Science and Sin 1 (RJS)

While much of the furor over the conflict between science and faith centers on the question of origins and evolution – it is not limited to these questions alone. The sciences also impact our understanding of human behavior and human response and this can also lead to increased understanding or to conflict.

The September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine has an interesting article on the Seven Deadly Sins (the magazine has a website at discovermagazine.com – but this article is not available on-line, at least not yet).  The article poses a question “Why does being bad feel so good?” and describes research being done these days to explore the science of sin.  One of the most interesting techniques used in these studies is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), another is PET (positron-emission tomography). In these technique the active areas of the brain are mapped as the subject responds to certain stimuli.

Consider one sin – Gluttony. In one experiment the researcher asks his volunteers to come in hungry.

He then torments them, asking them to describe their favorite food in loving detail while he heats it up in a near by microwave so that the aroma wafts through the room. … the motivational regions in their brains go wild. Parts of the front orbital cortex, which is implicated in decision making, also light up. (p. 50)

These and other studies indicate that obese people have lower reward sensitivity and that areas involved in inhibitory control are less active.  In fact it appears that overeating downregulates inhibition control.   Tongue in cheek (I think) the article suggests that this offers moral absolution. If a sin isn’t voluntary it isn’t a sin – at least according to Thomas Aquinas – and we are wired to overeat.

This is a relatively minor example – but it leads to an interesting question.

What role does chemistry or biology play in our understanding of sin?

We are fully embodied beings. Our philosophy must correlate with reality. While our mind can influence our body, We cannot separate spirit and body. Self-control is not simply a matter of will, nor is it simply a matter of faith. This must in some sense influence how we think about sin and grapple with the theology.

The article in Discover looks at a very short overview of research into brain responses correlated with each of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, greed, wrath, lust, and sloth in addition to gluttony discussed above.

Lust is a big one. (Anyone surprised?) Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least) the response is all-encompassing. “All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.”  The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable.

“These are huge effects” Saffron says. “You are looking at the difference between something that elicits intense desire and something that does not.” (p. 50)

The responses in women are definite, but less spectacular.

This leads to some serious questions – for example does Jesus set an unattainable bar?

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Mt 5:27-28

Lust is, in one sense at least, simply an uncontrollable response. Ah – but while the lust response is spectacular, research is also demonstrating that the brain contains a conscious self-regulatory system.

This network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature. (50)

We may not be able to control instinctive response – but we have a great deal of control over where we go from there.

Sloth is another sin of the flesh – also known as acedia. This too has concrete physical roots.  Depression or diseases such as fronto-temporal dementia are often at the root of acedia or apathy.  Research suggests that abnormal function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain may be connected with lethargy – and that activity or stimulation in this area can help inhibit negative emotions and lethargy.  Again there are real chemical causes underlying much sloth – but also the possibility for conscious mitigating behavior in many cases.

We will look at the other sins in the next post. For now we can consider these three.

What is the dividing line between natural response, disease, and sin? Is sin a meaningless concept in these cases? Or is this simply “the Fall” and we can expect to be healed only in the final resurrection?

Paul certainly expects us to be able to “die to sin.”  Romans 6 is pretty powerful stuff.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? … Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

What control can we expect to have over such embodied responses? Is control a matter of faith and willpower – or perhaps medicine and training?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • John W

    I think many of the commandments, especially those dealing with the seven deadly sins, are setup to encourage us to be better than our animal ways to foster an agreeable community life. If you look at the seven “deadly” sins, they all seem to boil down to animal instincts: eat, procreate, gather/hoard, dominance (allows sloth and driven by greed), defense/self-preservation, and so on.
    For a long time, I have felt there is a different message (intention) there other than “don’t sin in these ways or yer goin’ straight to ….!” I see a message of encouragement to be better than our animal instincts. It is a clear description of the animal ways that are part of our nature — something we need to overcome to be and stay better than what are are put in dominion over.
    I think very often the notion of the seven deadly sins gets overblown and used in contorted ways. I find much more applicability, personally and spiritually, to remind myself that I need use my God-given ability to reason to rise above my animal impulses that push me towards any of these sins. It isn’t about a fear of going to Hell, but is about being a better person overall — the kind of person a Christian should be.

