Wisdom and Sin

When you are college professor on a Christian campus you are often asked about your opinion as to if Behavior X is or is not a sin. The inquiring minds of college students want to know. And one can assume that their interest is more than philosophical.

There are times when the "is a sin"/"isn't a sin" binary judgment is the best way to answer the question. But life is so complex and the Christian ethical witness so diverse that at times it's a struggle to give a definitive answer. And it's at these times where I find the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament to be a better framing than the Protestant worry about escaping the wrath of an angry God.

Specifically, some things might not be sinful, but they can be decidedly stupid. Some things don't make you a bad person, but they can mark you as foolish. And some things aren't as immoral as they are immature.

Here are some advantages of using a wise/foolish frame over a not-sin/sin frame:

1. You avoid moralizing.
Sometimes you don't want to be preachy, paternalistic and schoolmarmish.

2. You force them to take responsibility.
As noted above, students aren't disinterested interlocutors. And very often they are acting in "bad faith," to use Satre's term. That is, they are running from their freedom and responsibilities. They are shopping for an endorsement from an authority figure when they need to start taking responsibility for the hard work of moral discernment and the resultant consequences of their behavior.

3. You avoid binaries.
These moral decisions often come in shades of grey. Think about, as an example, the classic youth group obsession about where "the line" is in regards to sexual activity. Sin versus not-sin is hard to impose on these underlying continua. Wise/foolish is better situated to handle the range of choices and situational complexities.

4. The frame is more holistic.
The focus on sin is often a narrow concern over God's judgment. The focus on wisdom forces you to consider a larger and longer view, how this particular behavior or path will affect me now and over the long haul. It forces you to think about things like identity and happiness. Who do I want to be? Looking back, will I feel proud of these choices? Will this behavior get me to where I want to go?

Interestingly, while it can seem that the wisdom frame is downplaying the notion of sin it is, upon consideration, making the notion of sin more robust. Think about it. Why does God prohibit certain activities? Because God is a Puritan? Or are God's commands forms of care? Spend any time at all with the Torah psalms and you quickly become aware that God isn't a schoolmarm, prude or finger-waving do-gooder. The commands of God are wisdom, patterns of life that promote psychological and social well-being.

You want adolescents and college students to avoid sin and be good?

My recommendation: Spend less time on the sin lists.

Teach them wisdom.

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27 thoughts on “Wisdom and Sin”

  1. Agreed. As a high-school teacher, I get these questions from time to time, as well. And my response - especially, as you've mentioned, with questions about sexuality - is to go for the wise/foolish exploration. Presenting a binary on sexuality is particularly troublesome, I think, because it attempts to draw the line at specific actions, when sexuality is holistically, inescapably intertwined with a person's entire being. Also, it doesn't work.

  2. Oh, yes! Many discussions like this when I did campus ministry. Typically, when someone asked me about "the line" in these situations, I would start by asking, "Why do you want to know?" This question usually surprised them enough on its own. What I was getting at is that morality is dynamic, not a static list of rules. Then we would discuss motives, context and what these decisions say about the relationship itself. 

  3. "I find the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament to be a better
    framing than the Protestant worry about escaping the wrath of an angry

    Have you seen the research findings on the "adaptive-adolescence" view of brain development, Dr. Beck?

    It would seem that, technically, teens and young adults are driven to risk-taking, and more intensely so if and when the perceived reward (social inclusion/peer approval) is high.  The higher functioning regions of the brain are still under construction, and consequently, the capacity for wisdom in decision-making.  The propensity for risky behavior is a necessary process for development, but has the potential for disastrous consequences as well.

    The Protestant sin/punishment emphasis does more to produce guilt, fear, and shame.  I think that this mostly backfires on overzealous Protestant parents and church leaders, in that the kids learn to hide and avoid, be more stealthy about their "sinful" exploits, and fail to form a healthy, honest self-image, let alone healthy, honest relationships with peers or elders.

    That's my inexpert, humble opinion anyway, based more on personal experience and mothering my own children, the oldest of whom is a few months shy of age 16!  Holy cow...  How did she get so old?!

    Thanks for all you do, Dr. Beck.  ~Peace~

  4. Susan, I'm not a big fan of the Reformed doctrine anymore either. But to say they are full of fear, guilt, and punishment is nonsense. What they believe is that at the cross Christ removed all the condemnation and punishment off of His people so that they can see and savor Divine Beauty in the face of Christ. In His love and resurrection Jesus conquered death and His people no longer have to fear death, punishment, or condemnation. The only thing Christians recieve from God is His mercy. Even in their sufferings. According to them God may discipline His children but He never punishe condemns them.

  5. Yes, my understanding of brain development is that during the adolescent years the connections between the limbic system (where motivation and emotion mainly reside) and the frontal cortex (where impulse control and decision making reside) are being formed. During this time the limbic system is less regulated until the connections with the frontal cortex can be fully established. The change is dramatic. There is a huge difference on my campus between the underclassmen and the upperclassmen. Something happens, neurologically, during that Sophomore summer. All the drama of adolescence starts to fade away and you see the adult emerge.

