Sour Patch Kids and Sin

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Sour Patch Kids.  I would get them every time I went to the movies, and would eat the whole bag by myself…despite the fact that they would inevitably leave my taste buds completely raw by the end (sidenote:  I don’t think that Sour Patch Kids are actually a food product).  Anyway, even though the candy laid waste to my tongue, I would not only polish off the bag, but then pour all the little leftover sour granules into my mouth to cap off the experience.  Mmmm…heavenly.

File:Sourpatchkids.jpgMy relationship with Sour Patch Kids came to an abrupt end, however, sometime in my mid-teen years.  I had bought–and promptly devoured–a bag at the mall…just before I came down with a stomach bug.  Needless to say, after spending hours heaving their acidic goodness into the toilet (you’re welcome), my body was done–DONE!–with Sour Patch Kids.  In fact, it promptly passed an internal decree that we would no longer be eating that candy under any circumstances.  For the next ten years, I could not even look at Sour Patch Kids without my stomach lurching, cringing in memory of The Dreaded Event.

Shockingly, in that ten years, I still caught several stomach bugs, despite not touching Sour Patch Kids.  That’s because, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend consuming whole bags of Sour Patch Kids, they are not what made me sick.

I was already sick when I ate them.  My sickness didn’t come from them, but from something that was already inside of me.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this.

I happen to love rules.  I see great value in them.  Rules keep me safe.  Rules keep society stable.  Rules help us to survive.  Rules are even instinctive.  My ban on Sour Patch Kids, while uninformed and ineffective, was simply a natural survival instinct, like the birds who learn to avoid the berries that make them sick.  That’s why we still have birds, people.

See, when we suffer, we don’t like it, and we don’t want it to happen again.  Thus, we try to ferret out the cause of our suffering and to make a rule that will prevent future suffering.  In terms of physical suffering, this can be an effective strategy for a safe and harmonious society:  do we not like random murders?  Let’s make murder illegal!  Were some children horribly maimed at the factory they worked at?  Time for some child labor laws!  Did my daughter haul off and smack my son?  No hitting!  That’s a rule!

But there is one area over which rules hold no sway.  Oh, they can control, at least to a degree, our physical behavior, but they have no jurisdiction over our souls.  Paul comes out strong against rules in Colossians:

“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  Col. 2:20-23

Wow.  Mull that one over for a minute.  Paul tells the Colossians here that these religious rules are completely pointless.  They lack any value in actually restraining sin.  And even more than that, Paul says that they are worldly!   I still can’t really wrap my mind around that one, but the bottom line is that he dismisses this attempt to regulate morality.

This verse is not the only place in the Bible that warns against the pitfalls of external regulations.  In fact, you could argue that the Old Testament Law was a grand experiment in the efficacy of using rules as a path to God.

It didn’t work out so well.

The Law seemed great in theory:  do this, don’t do that, wear these clothes, avoid that mold, don’t eat shellfish…and voila!  You are clean before God.  But in practice, it just didn’t work out that way.  In fact, here’s what one former Pharisee said about his experience with following the Law:

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

 13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”  Romans 7:7-23

Paul concludes by lamenting, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will save me from this body of death!”  Then, he answers his own question:  “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

You can see from his talk in Romans 7 why Paul might have spoken so harshly against external regulations in Colossians.  He had learned through a lifetime of experience that rules just didn’t work.  They didn’t bring him closer to God; if anything, they just made him more aware of his distance from God.  If anything, rules just gave his sinful nature something to rebel against.  In that way, they made him sin even more!  Paul is careful to note that while the rules themselves weren’t bad, they did bring out what was worst in him.  That’s why they failed in their purpose.  The one thing that the law “was powerless to do” was to set us free from our sinful nature (Rom. 8:3).  The spiritual ineffectiveness of rules is similar to my ban on Sour Patch Kids.  I can avoid them all day long, but that will not protect me from getting sick if there is a virus already inside of me.  Similarly, we can make all kinds of rules to keep us away from situations that might lead us into sin, but they are still not going to keep us from sinning if the problem is in our heart.

And yet, God knows we try.  We still do love rules.  At least, I do.  I love them ever so much.  I periodically ban myself from Facebook in an attempt to focus my mind on things more spiritual; I cut myself off from a particular show, or a certain practice.  And I don’t believe that those disciplines, in and of themselves, are bad.  The problem is when I try to make my personal rule a universal rule, when I force my rules upon others.  That’s where the Pharisees ran into problems, and that’s where we in the church can run into problems.

