Re-Thinking the gospel #1: Sin and Chewing Gum

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Yesterday, I was walking through Dolores Park and heard a street preacher, saying "If you've ever stolen a stick of gum, then you are guilty of sin! If you've ever looked at Facebook at work, then you've stolen from your employer, and that's sin!" Of course we all know where he was headed: If we have sinned--even with a trivial infraction like a stick of gum--then God who is holy must punish us for all eternity in Hell unless we accept Jesus right now.

I mean, seriously, gum? Why can't God just get over it? Is God less moral than all of us are? This is not a picture of holiness, it is a picture of a petty tyrant. Aside from the horrible picture of God that this gives us (and honestly, who could ever love, trust, and feel safe around a God like that?), what this ultimately does is trivialize sin. It makes sin into a petty infraction of little consequence.

We live in a world with real hurt. All you need to do to see this is read the headlines, and you will see story after story of terrible injustice, violence, and suffering throughout the world. So much so it can overwhelming. If you spend the time to really listen to those around you, and will hear stories of deep hurt, broken families, broken people. We do not need to make up fake problems about chewing gum. There are plenty of real problems and hurt in our lives.

Jesus does not focus on gum, or even going too far with your girl friend in Jr High school, or dropping an F-bomb when you stub your toe. His overwhelming focus was on things that have deep and devastating effects on people's lives--the alienation and estrangement that can come from poverty, sickness, and  injustice. That's what Jesus spent the majority of his time focusing on. They matter more because they have more profound consequences. If you feel worthless, condemned, cut off, this is devastating in a way that affects the whole course of your life.

And here's the thing: Jesus did not tell people that this was a sin. He did not tell them to repent of this. Instead, he demonstrated the care and nearness of God to them. He healed the wounded and embraced the untouchable. The biggest problem, as Jesus saw it, was not that we had done things that were wrong and needed to seek forgiveness from an angry God. Our biggest problem was that people felt cut off from God, forsaken.

This, I would propose, is the #1 struggle that people have with God today. What drives so many people to atheism is not selfishness or hedonism, but the experience of abandonment in the face of suffering, grief, and injustice. In fact, it is a problem that touches us whether we are people of faith or completely secular. In the face of debilitating illness or tragedy we can feel isolated and alone. Similarly, those who have experienced violence know as well that this can make you feel helpless and abandoned.

These are things that can bring us to act in hurtful and destructive ways, but the root problem is not this hurtful behavior (this is a mere symptom), our problem is separation. Our problem is relational.
Now, of course where there is hurt and injustice, there are not only victims, but also those who have hurt others. Surely it is right to call people on their hurtfulness, but the focus needs to be on helping these people to develop empathy, and all the more, our main focus really needs to be on caring for those who have been hurt.

This was the clear focus of Jesus. Yes, he confronted those who hurt others (especially those who did so in the name of religion). Yes, he taught us all to walk in the way of compassion and empathy (which he referred to as  "love of enemies"). But the majority of his time Jesus spent caring for those who had been shut out and wounded, his focus was on victims.

Yes, you heard me right: when we place the focus on sinners in need of repentance we do not share the focus of Jesus. That is simply not how he understood his mission, how he understood the gospel.
It is part of it, but when we make it primarily about this we shrink the gospel, and make it irrelevant to those who are not struggling with this particular issue. In focusing on defining ourselves as "sinners in need of repentance" we have placed the focus on redeeming those who harm others (which includes us), often ignoring the needs of those who have been harmed (which includes us, too). This is simply not the focus of Jesus.

It is good to seek to redeem those who harm, but this cannot mean that we neglect to care for those who have been harmed. That's why Jesus cared so much about issues of poverty, sickness, and a host of other social issues tied to self-worth which can separate a person from God and life which we as the church have so often overlooked. Read the gospels and note that Jesus spends the vast majority of his time demonstrating God's love to those who feel cut off due to suffering and injustice, and relatively little time telling people to repent. In fact, when he does tell people to repent it is almost always addressed to the religious people who were shutting out the poor and the least!

Again, the point here is not to condone sin, not to say "we have grace so let's do whatever." Far from it! The point is to recognize that the problem is much bigger than rule-breaking, and the gospel actually addresses that big problem in a very deep way.  We don't need to make up fake problems (like chewing gum). There are very real problems that we all experience right now, and Jesus clearly addresses these problems. This is what we need to deal with.

That means that the gospel is not some irrelevant problem that we need to convince people they have (God is mad at them for some minor infraction or because of original sin), but rather it addresses our real need in a real way. That includes hurtful behavior (what we call "sin") but it goes way deeper than just the outward behavior--it deals with the heart.

God is not a petty legalist who is angry about every stick of chewing gum. It's just the opposite: God wants us to care for the other. God wants us to care for those whom we value the least. If God cares about sin, it's because God cares about you and me. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." God cares because God loves us, and wants us to stop hurting each other. So what we need to learn is how to love like Jesus does. That has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with relationship.

The focus therefore is not about how "good" you need to be in order to make it into heaven, or on whether God can overlook that bad thing you did. It's not about using Jesus as a legal loophole so you can get your ticket to heaven. That ultimately leads to self-focus, and we need to instead be relationally-focused. We need to care about hurting each other, we need to be active in making things right. Because, to paraphrase Jesus on the sermon on the mount: You are worth much more to God than chewing gum.