  6. It's interesting to compare families who take different approaches to raising their kids. Just in survey of people I've known, those attempting the most control in their children's lives, whether morally, religiously, politically, or personally, I've seen teen/out of marriage pregnancy, anorexia, food addiction, drug addiction, emotional crippling, OCD ... long list of debilitating patterns that did not prepare the child to be their own adult. Those exercising less control and more alongsidedness with their kids seem to produce kids who become capable and successful as adults. The fearfulness creates the thing it fears most in the child. But kids know when they're being trusted, and tend to rise to that. Those being controlled never get the opportunity.

  7. Hi Cole, I think that avoiding the not-sin/sin response in guiding young people toward better (wiser) choices is more grounded in practical reality.  Relating to the problem of pain and suffering, and God's place in all of it -- (i.e., "theodicy"), there is more than one way to think about cause-effect:

    a.  God either actively causes all, both blessing and cursing,
    b.  or, God passively allows bad stuff to happen (i.e., suffering),
    c.  We, of our own free will, choose and decide, which brings about various consequences,
    d.  Bad stuff occurs at random (God has taken a hands-off-the-wheel approach to the world);
    e.  Natural consequences occur as a result of a given set of circumstances.

    Did I leave any out?

    Among all those possible variations on cause-effect, I have come to the conclusion that it's not one or the other, but all of the above.  That's where exercising wisdom and discernment come into the equation, on our end.  There are also times when we do not possess the wisdom (as in "teenage brain" years), adequate knowledge, or experience to arrive at the best possible decision on our own.  Then, we seek the counsel (advice) of those who are older, wiser, *and* whom we trust -- very important, the element of trust, imho.

    The trust factor is what I was getting at in the guilt, fear, shame of the Protestant not-sin/sin framing.  Though I would, actually, also question what kind of God -- and consequently, trusting relationship with Him -- that the Reformed / Calvinist / Sovereign Grace doctrine engenders in a young person, the more immediate issue is this:  What kind of trusting relationship with parents and church leaders is this approach engendering in a young person?  Furthermore, young people will screw up.  So do grown-ups; even the "elect," but that's another story.  I can't say for sure what God thinks of all that, but I know how overzealous Protestants can react -- and that is to punish and condemn, on God's behalf, it would seem.  Hence, the youth, naturally learn to avoid the unpleasantness of punishment and condemnation of their (earthly) authority figures by hiding their sins.  But, given what has been taught about a wrathful God and His anger toward sin, a young person inside this system feels guilt, fear, and shame, which is internalized and suffered silently.  A lot depends on the individual kid, I grant you.  Some are more sensitive to this, while others simply let such teaching go in one ear and out the other.  This has been my experience.  ~Peace~

  8. I like this.

    Though I don't teach, I occasionally am asked a question of this nature. I tend to respond, when needed, "I don't believe that's what God wants for you. He wants the best for you, and that doesn't sound like the best. However, I also don't believe that judging others is what God wants for me. So this is something you need to wrassle out with Him."

    (I also feel a compulsion to tell you I didn't do anything to drag you into the morass over at Jay's blog on that one post. Sorry it happened. On the other hand, now that I know about it, I will want to read what you've written!)

  9. No worries about Jay's blog. I just saw an incoming link from that site and discovered the conversation. Threw in my two cents.

  10. Hi Cole, it sounds like you have found the right system for you.  If these beliefs bring you comfort and give you hope and courage, then it is exactly where you need to be.  However, you must know that demanding that others buy into your system will not, ultimately, be persuasive?  I'm paying much more attention lately to the way that you are interacting with me and my friends here at the ET blog.  Remember the big issue of trust that I mentioned?  Take care Cole.  ~Peace~

  11. Well, if faith - hope - love are a bad thing consider me evil. I'm just saying what works for me and clearing up these bizzare anti-Reformed beliefs that you and your friends seem to have.

  12. "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." Ecclesiastes 1:18. Not only are college students going to feel more sorrow because of their profound knowledge acquisition, but now you are piling on all kinds of wisdom that will only bring "much sorrow." How dare you cause others to suffer for such noble causes!

  13. "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." Ecclesiastes 1:18. Not only are college students going to feel more sorrow because of their profound knowledge acquisition, but now you are piling on all kinds of wisdom that will only bring "much sorrow." How dare you cause others to suffer for such noble causes!

  14. Since it was you who referenced the Reformed doctrine (as in, "I'm not a big fan of it anymore either, but..."), it would appear that you set up your own argument in order to refute it?  I do not think of you as evil or bad, Cole.  What is it that you really want to gain here, and to receive from me?  ~Peace~

  15. I'm not Reformed because I believe all will be saved in the end and I no longer hold to Penal Substitution. But what I see comming from you and your good friends here are attacks on the Reformed that are completely off base. If you are going to attack it first know what it is they teach. I think there has been alot of good come from Reformed theologians as well as Orthodox as well as Catholics. I like alot of the mystics myself. It's sad how the Reformed tradition doesn't involve itself very much with Christian mysticism.