Recently I stumbled upon a Mormon blog post describing their church’s struggle with regulating women’s dress.  As I scrolled through the lively comments section, I was mainly thankful that I wasn’t personally having to figure out the issue along with them!  I was also struck by the futility of trying to solve the problem of lust by telling women what they could and couldn’t wear.  Honestly, it just doesn’t seem effective.  Plus, when you consider religions that have taken this concept to its logical conclusion, it just gets pretty scary really quickly.  Legalism can be quite oppressive.

Thankfully, I think that, for the most part, we Christians realize that.  I am grateful that I have never been to a church that has enforced an actual dress code, regardless of how much they are concerned about modesty.  And I’m glad that I have never been a part of a church that forbade movies or playing with cards that had faces on them, which I have heard has happened in the past.  I’m glad that we seem to be slowly but surely giving up–at least on the church level–the unscriptural idea that we can regulate morality through rules.

But there’s another side, too.  

Sometimes I wish the pendulum could just stay in the middle, you know?  Would that be so hard?

Apparently, yes.  It would seem that we humans love the wild and exhilarating ride that is the extreme pendulum swing, and so we just keep banging back and forth into oblivion.  Now, instead of being hyper-legalistic, we have a strain of anti-legalism.  We can get to where we are skeptical of any challenge to our lifestyle, any claim that might make some demand on our behavior because we fear that such claims might be legalistic.  A friend of mine recently shared how passionate she is for God here lately, and how she feels that God is calling her to a deeper level of service (yes, this is a real friend, and not just a “friend” that is really me:)).  She also, however, expressed frustration at sharing her passion with her dear Christians friends, because she tended to be met with skepticism.  Whenever she shared her suspicions that God might be wanting a little more from her, she was chided for trying to earn her salvation or for being legalistic.

I myself have received a few (very kind and often funny) comments from friends in passing that seem to assume that I now view it as a “rule” that we should not go to movies or buy stuff because of this blog post I wrote.  I was also warned in the comments section of that blog not to make an idol of asceticism or to let it lead to Phariseeism.  I took the comment as the thoughtful, helpful point that it was, but the sum total of the reaction to that blog did make me think.  To be honest, I completely understand the drive to avoid legalism at all costs.  I don’t want to live under the burden of 50,000 rules that do nothing to bring me closer to God.  But when I hear the backlash my friend has received from her passion, and the concerns about legalism as a result of my movie thoughts, it takes me back to my Sour Patch Kids response.  It’s the same story all over again:  something hurts us (in this case, it’s having too many rules); we vow, “Never again!”;  and then, we assiduously avoid any appearance of having rules, at all costs.

But where does that leave us?

I know it leaves me with several questions.  Specifically,

Is there room any more in the church to challenge  each other without being seen as legalistic?

Is it possible to call each other to higher standards without making “rules” about acceptable behavior?

In what ways can we spur each other to more Christ-like behavior while still acknowledging that only God can transform our hearts?

I honestly don’t have the answer to those questions.  I only know that “anti-legalism” can lead to spiritual inertia, apathy, and irrelevance just as surely as legalism can lead to spiritual ineffectiveness and oppression.  I’m sure that there is a middle ground…and I’m hoping to figure out what that physically looks like.

Any ideas?

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa Imlay on December 13, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Yep, there must be rules or there will be chaos. As Christians, how simple would it be just to follow what the Bible tells us: to love one another as ourselves, love our enemies, do unto others, encourage one another, show/help our brothers/sisters-in love- when they have done wrong, etc?. But we fail, as Christians and as humans. That is where the grace of God kicks in. Am so thankful for the love of God, His plan of salvation, the live given to me to do what I can for Him. Why do we think that it has to be complicated?

    Reply

    • Lisa, I completely agree with you that it would be so much more simple if we all just followed those teachings, and that we definitely make things more complicated than they need to be. At the same time, it’s easier to talk about “loving our enemies” in general terms than to discuss what that means specifically as Christians. For example, who qualifies as our enemy? Our neighbor who is rude? The guy who broke into our house? Criminals on death row? Illegal immigrants? Terrorists? Muslims in general? And for those groups or individuals who qualify as enemies, what does loving them specifically look like? When we start trying to fill in the gaps with real action, when we actually start trying to live out the teachings of Jesus physically, that’s when things get messy. And that’s when rules start looking much better. If you have an unspoken “rule,” for example, that Christians should fall on a certain political side (and there are such “rules” for Christians on both sides of the spectrum), then that “rule” answers a lot of those questions for you. The “rule” kind of makes it easier to work out what your Christianity looks like. It’s much harder to operate as individual Christians–much less achieve unity in the church–without such rules, but I really am seeing the limitations of them more and more. And I think it’s worth talking about as a church. But the great thing is, like you said, we are so blessed that the love and grace of God covers us. He knows our hearts and knows when we are trying our best to live for Him.