  • http://blogspot.thebloggerandhisshadow.com Brennon

    Discover magazine is great! and I admire their courageous efforts to give the science and faith arguments a chance time and again. This is an exquisite idea for a study!! I have often thought to myself that if it wasn’t for the numerous irrational challenges that Paul puts to the Christian, especially in regards to sin, Christian living would be much more pleasant. Given an OT understanding of sin, and a modern understanding of chemistry and biology, it is my conviction that we have no choice but to admit that ‘sin of the flesh’ has been scientifically proven to be a result of ‘the fall. ‘Sin’ does not become a meaningless concept because of findings in science, rather, it becomes something much deeper and in tune with how the scriptures come to life even today. It forces us to consider what it really means live as a Christian in a world where science dominates, and what role our own will has in correspondance with the will of God. (In my opinion this is where ‘control’ must come from.)

  • rebeccat

    It has been my experience that the only way to deal with sin, particularly that which we are instinctively drawn to, is through God. Asking God to shape our desires. Turning to God in prayer and leaning on His word when temptation threatens to get the best of us. Turning towards Him in repentance when we fail and to beg again for help. So, perhaps these sinful desires are not only inborn, but also keep us from attaining the life we want/need without intense reliance on God. If they were not so deeply ingrained, many of us may not come to realize our dependence on God.

  • Diane

    Given that we can’t know exactly how other people are wired (most of us don’t have the equipment, time or inclination to CAT and PET scan our neighbors) this tells me we need to be less judgmental and more supportive about helping each other overcome our problems.

  • Diane

    Also, since many people apparently have controlled these responses, we know it can be done. Living right now in the midst of an Amish community–not of it, but it is all around me–I see that they have constructed a society that makes it easier to avoid or mitigate many of these sins–I see very little obesity–in fact, I would say none, just a few overweight Amish, and far less than in our society; not much sloth (on the other hand, nobody seems harried with overwork either), lust, I don’t know, but they certainly don’t have easy access to pornography, a lust stimulator; they’re certainly not violent in that they don’t start wars; they seem to have much better controls on greed than we do … they show it is possible to build a society where, regardless of brain patterns, it is easier to avoid the worst effects of the Seven Deadly Sins or, in Dorothy Day’s words,a society where it is “easier to be good.”

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Just heard a spot on NPR the other day questioning some of the assumptions behind fMRI and PET scans but don’t know if that affects this research or not.
    My guess is that by ourselves we are doomed to fail. One way or the other, in our “flesh” (meaning not-Spirit-enabled) we will fall to one or another of these impulses. The message of the NT goes beyond “don’t lust” to “truly love”, etc. All the fruit of the Spirit is active and positive. Everyone agrees that love, joy, peace, and other “Spirit stuff” mentioned in other lists like thankfulness and forgiveness (these sorts of things appear in all or almost all of the epistles) are desirable. We try to do them but fail. It takes God’s creation power and resurrection power to grow this fruit in us.

  • angusj

    “What control can we expect to have over such embodied responses? Is control a matter of faith and willpower – or perhaps medicine and training?”
    Surely the better we understand our unhealthy desires the easier it is to manage them. Taking overeating as an example – this can be due to a number of causes including mood disorders (boredom, depression etc leading to comfort eating) and blood sugar instability (with insulin rebounds) from poor diets that are high in carbohydrates, and high GI foods. It’s easy to stigmatize overweight people and blame them (or ourselves) as simply weak willed or sinful if we don’t appreciate what’s driving the overeating behavior. Of course this doesn’t absolve us from responsibility in addressing our unhealthy behaviors but we must avoid the simplistic notion that they’re simply a matter of greater willpower/self discipline and/or repentance.

  • http://blog.emergingscholars.org Mike Hickerson

    It has struck me again and again that sin, in the long run, complicates our lives in terrible ways. Looking at brain scans is one way of measuring the pleasures of sin…but what about other measures of happiness? Diane raises a great point. How many average Americans would choose to adopt the Amish lifestyle? Yet, from her observations, the Amish have a more fulfilling, more balanced life.
    Brennon, I wish I shared your enthusiasm for Discover. I used to be a big fan, but I find their coverage of religion to be wanting. I don’t find the magazine to be courageous at all; instead, I think they generally reinforce a pseudo-scientific view of religion that is the default “safe” position of their primary audience.