  16. Cole, it's good that you are examining the points of doctrine, piece by piece, and taking what's good from each system and/or tradition and throwing out what's not so good.  I'm "for" you, friend.  Enjoy your evening.  I'm going for a walk outdoors; how about you?  ~Peace~

  17. I have a few questions about what you said here.

    "In the end all will confess Christ is Lord to the glory of God and be saved."
    I assume you are looking at Philippians 2 here.  How do you conclude the part about 'being saved' from that passage?

    "I think it's good to feel shame and guilt as long as we come to God and ask for forgiveness."
    I assume the 'we' you mention here are Christians.  If so, why do you think that a Christian ever has to ask God for forgiveness?

    By the way, I liked your recent blog post about 'eternal' suffering.  It is on my list to comment on, when I can find the time.

  18. No one can confess Christ is Lord except by the Spirit. Notice also that they confess Him as Lord to the Glory of God. This is clear that it's a confession unto salvation.

    The Bible encourages us not to sin but promises us that if we do sin, we have an advocate, it also promises that if we will confess our sins, we will be forgiven. One of the reasons is to recieve healing, for the Bible tells us to confess our sins to one another and we will be healed.

  19. “No one can confess Christ is Lord except by the Spirit.”
    You and Paul are exactly right.  Note that you and Paul both use the present tense; what you both say is true now, during this time and age of the church.  Are we given any information that it will also be true at any other time or age?

    “Notice also that they confess Him as Lord to the Glory of God.”
    Again I agree.  But, when?  And, does this have anything to do with salvation?

    “This is clear that it's a confession unto salvation.”
    Not so clear.  It is an assumption or inference that is not really based on what is said in Scripture.  The Philippians passage on 'knee bending' talks about a future time when this happens.  How can one be sure that the situation we now face will still be in effect at this unspecified future time?

    By the way, based on Romans 14:10-11 I think this future time is most likely the judgment seat of God and this is not a trial.  This is where judgment is passed based on what has previously been done.  I know of no Scripture that says that anybody has a chance to gain salvation at this time and place by doing anything, including bowing the knee or confessing.  Do you?

    “The Bible encourages us not to sin but promises us . . . that if we will confess our sins, we will be forgiven.”
    I think then that you agree that a Christian does not have to ask for forgiveness; he has to confess.  Right?

  20. Cole, I am not "making attacks on the Reformed." I never mentioned Reformed -- you did, remember? Go back and read what was written. We've had this conversation before, before you started using your last name here. Again same deal -- you started in with accusing me of "attacking" reformed without "knowing" their doctrine, but you were one who mentioned Reformed -- not me. The things I talk about here are directly from my own experiences in a large denomination that is pretty powerful here in the southern states. I have logged more than 40 years in it, and I'm pretty damn sure I understand what they "believe." You don't come into someone else's house and start telling them what they can or can't talk about. Like the church officials who tried to shut up the victims of pedofile priests by accusing the victims of "attacking the Catholic church." They were simply telling the truth of their experiences, and so am I. What's more, where churches create casualties, the churches DO shut down or shut up or shut them out, and those coming out of abusive churches NEED TO KNOW that there are others out here who get it. Who understand, and will be alongside them in a recovery and healing process. Stop being like Job's friends, who claimed to know all about God, and tried to shut down Job's lament. In the end God had some pretty harsh words for them. If you don't like the things I say, stop responding to them. And certainly stop applying everything I say to your narrow world. The purpose of a blog like this is conversation, not some grand correctionist coming in to "fix" what other people say.

  21. Yeah, after thinking this over and reading the anti-Christian remarks about the Biblical doctrines of the Reformed, I'm thinking of returning to Calvinism. Not that they alone are going to heaven. But the Reformed teachings of the Piper variety seem to be more in line with the Word and my experiences.

  22. Well, I am back to being Reformed after all the attacks and misrepresentations of it. It most closly fits the scripture and my experience. Are you not trying to fix me right now by telling me what I can and cannot do? My world is the Biblical world. Narrow is the gate that leads to life. And few find it. Broad is the road that leads to eternal destruction. I am also glad to here that your so called abuse wasn't from the "Reformed". The Reformed church that I use to go to has quite a few loving people in it. They are big on John Piper and his version of "The Reformed". Not all Reformed agree on everything.

  23. Cole,
     It matters not one whit to me what you're "back to" or not. You seem to change your mind quite frequently.  If you think you've found THE right way to be right, congratulations. You don't owe me or anyone else an explanation.

     It is, however, highly inappropriate of you to attribute words like "hate" and accusations of "attacking" to me. And for that, I'm asking you to leave me alone. The ideas I have discussed are Dr. Beck's, from his posts and comments. If you have a problem with them, address them to him personally Show the courage to go to the source. Coming at me reeks of other motives. 

  24. I would add that if you have to ask if a given action is a sin, it most likely is. I say this because asking that question trying to get a "green light" from an authority figure indicates that the given act would violate your own conscience. And acting contrary to one's conscience would be a sin.....

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