Next time: Paul's view of sin as religious violence in Romans

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At 5:53 PM, Blogger Bones said...

Love that kicker at the end: "You are worth much more to God than chewing gum."

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

YES! This is such truth! (The kind that sets people free)

At 3:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So true. But what helps?
The person who unwisely refers to the chewing gum probably does it so, because he experienced within himself, that few, small stones start the avalanche in the mountains.
Philip Zimbado has a talk on TED. Identifying "7 social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil" his first item is: "mindlessly taking the first small step". Which finds a parallel in genensis 3: Mindlessly taking the fruit.

His way out is: become a "hero-in-waiting". But i fear, our world is so weird, that there is no time for waiting....


At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I agree that we should examine our own lives and pay attention to even the "little weeds in our garden." The bigger issue however is the understanding of God that lies behind this (which was what the preacher's point was). Would God really send someone to hell because of some minor transgression? Is that really just? The answer is pretty obviously no. If we are willing to take such a careful look at our own hearts, we also need to examine how we understand God and justice with that same care. When we end up with a view of God that is less loving, less just, and less compassionate than we are, that needs to set off a red flag for us that something is very wrong with our theology.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,
i fully agree. The same day you've heard this preacher I've heard a singer singing something like " can you love a rebel like me..." In this moment it made me a little bit angry and I wanted to shout "How ever could a healthy father / mother not love their kids?"

But it's clear, the singer wanted to express his gratitude and emotions...

So the next question is, how can we change our talking and singing, our symbols and pictures so that it might become not so single sided focused only on the need of painful redemption from my sin's.

That brings me to the cross.

It seems to me that the symbol of the cross is so massively linked to the theme: "Jesus needed to suffer badly due to my rebellion" and does not transport the intentions and relations.

This raises more questions to me:
1) What's about the cross as symbol for christianity? When came it into existance? How was it understood in early phases? What's in the bible?
2)Could it be a good idea to emphasis other symbols more. I'm only starting to think about this, but I have some candidates: The menorah, the fish, the lamb, ... . Maybe we should look a little bit into the objects of the tabernacle or the temple....


At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


As I'm sure you know, I reject the idea that the cross means Jesus needed to suffer because of our sin as a form of divine punishment. The cross in its original context was a symbol of inhuman violence and oppression carried out by the Pagan Roman state. So Jesus endured the evils of systemic injustice and violence, overcoming it. The way of the cross is about entering into participation with humanity caught in the middle of violence and injustice, entering into our suffering and showing us a way to overcome it. That way is enemy love.

So rather than having new symbols, I think we need to focus on the right meanings of all our symbols. Retribution is wrong, violence is wrong. Restorative justice, enemy love, and solidarity with the suffering, and loving relationships are right.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, good post. Just one small quibble: Where you put "chewing gum" in some spots, I might say "petty theft."

I heartily agree with your comment about infusing our symbols, such as the Cross, with the right and true meaning.

I wanted to ask under your posts on the Atonement in the Church Fathers if you have ever read the work of Dr. Robin Collins, philosophy prof at Messiah College on "Understanding Atonement." What you address from perhaps a more theological perspective (looking at the Fathers), he addresses also from a philosophical ethics perspective and I think offers some thoughts that are a good complement to your work here. Maybe you have some sort of potential for collaborative work?

Here's a link to his work online, if you are unfamiliar:

At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Re: Chewing gum. Personally I have never stolen any gum. Don't know why I'd bother when I can just say "Can I have some gum please?" if I ever wanted any. So it did occur to me that it was a rather odd example, but hey that's really what he actually said. I think he was trying to find an example that we all had done, so perhaps a better one would be "If you have ever forgotten to give back a Bic pen you borrowed then you will be tortured in hell for all eternity--because God is so holy!" I think that captures the sentiment.

Thanks for the tip with Robin Collins, I'll check that out!

At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi derek,
... and i agree with this participative and restouractive perspective. What people like your preacher and my singer leads to their expression is probably the personal experience, that's not easy to be on the Jesus-side of the game. And in addition to being victim, i am participant of the evil so easily.
"... Wretched man that I am"

So what's the next step, after knowing what's wrong and what's right?


At 10:39 AM, Blogger Brent said...

What if Salvation's goal is not about getting out of Hell? What if the focus on Sin is a distraction perpetrated by a really good scheme artist? After all don't you hit what you are looking at? So if you think you are a sinner...won't you sin by faith? What if we are better than that? What if we are beloved children of God? What if we are fully loved and have always been? What if mankind's choice to disbelieve God only created distance between man and God and not between God and man? What if mankind has bought into the greatest hoax in history? The hoax that we are defined by what Lucifer says rather than what God says? Sin is defined by missing the mark. If God is the standard and we believe something about Him that is not true...there is the sin. Behavior is just the byproduct of a belief held. Let's dump this whole idea that I am defined by my behavior and let's rally to how God defines us. Fix our eyes on Jesus...the author and perfector of our capacity to belief (Faith). Let's change our posture from "oh woe is me" to "oh WOW is me!" I have been fused with the very Spirit of God. My thoughts are no longer mine but OURS (God and me). We are more than we have been led to believe!


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