  • RJS

    MatthewS (#6)
    I don’t want to give the impression that we know all about the brain (or the mind), certainly there are assumptions in this kind of research. Most will likely pan out, but some certainly won’t.
    I don’t think, though, that we can deny that we are fully embodied. It is not as simple as “mind over matter.” To an extent our mind has to train our body (brain included) to be able to control these impulses.
    Does God often gives us this control “miraculously?” Should we expect him to? Or is it, in fact, more like training for a race or athletic contest? (Another good analogy from Paul.)

  • http://seanpnelson.wordpress.com/ Sean P. Nelson

    Very interesting. However, I wonder how much of this has to do with “Cause & Effect.”
    Which causes which? Wouldn’t it be interesting to consider the flip-flop of what’s inferred in this article? What if sin actually causes physical damage leading to greater disposition to sin more or in other ways?
    I have no idea and I’m certainly no scientist. I’m just curious about the implications. Peace!

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Diane,
    I would push back on the idealistic view of the Amish. Certainly some things are desirable. They are hard workers and you can trust most of them with your life. We live not too far from where Devil’s Playground is set (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0293088/). One of the leaders comments in that movie that they have all the struggles with their youth that the rest of society has: drugs, alcohol, etc. Having worked with 12-step and addiction recovery groups, I am aware that Amish youth can be good customers for drug dealers. Further, it is my belief that they struggle just as anyone does with sins of the heart like pride, lust, dishonesty, etc.
    Rules and society structure don’t deal with fruit of the flesh (per Gal 5, Eph 4, Col 3, etc.) at its source. The Amish, just like everyone else, need the fruit of the Spirit. They can control certain aspects of their society. Many shun their kids who leave their control to enter the outside world. External control over people and their behavior is not redemption; appearances are not heart change.
    I picked on them so it’s only fair to say something nice. Their houses and farms are beautiful and they make the best pies in the world. The Essenhaus has some fantastic pies, many other nice things as well http://www.essenhaus.com/index.cfm?pagename=mainpage_template&client_id=essenhaus_corp&tablename=news&link_id=1025659&linkname=Shops&sublinkname=Shops

  • nathan

    fascinating article.
    it seems that what we’ll need to consider along with this question is our theological anthropology…our formal commitments and then our functional ones since they don’t always coincide.
    it seems, functionally, that evangelicals try to argue that in many cases “nature” confirms certain moral positions regarding sin. (i.e. certain things are “against nature/natural order”.) and, yes, I know that is part of Catholic moral theory as well…
    but, if a particular behavioral reality is “hardwired” into our bodies, then i wonder what happens to the “nature/natural” component of ethical/moral/theological arguments?
    so how do we account for the facts of biology/chemistry in our theological anthropology that faces them head on and simply doesn’t do an “end run” around them?
    how do we give a robust theological account of humanity that includes the issue of sin, but goes beyond that to grapple with the whole person?

  • RJS

    Mike (#8),
    Discover certainly does take a rather poor view toward religion on occasion. I agree that “they generally reinforce a pseudo-scientific view of religion that is the default “safe” position of their primary audience.
    On the other hand most (all?) Christian approaches to the same issues reinforce a pseudo-intellectual view of science that is the default “safe” position of their primary audience.
    And the war continues.
    I tend to read both with filters to recognize both the pseudo-science view of religion and the pseudo-intellectual view of science.

  • MatthewS

    I made a comment that is waiting moderation. It has a link in – probably the reason it got held up.

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    RJS #9, it would seem to me that our Christian life is more process than event. The metaphors of walk, run, fruit, student, and building all imply time and effort. I would prefer event: voila! no more lust.
    I believe this process view accords just fine with seeing a biology that prefers one thing yet is perhaps trainable or overridable, if that makes sense. I’m out of my depth here.

