s in our DNA. Instead, we distance ourselves from it.

At its heart, sin is our failing to give God the glory he is due: rebelling against him, transgressing his law and rejecting him as Lord. We might say it’s our failing to take God seriously. [1] The consistent testimony of the Bible is summarised by Paul in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But do you, like me, sometimes find that a bit hard to believe?

One of our most profound problems is that sin blinds us to itself. “People who do not take God seriously,” writes Australian theologian John Woodhouse, “find it very difficult to see the seriousness of not taking God seriously.” [2]

Of course, we don’t deny that right and wrong exist. I’m not sure we can deny that. It’s in our DNA.

Instead, we distance ourselves from it. We point with disgusted contempt at the horrors of WWII Germany; at the corrupt politician; at the cheating reality TV contestant. We don’t struggle to see sin or even struggle to see its seriousness. Our struggle is admitting the truth behind the enduring words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” [3]

Including mine.

Which brings me back to church football.

A shameful act

The game, I’m ashamed to say, was going quite well. We were winning a crucial match and the result was never really in doubt.

I received a pass around the middle of the pitch and tried to dribble between two defenders. After some jostling, one of them came away with the ball. On reflection, there was nothing illegal or unsportsmanlike about it, certainly nothing hostile. But in that moment, whether out of a misplaced sense of injustice or out of childish pride, I was enraged.

I chased him down and lunged.

Thank God I didn’t make contact. But the referee rightly stopped the game and told me it was a dangerous tackle. “I was going for the ball!” I lied.

We played on, and no one else thought about it again. But shortly afterwards, in God’s providential timing, I came off for a bathroom break, and it hit me.

The absurdity of sin

I think the reason that moment moved me is because at the time I had been soaking up Psalm 139 – a beautiful and confronting declaration of God’s intimate knowledge and inescapable presence.

In that moment, I saw the absurdity of my sin.

It wasn’t just that I had let my anger get the best of me, and had risked seriously injuring an opponent out of my own pride and desire for vengeance. It was that God knew. For perhaps the first time in my life, I related to David, who came before God after committing heinous and murderous sins, and said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

For perhaps the first time in my life, I really knew that I’m not better than David.

It’s dangerously easy for us to think that the reason our sins are mundane and inconspicuous is because we are better than others. But at that moment, enraged by the most childish and pathetic of situations, only my own failure stopped me from doing real damage – from doing the sort of thing I would (I confess) condemn someone else for in a heartbeat.

At that moment, I saw the absurdity of my sin.

But Psalm 139 had convinced me that I could stand before the God of the universe with confidence. He knows me completely. He knows my sin completely. Yet because Jesus died for my sin, God’s response is not to pull away, but to draw closer in mercy and love.

Sin and mercy

When Adam and Eve sinned, convinced by the serpent’s lies about God, they knew what they had done and they hid. So often our instinct is to do the same. But Luke’s gospel provides a better example (7:36-50).

Invited by a Pharisee for dinner, Jesus accepted. A woman in the town who had lived a sinful life turned up with a jar of perfume. Weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, kissing them and pouring perfume on them.

Immediately, the Pharisee began to judge both the woman and Jesus. If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know this woman is a sinner.

But Jesus’ words cut out our self-righteousness like a surgeon’s blade: “Her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

My profound moment of knowing my own sin was also a profound moment of knowing God’s goodness to me.

It is never the Pharisee whom Jesus commends as right with God. It is always the repentant sinner, who knows the seriousness of their sin, who brings it to God humbly and says, “I have nothing to offer but a broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51:17)

This is why my profound moment of knowing my own sin was also a profound moment of knowing God’s goodness to me. As American theologian Christopher Morgan puts it, in God’s cosmic story “sin is only the backdrop, never the point.” [4] The point is the work of God in Christ, so that the more I acknowledge my sin, the more I marvel at his love and mercy.


[1] Mark Thompson, “An unavoidable truth: the doctrine of sin today”, The Briefing, 4 November 2013, http://thebriefing.com.au/2013/11/an-unavoidable-truth-the-doctrine-of-sin-today/.

[2]  John Woodhouse, ‘The Fall’, from unpublished Doctrine 1 lecture notes, Moore Theological College, 2012.

[3] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973), part IV, chapter 1.

[4] Morgan, “Sin in the Biblical Story,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, 162.

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