When spring blooms, we discover snakes and turtles around the little creek behind out house. The turtles glub up from the mud and gulp air. The snakes wriggle out from the banks of the creek, sloughing their worn out skin and winding around tree roots into the sun. My son, walking barefoot in the mud by the creek, once stepped on a snake. It flexed like rubber beneath his foot and wriggled quickly down into the water. Another time, my wife went to pull our neighbor’s garbage can to the street and discovered a garter snake curled up beneath it, lethargic in the morning chill.
In the beginning, in the spring of creation, the Snake slithered quiet and flick-tongued into Eden. It was Adam and Eve in the garden with God. They were made in God’s image (Gen.1:27) and blessed by God (1:28) and given the whole world (1:29-30) and pronounced very good (1:31). They were completely transparent to God (2:25). And then the snake came on the scene (3:1).
That Snake didn’t need to invent anything new. The human beings already had all they needed to live fully and truly before God–or fail epically. We often think about the Snake tempting Adam and Eve to do the wrong thing, but perhaps the Snake’s greatest trick was actually getting Adam and Eve to not do the right thing: love God.
It’s the classic distinction: sins of commission (doing bad things) versus sins of omission (not doing good things). In the church’s penitential prayers, we sometimes pray: “I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”We may be able to avoid some of the more egregious sins of commission. I suspect this is what folks mean when they claim to be “pretty good people,” having never murdered anyone. We equate not hurting anyone with morality. On that measure, so long as we’re not stepping on our neighbor’s toes, everything’s fine. I’m okay, you’re okay. But all too often, we’re just the moral equivalent of couch potatoes.
Most of us fail epically when it comes to doing the good. Writer David Brooks noted in a recent interview how as human beings we tend to ignore our “sins of omission and settle for a sort of moral mediocrity.” When I look at my own life, I realize Brooks is right. No doubt this is why Jesus taught that scrupulously avoiding trespass of the law was insufficient. The God-fearing life requires something a bit more robust and active: loving God and loving neighbor.
I’m struck that in many ways, we’re in an age of omission. We’ve fallen under the erroneous belief that we can wall ourselves off from the great hunger of the world and still be good and beautiful people. We can spend our money and go our way, so long as we don’t hurt anybody.
But avoiding the bad isn’t much of a moral life. Living into the way of Jesus means tackling the much trickier work of discerning and doing the good.