  • pds

    We are hard-wired to desire to sin. But we are also hard-wired to enjoy being healthy, fit, and not over-weight. We are hard-wired not to enjoy being a slave of any one desire. We are hard-wired to enjoy sports. We are hard-wired to want to look attractive to the opposite sex. We are hard-wired to yearn for eternal life and to desire not to grieve the Holy Spirit (depending, I guess, on your theology). So a desire to eat a lot is not our only desire. As Paul says, we have competing desires that war with each other.
    Maybe those desires will be the focus of the next study.
    BTW, as Dallas Willard says about the spiritual disciplines:
    “A discipline in any area is something in my power that I do to enable me to do what I cannot do by direct effort.”

  • Rodney

    The apostle Paul was convinced that all his converts needed to overcome the power of sin is the Holy Spirit. (And that’s saying something given their religious past.) I know that sounds “preacherly” and somewhat mystical to a scientific community–even stating the obvious from a Christian perspective–but no less true. Is the gospel another therapeutic technique? Is the power of the Spirit immeasurable?
    Much talk in the West about overcoming sin sounds like self-help (we can’t do this by ourselves). And yet, overcoming the power of sin is not merely a passive event–we must do something.

  • http://www.FaceTheQuestion.com Anette Ejsing

    Some research shows that brain structure changes as a result of our behavior, which challenges the view that brain structure conditions our behavior. Our action shapes our brains, not vice versa, this research says.
    If this is true, then we have support for the argument that sinful behavior shapes the brain to want more of that sinful behavior. Some use this in support of the argument that “homosexual behavior makes a homosexual.”
    http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/?p=14607

  • James

    In order for this study to make the point that it is trying to, then it would need to be longitudinal.
    As I understand it, smoking crack cocaine is highly pleasurable… right now. But when combined with overall happiness and satisfaction some time frame later, not so much.
    All sin ultimately points back to the first sin. There is a rush and an exhilleration when you decide for yourself, “I can be like God, and define what is good and what is evil!” Then some time later, sometimes shorter, sometime longer, the crushing realization that you are not God, and that you don’t define what is good and what is evil comes crashing down on you.
    Gluttony leads to poor image, bad health, early death. Lust leads to shame, depression, addiction, and bad relationships. Sloth leads to poor health, unfulfilled lives, bad relationships and depression. While we can convince ourselves in the short term that we’ve done something pleasurable with each, it just doesn’t hold up.
    Compare the correlation between abortion and depression vs. the correlation between reported happiness and satisfaction with sex with couples married and faithful for long periods of time.
    Discover Magazine has presented GIGO.

  • Phil

    One subject that is related that would be of interest, is the decreased ability to make good decisions with such things a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This has been a struggle at our church over the years. How do we lovingly manage those with the disease.

  • Rick

    Anette bring up a good point, how behaviors shape the brain.
    A fully objective study would need to take previously unaffected brains (which is not possible) and study the impacts from that point.

  • Diane

    Matthew S,
    I agree that external appearances can be a sham without a corresponding interior transformation that leads to the fruits of the spirit. Interestingly, I had the discussion about the Amish and child abuse/drug abuse with a friend yesterday as we left the Amish farm where we buy bread. I commented on the gentleness of the Amish bread baker’s 12 yo son, who gladly showed us a book of illustrated children’s prayers he reads–I wondered to my friend how many 12 yo boys in our culture would be proud of a book like that. My friend said sharply that incidences of child abuse are roughly the same across the two cultures … and I mentioned that I knew the Amish abused drugs–in other words, I am not completely naive. I have three questions about this, though–without romanticizing or idealizing the Amish–First, how do we compare them to us? Isn’t it difficult to compare across cultures? For example, how do we measure child abuse? Do we consider childhood obesity a species of child abuse? Do we consider constant exposure to images of violence a form of child abuse? I would want to factor these things in, without condemning parents, of course, but I doubt they are included in your normal study. My second question: Do we hold the Amish to a higher standard? Yes, they are fallen humans like the rest of us, and that will mean addiction, depression, abuse, etc., but in the big picture view–they aren’t starting wars, they aren’t living in a way that is destroying the earth, they generally, as far as I know, are not murdering each other (I know there are exceptions), they treat animals, in general (I know there are exceptions) more humanely than big agribusiness, they modeled forgiveness after their school shooting … these would be big improvements to our culture, I would think. A good starting point. I’d be glad if we would stop starting wars. So –is there a tendency to try to discredit anything that challenges our culture? Finally, who are we talking about when we talk about the Amish? I know they range from quite liberal to quite conservative. The Amish around my area are quite conservative–probably what most people think of when they think of Amish. Are there any studies that break down pathology by subgroup? In other words, is drug abuse more likely in certain groups of Amish than others? I would be interested to know.
    However, all of this is a very longwinded way of saying that I hope we can look at what’s good in alternative cultures, without romanticizing them, to see that it is possible to build a better world with less of the seven deadly sins. Or so I hope. :)

