Our Sin May Affect God, but Only on God’s Terms [Questions That Haunt]

Our Sin May Affect God, but Only on God’s Terms [Questions That Haunt] June 3, 2013

Last week’s question came from Ben — you can submit your questions here — and it deals with three thing:1) the nature of God, 2) the nature of human interaction with God, and 3) the nature of sin:

Does my sin have an effect on God? Specifically, if I do something that doesn’t harm anybody (but maybe myself) does it matter to God? I understand there is general sin (or corporate sin) that is simply the brokenness of our world. I’m talking about specific individual sins.

Ben, the first thing to address is the nature of God. The question is, does anything we do affect God?

I have strong feelings about this. I firmly believe that God is the only non-contingent being. By that I mean that God has total freedom, total liberty, total agency.

We do not. Each of us is trapped in structures and superstructures that dictate most of what we do everyday. God is not so ensnared. My belief in God’s total freedom is not something that I can substantiate in any way. It is, instead, a purely theoretical position that I hold, an a priori commitment of mine that God, by God’s very nature, is non-contingent. If God were contingent, then the God would be another kind of being, but not God.

But here’s the thing about the Judeo-Christian story: When God created the cosmos, it was an act of self-limitation — the first act of self-limitation. By creating something other than God, God freely chose to abdicate some of God’s freedom. There was now a creation, of which God is not in total control. No longer does God have total freedom, at least in regards to this creation, because the creation evolves and moves by a certain structure (a structure, I might add, that humans have been trying the measure, quantify, and explain from the beginning of human development through the latest forays into quantum mechanics).

If you choose to be grounded in the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, as I do, then you must acknowledge that the overriding story is that God and human beings are in some kind of relationship. God relates to humanity in ways that we can understand.

And, in a correlated sense, what we do and say affects God. To reiterate, this is not because there is something in God’s nature that demands it, but because of God’s repeated acts of self-limitation, begun at Creation and seen most poignantly in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. What we do affects God because God has chosen to allow it to do so. There is nothing inherent in the God-human relationship that dictates this contingency — this is solely the result of God allowing it to be the case. (If you’re tracking closely now, you might think that this argument sounds Reformed, and indeed I think it is.)

To go from theory to practice on this issue, however, is tricky, and that’s exactly what Ben is asking us to do. If human behavior has an effect on God, how do we measure that effect? How can we prove that effect? These are the questions that we’d want to answer to get to the bottom of the repercussions of our sin.

It’s virtually impossible to answer this question. We’ve got the Bible, so we can see how the sins of Israel affected God, at least insofar as the Israelites themselves recorded their experiences of God’s wrath at their sin. Whether that’s an accurate of depiction of God’s actual “state of mind” is doubtful, I’d say. We don’t have much in the New Testament about God’s behavior in the face of human sin, except rare examples like the divine execution of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the church about the money that they made on a real estate deal.

In fact, that’s a good example to bring the plane in for a landing on Ben’s question. Ben asks about sins that don’t hurt anyone but ourselves, what some people call “victimless crimes.” Withholding money from the church and lying about it would be one such sin — no one is really “injured” per se, though the church is poorer as a result. A modernday example that’s been in the news a lot recently is the use of pornography. But even this sin, when investigated even a bit, is shown to have far-reaching consequences. Here’s Richard Beck in a post on Rachel Held Evans’s blog today:

Psychologists are only just beginning to grasp the full impact of pornography upon our brains and how those effects are creating sexual and relational dysfunction. For an introduction to the issues psychologists are beginning to examine see Gary Wilson’s widely-viewed TED Talk.

So you can see that even this “victimless crime” has implications for how a viewer of porn treats other people, which means it’s no longer victimless. Thus, I’m going to reject the premise of Ben’s question that there is such a thing as a personal sin that does not affect other people (and other parts of creation).

And back to the question of how our sin — victimless or not — affects God, I’ll say this in conclusion: What we human beings do affects God. That’s the clear message of the biblical narrative. However, how it affects God, and why some things we do affect God and others do not, is not answered by the Bible. That, it seems, is an unanswerable question.

With this post, Questions That Haunt Christianity is going on summer vacation. If Click and Clack can send the puzzler on vacation each summer, then I think it’s a good idea for QTH as well. I will continue to solicit questions, which can be submitted here, and I will return in the late summer to QTH with renewed vigor.


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