      Reply

  2. I think the answer is the same one that Jesus gave the apostles in Mark 10:27. “For mortals, it is impossible. But all things are possible with God.” I think sometimes that it is as impossible for us to square the circle of grace and mercy, faith and works, freedom and holiness, as it is for us to comprehend eternity, creation, or predestination.

    BTW, as the one who admonished you about asceticism, I know that you know (and you know that I know that you know, you know?) that I don’t think you are trying to bind your free-trade chocolate chips on anyone else like some modern-day pharisee. My “advice” (which is worth exactly what you paid for it) was meant to be inward-looking and spiritual.

    Finally, I think a great deal of this discussion is related to our views on scripture. Our faith tradition venerates the written Word to the point of near-idolatry. I think we often forget that the early church did quite well at making disciples and living transformed lives for a full generation before the Gospels were written. And yet… we also do just what you said and try to live only by the Word made flesh sometimes, trying to be transformed into the likeness of a Christ that exists mostly in our own imaginations (whether that’s “Religious Right Jesus” or “Hippie Jesus.”) The same Christ who died that we might be free also said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Perhaps the best we can do is what I tell my athletes about workouts: “do the thing that hurts the worst–because that’s where you are weak.” Those of us (like you and me) who are natural list-makers and rule-followers can die to self by extending more grace (even to ourselves). And the anti-rule brothers can die to self by embracing a level of personal legalism that makes them equally uncomfortable. (so easy to type–so hard to do!)

    Reply

    • Larry, first of all, regarding the “I know you know” thing….exactly. I almost wrote you this morning to be like, “Just so you know, I responded to your comment, but I really wasn’t offended or trying to read something into it that wasn’t there….” Blah. I decided that was girly:). Instead, I just thought, “For goodness sake, he knows.” Really, you are one of the best people to respond to because you articulate the “other side” (even though we are really on the same BIG side) of so many issues so well. Because you make me think about that other side, you give me lots to write about:). Plus, your comments were just the precise articulation of several other “vibes,” if that makes sense (probably not), and so I was responding collectively.

      I agree with your point on focusing on the things that hurt the worst because those are the things we are weakest at. I like how you linked that to dying to self. Also, Greg and were talking just last night about the tension between the “near-idolatry” of the written Word and worshiping a Jesus “that exists mostly in our own heads.” Though not in those words, we were discussing those two opposite problems, and Greg said something like, “You know, we seem to think of the ‘narrow way’ as being so narrow because it is so radical that few find it. And of course, we all define ‘radical’ very differently. But what if the road is so narrow b/c it is a middle way, because it walks that fine line between erroneous extremes?” Okay, so maybe he didn’t say erroneous:), but I liked the overall point.

      Reply

      • I have to chuckle that “we” (meaning you, Greg, Ann, and me) continue to have this exact same conversation–sometimes in different pairs or trios, sometimes in Starbucks, or a rented minivan, or online, or whatever. There are times when Ann and I talk and it’s like we have you guys right there in the conversation. 🙂

        I like the idea of the narrow way perhaps being in the middle. Usually the only thing in the middle of the road is yellow lines and dead possums.

        Reply

  3. This is the best summary of the dilemma Paul describes in Romans 7 I’ve ever read: “Paul is careful to note that while the rules themselves weren’t bad, they did bring out what was worst in him.” Nicely done, very nicely done.

    Tim

    P.S. It’s interesting how God brings thigs to mind. I picked my daughter up from the airport last night and Romans 7 came up in conversation on the ride home.

    P.P.S. Regarding how some religions force women to wear certain clothes, did you see this blog post over at Ruby-eyed Okapi about the situation in Egypt (http://rubyeyedokapi.com/2011/11/30/egyptian-women-modesty/) ? Really good insights there.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Tim, both for the comment and for the link. There is a Coptic church on my running route, and I am dying to stop in and ask them all about the situation in Egypt. I’m kind of thinking that might be a bit too weird…but nevertheless, I really want to make contact with them at some point!

      Also, this is completely random, but are you doing a guest post tomorrow at housewifetheologian.com? I just spent twenty minutes getting lost in a line of blog posts, and I saw a Tim say that in the comments. Of course, there are a lot of Tim’s in this world, but I just thought I’d ask:)

      Reply

      • Yep, I’ll be the one on Aimee’s blog tomorrow if all goes according to plan. She has a nice website going there, and I hope not to drive the standards down too far!

        And I love the idea of how we get “lost in a line of blogposts”! So true, so true.

        Tim

        Reply

  4. Larry, it’s funny–I think at this point, I know you and Ann so well that I can argue FOR you, even when you aren’t there:). Makes the whole living-in-different-states things a little easier!

    And Tim, I’m looking forward to checking out your post tomorrow!

    Reply

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