  • Phil Atley

    By definition sin in the Christian faith is a matter of human choice. The will and the soul are by definition not susceptible to empirical measurement. The body is measurable, including the highly sophisticated measurements of neuroscience. But neuroscience cannot measure the soul or will. Our emotions (which are fundamentally bodily-based) and urges can be measured and neuroscience has something to contribute here. The emotions and urges are disordered as a result of sin but they cannot in themselves be sinful because God created the body (including emotions) good and in harmony.
    If one does not believe in a will or soul that is Other than the body and designed by God to be the organic head of the body (both in its orginal goodness and its present disharmonized situation), then all one has is brain chemistry and measuring and one will try to understand human behavior by measuring brain activity etc.
    But for those who do believe in the human soul and will as united with but head of the body, it is a serious mistake to address this new science using the term “sin.” They are appropriating our Jewish and Christian word and thinking they can tell us something about it by measuring bodily activity. They can indeed tell valuable things about the body and brain chemistry. But we need to retain the term “sin” as a non-scientific category or else we are going to end up in a kind of soft materialism or empiricism that is deadly for Christian faith.
    Whatever science can tell us about what goes on when we sin, it can only tell us about the secondary aspects of it. Behaviorists would like to convince society in general that it has a full explanation for the human person from measurable science alone. It is an article of Christian faith that science does not and cannot have this explanation. When Christians deal with this science, they need to have these parameters very clearly in mind. They cannot expect scientists to agree with their Christian theology about sin, soul, will, but Christians need to be clear about this for themselves.
    We can and do resist, control, manipulate our bodily urges and emotions by use of our God-given free will. When we deal with those urges rightly, we do good. When we deal with them wrongly, against God’s will, we sin. And how we do that is not measurable by empirical observation, even the most sophisticated empirical observation.

  • http://www.precipicemagazine.com Darren King

    Going in a slightly different direction, I find the idea that the brain is plastic, and that our behavior patterns can actually change the hard-wiring of the brain, fascinating. Talk about responsibility and co-creation!
    I love what Dallas Willard has to say on these kinds of subjects. And its not like he (and others from Christian tradition) doubt the chemical processes in the brain that lead to certain behaviors. Its because he has a healthy (and realistic) respect for it that he so encourages the disciplines as a kind of scaffolding to get the work done that the individual couldn’t do alone through direct effort.

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Diane,
    Fair questions. And obviously there is some good to their community, and some of that good may not even be immediately obvious. Agreed, it is difficult to compare cultures without being judgemental or romanticizing.
    I personally was raised in a controlling religious background so it is not surprising that I am easily cynical about religious groups like the Amish.
    But aside from my personal biases, I still think it is fair to claim that the Amish are an oppressive group. Consider the case of any typical Amish girl. She gets to 8th grade and has a choice: end her education permanently or leave her family and entire social structure and brave the outside world on her own. Further, she is taught she will go to hell. She isn’t allowed to learn how to study, not allowed to think for herself. Her doctrine is what the elders say it is. She will never question and reason with the preacher. She accepts what is taught on pain of being rejected.
    They are shaped from birth not to be an individual but to function in their place in the collective society. This is not necessarily wrong – it has both good and bad. The cultures present at the times of both the OT and NT were more collective than individual. But those cultures were thoroughly patriarchal in a sense that even the staunchest complementarian would reject today.
    Something else that I may not be able to communicate well – moms and babies. The Amish in our area ride in open buggies, even when it is 10 below 0 and the windchill is -25 or -35. Cars are obviously not always safe but buggies on the road are dangerous and cold. It seems to me an expensive trade-off, putting moms and babies and kids in these buggies in on the road, in the winter, for the sake of community simplicity.
    I guess where others see simplicity, I see oppression. My church would not allow a female pastor. This would make many people here at JesusCreed uncomfortable. But what about a church that tells women how to wear their hair and clothes, what to think, what to learn, what to believe, and not allow them to travel in a vehicle that would block the frigid winter air? These people are worse than John Piper! ;-)
    In the end, the important thing is the heart, not the externals. Regardless of culture, one can be greedy, lustful, angry, proud or loving, respectful, gentle, etc.
    Sorry for the length; I’ll probably get banned for life. Some of these thoughts are hard to put into words.

