“Against you alone have I sinned” (the solipsism of evangelical morality)

“Against you alone have I sinned” (the solipsism of evangelical morality) September 29, 2014

“Against you alone have I sinned.” These words from Psalm 51:4 are attributed to the Israelite king David speaking to God after he knocked up another man’s wife and had that man betrayed and murdered on the battlefield. Many evangelical pastors have praised this verse for how it names sin, but I consider it to be one of the most morally problematic verses in the Bible. It does do a very good job of encapsulating the solipsistic morality that I grew up with as an evangelical, in which sin had nothing to do with hurting other people and everything to do with whether or not I was displeasing God. Solipsism describes the delusion that I am the only person who actually exists in the universe. While I can’t blame anyone in particular for instilling me with this mindset, I grew up viewing morality as though the universe consisted of just God and me walking through a minefield of temptations, whether they were female bodies, drugs, or other objects.

I think the solipsism of evangelical morality happens because of the way evangelicals explain the problem that Christian salvation is supposed to solve. Human beings are sinful. Since God is holy, he cannot tolerate sin. Therefore, we need Jesus to die for our sins so we can go to heaven and be with God. And we show that we really believe in Jesus and really have been saved by making an earnest effort to avoid premarital sex and other moral temptations like drugs and cuss words because they make God angry since that’s what’s wrong with sin.

If we’re not even trying to avoid sin, it means we probably didn’t accept Jesus into our hearts. So as long as we feel guilty enough about having sex and doing drugs and cussing after we do it and resolve emphatically enough never to do it again each time, then that’s evidence enough that we really did get saved. Other people are relevant to our personal sin management system insofar as they either help us please God or tempt us to displease God, but the impact of our choices on the lives of other people just isn’t part of the equation.

I’m sure that my Sunday school teachers and youth pastor talked about the importance of treating other people with respect and dignity. I’m sure that they talked about the importance of sharing Christ’s love through serving others. But I somehow came to believe that how I treated other people was only relevant as an evangelism tactic I performed so that they would listen when I shared the gospel with them.I never imagined that treating other people justly might actually be an end unto itself and something God wanted me to do for its own sake.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only evangelical who acquired this solipsistic perspective on sin. To me, a solipsistic morality in which sin only has to do with our relationship with God makes sense of the otherwise bizarre shape of evangelical sexuality. It’s how women get reduced to tempting bodies which must be covered up so that men who are trying to stay right with God can walk past them without being derailed. A solipsistic morality has no antidote to the misogynistic rape culture that has swept over our college campuses in the last several decades because it cultivates the same basic dehumanization of the tempting female bodies that populate the earth and make it treacherous.

Jesus actually has a response to King David’s solipsistic sin confession. King David says to God, “Against you alone have I sinned,” as though he hadn’t done anything wrong to Bathsheba, the woman he raped and impregnated, or Urriah, her husband whom he had killed, or all the other soldiers whose lives were compromised because of the disastrous battle tactic by which Urriah needed to be killed. Centuries later, in Matthew 25, Jesus says back to David and every evangelical who thinks sin is strictly between me and God: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

In other words, yes, you sinned against me as God because I stand with those you sinned against, not because of some stupid abstract “honor God” thing that you use to make other people’s humanity irrelevant to your morality. Matthew 25 is an utter repudiation of a solipsistic “theocentric” morality. God hates sin not because God’s holiness demands purity and rule-following for the sake of his “honor,” but because God’s holiness is his radical hospitality toward and solidarity with the least among us who are the greatest victims of our society’s sin. God demands our honor for the sake of the people who get hurt as the byproduct of our dishonor.

The most vulnerable members of human society bear the greatest weight of its greed, gluttony, lust, anger, pride, envy, and sloth. It is not only our actions that directly harm others which are sinful, but also our actions which perpetuate perverse idolatrous systems. When we worship idols instead of God, we create demonic social orders that oppress the most vulnerable. And that’s precisely what God will never allow into heaven.

It’s not that God can’t handle our imperfection. He’s not allergic to our sin. He just wants to build a human community where the most vulnerable members will be perfectly safe. This can only happen among people who have put ourselves completely under the mercy of God by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, which makes us humble, teachable, and malleable in God’s hands. Yes, we need to honor God, but our honor for God is never abstracted from its impact on how we treat other people.

If we claim to honor God and dishonor any of his cherished children, there is a profound defect in our moral system. As 1 John 4:20 says, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Morality should never be solipsistic, because it is never just between us and God. God is always involved, because God cares about the people we interact with everyday. They are his dearly beloved children, and woe be unto us if we ever treat them with less dignity than God demands.

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  • Benjamin Martin

    Good writing.

  • R Vogel

    ‘but also our actions which perpetuate perverse idolatrous systems. When we worship idols instead of God, we create demonic social orders that oppress the most vulnerable.’

    Nicely said! I have just begun reading Pete Rolins’ book, ‘The Idolatry of G*d’ and it has me thinking a lot about idolatry lately. I am beginning to think that idolatry might actually be at the center of all of our problems, maybe most pointedly the idolatry that happens inside the church.

  • summers-lad

    Even in my totally orthodox evangelical days I had difficulty with this verse. It just didn’t seem right. I would now say it is self-evidently untrue, and you have given a good account of why.
    I also have a problem with the next verse: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
    My answer to both of them is that the psalm is a prayer, and one spoken out of heartfelt remorse and repentance. It expresses David’s state of mind, his immediate and deep recognition that he has done a great wrong, although not yet a full realisation (hence “you only” or “you alone”). I have prayed through this psalm when I have been ashamed of an action and needed to repent. So that, I think, is its purpose in being in the Bible. It is not a doctrinal statement. And verse 5 is not a proof text for original sin. The psalm is a testimony to David’s relationship with God. In that way, it is an example to us. But to read it as systematic theology is to take it for a different kind of writing altogether.

  • We are all mixed bags when it comes to treating others the way we should. Sometimes we do alright. Other times we fail miserably.

    But Christ knows this about us. He knows that we are self-obsessed idolators.

    And he loves and forgives us anyway.

  • Luke Breuer

    FYI, Douglas and Ney’s Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences argues that the dominant conception of the person in economics for the last several decades is a solipsist, isolated, individual. This is corroborated by F.A. Hayek’s Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, in which he critiques the stupid conception of individuality. A nice correction is offered by Alistair McFayden’s The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships; he rejects the idea of there being a pre-social ‘individual’, instead arguing that we are dialogically constructed. This isn’t the same as Mead’s “social constructionism”. McFadyen uses this thought to argue for a scientifically relevant conception of sin as contortion of human nature in Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (extensive review).

    I also suggest Nathan Greeley’s How to Think about the Gospel of Autonomy, published October 9, 2014. If you really want to get intense, I suggest reading Owen Barfield: Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, Unancestral Voice, and Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis. One of his criticisms he takes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: the mechanical view of the self which can only ‘bump into’ other people. True relationship? What’s that? For even more, there is James Cutsinger’s The Form of Transformed Vision. I would suggest first reading Barfield’s on C.S. Lewis, specifically the “Either/Or” chapter where he talks about ‘polarity’.

    You’re really onto something here, something of which few seem to be aware. You actually have a chance of taking Mt 5:43–48, Jn 13:34–35, Jn 17:20–23 seriously. Sadly, in my experience, few do. Only when you realize that (i) other people are not like you; (ii) the world would suck if everyone were like you; (iii) you desperately need those people not like you, can you have any conception whatsoever of what Christianity might possibly be.