  • Karl

    Where necessary or helpful, substitute some other scientific term (genetics, etc.) for Lewis’s terms desire/instinct:
    “Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”
    “Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same. And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,’ cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.
    “Here is a third way of seeing it. If the Moral Law was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the rule of right behaviors. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses — say mother love or patriotism — are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries. Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”
    C.S. Lewis

  • Karl

    RJS, on lust in particular I like Dallas Willard’s argument in The Divine Conspiracy that the sense of that passage (I’m not sure about the actual Greek) is better rendered “if anyone looks . . . IN ORDER TO lust after her . . .”
    In other words, the mere instinctual/biological response isn’t wrong. It’s what you do with and about it, and whether one looks (and continues looking and/or imagining) *in order to* experience and cultivate and embrace that response.
    I think the same probably applies in a lot of other areas as well. Is this post more about the science of *temptation* than the science of sin?

  • Rodney

    Phil #23
    According to Paul, sin is also a power outside of human will (cf. Rom. 7).

  • RJS

    Rodney (#28),
    I think that it is interesting to think about this in the context of Romans 6-8 (and more). While some things are outside of human will alone this is never an excuse for sinning – and Paul certainly thinks that we can change and must aim high.
    Failure doesn’t separate us – unconcern (sinning so grace may increase) this may.
    Annette (#18)
    I think that research shows both – our action shapes our brains, and vice versa. We do learn and develop. So behavior influences desires, and desires influence behavior. It is much like athletic training.

  • Tami

    I was really struck by the definitions. Lust does not light up the brain in PET or MRI scans. Arousal does. They are not the same thing. Hunger likewise is not gluttony.
    We may not have so much control over hunger or arousal. But I honestly believe there are biblical injunctions against lust and gluttony because we DO have some measure of control.
    But, like humans do, we let them get out of control when they’re small and then they run all over us.

  • Rodney

    RJS,
    I’m sure I’ll need to send an email to offer a better response.
    I find it fascinating that my remark prompted your assumption (?) that such a statement presumes a license to sin (something, of course, Paul was also charged of but just as fiercely opposed). Perhaps some Christians hide behind “Satan made me do it” and absolve themselves of wrong-doing. So, if that’s what you’re thinking, I agree with you.
    Instead, I only offered the reminder (notice the qualified “also”) because much talk about overcoming sin often is based on arguments “from below,” which immediately starts to sound like “we’re on our own.” Instead, Paul would presume that we know we have a higher power (than the power of sin): a crucified life.

  • RJS

    Rodney,
    Your first comment made me go back and look at Romans 7 and 8 in connection with Romans 6 — and this introduced more nuance to my thought. Yours was a good point to add to the discussion.
    In my comment I wasn’t thinking so much of the “Satan made me do it response” as the “boys will be boys” type response. The resigned wink.
    Yes we are sinners, and as Paul points out this is a struggle, and yes we are saved by grace, but the end result shouldn’t be a resigned acceptance of sin. One things that the studies in the post indicate is that we have some control, and with trust in God should be trying to establish the discipline to make a change.

  • Rodney

    RJS,
    I have enjoyed the way your (and the posters’) scientific minds work. Your post and their comments have made me think through my struggle with sin and Paul’s advice in refreshing ways.


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