Over the last number of years I have really struggled to understand what Paul means when he talks about the ‘sinful nature’, or the flesh. In my mind it has always been merely an idea that gives us a reference point to understand our internal struggles. It is the ‘reason’ we turn to sin, the ‘root’ of our evil, or the deepest ‘part’ of who we are. After all, when you talk about the nature of something, we generally are talking about what it’s made out of, what defines or characterizes it.
The sinful nature has always seemed more of an idea then something that can actually be defined and pointed to in our experience. After all where is it? Is it our entire body? Is it within our spirit? What about us is bad? Is it our emotions? Our thoughts? Our actions? The deepest part of a person is where all these things stem from, but they are not necessarily the most defining aspect of our humanity. For now, I will define the common understanding of the sinful nature as ‘our propensity to sin’. Let’s break that down a little bit.
What causes us to sin? What causes someone to commit adultery? Well they are probably lonely, wanting to experience intimacy, love, and desiring companionship. Are these desires bad? Of course not, in fact when we look closely they are actually good, they are part of who God created us to be! What causes someone to drink in access or do drugs? Chances are they want to feel good, or to escape from their pain, hurt, or shame. Well we aren’t created to experience those things, the desire to not have them is also good! What causes someone to lie about themselves? Deep down they have a need to be valued, to belong, and to be recognized; they do not experience that, and so try to make that happen by pretending they are someone they are not. Again these needs and desires actually point to the goodness of our design, not the depravity of our essence. All sin stems from needs or desires that we are actually created to have fulfilled, needs and desires that aren’t bad. So the sinful nature, although can be the root of why we sin, isn’t the deepest part of who we are. So why do we sin? Well, because of confusion, of blindness, of insecurity, hurt, and shame. We sin because we have deep God given needs, but we have insecurity and a conscience understanding of good and bad that causes us to strive to look for activity, thoughts, ideas, systems, substances, or relationships to answer those needs. It isn’t the need that’s the problem, it’s that whole way of functioning! We will never find fulfillment when we use our understanding of what is good and bad to live in certain ways. From this mode of functioning we will always do things that won’t satisfy, because there isn’t anything that can while we exist within that framework. The sinful nature then, is this way of functioning, it is not a state of being.
To identify what this way of functioning is, we need to go back to see where things got off track. Humanity was created to live within the perfect relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To share in their joy, creativity, intimacy, and love. We were completely naked and unashamed; no darkness, doubt, insecurity, or fear existed in our hearts. There was no need for rules to regulate our behavior, no relational advice for how to treat each other, and no moral code or guidelines. We didn’t need them, humanity was pure in heart and spirit, willing to be fully known.
Satan came and started planting doubt and insecurity in our minds. Why is God holding out on you? Don’t you know you could be so much more than you are? Doubt, fear, and uncertainty was presented to our hearts, as well as the promise of fulfilling the need to be something we never even knew we had. Then Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which God told them that if they ate of it they would die. What happened when they ate of it? Simple, humanity became consciously aware of the difference between good and bad. We never had a conscience before, and it brings death! The knowledge of good and evil came on the foundation of doubt and insecurity. You tell me, what happens when someone feels insecure and has an understanding of what is good and bad? They will use their knowledge of good and bad to try to solve or disprove their insecurity.
And that is how the sinful nature came into existence. Good and evil playing off of the existence of shame, doubt, fear, and insecurity. What does it produce? All sorts of striving, straining, religiosity, jealousy, selfishness, pride, and sin. Again, it is a way of functioning, not a state of being. We never lost our state of being, our design, what we were created for. What happened was we became blinded and confused by our shame, and then our conscience was awakened and became the tool we used to try and overcome our insecurity. When you think about it, this way of functioning is really the cause of all personal, relational, and global suffering. It’s what turns us in towards ourselves and away from vulnerable face to face relationship.
Are we stuck with this sinful nature forever? No of course not, we just need stop functioning out of insecurity, shame, doubt, and pain; oh and we need to stop using our conscience to try and navigate our understanding of who we are. Seem impossible? Think about it, how many of our actions, relationships, activities, thoughts, and emotions revolve around using our understanding of good and bad to climb our way out of our insecurities? How much do our insecurities shape our self-image, causing us to fall into comparison, jealousy, and deep feelings of inadequacy? How often do we justify our thoughts, emotions, and choices based on our own personal understanding of right and wrong? Do you see how that is just a hamster wheel of insecurity, striving, and self-justification?
Unfortunately this Sinful Nature, this way of processing and functioning, exists at the root of most of our relationships, jobs, activities, and even flows into the way we engage in religion. Unfortunately our understanding and construction of Christianity is often completely interpreted from this fallen way of functioning. We end up defining Jesus, salvation, heaven, hell, worship, prayer, and church from our insecurity and our obsession with good and bad. Christianity just becomes another good/bad entity in our consciences that help us try and overcome our insecurity. We feel justified for doing certain things like ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts’, or going to church on Sunday’s. We feel good about ourselves for overcoming certain behaviors and comparing ourselves to others we judge through our conscience’s as bad. We create systems of ‘climbing’, ‘serving’, and ‘becoming’ something in God to give us a system to sate our insecurity. We forget that God never wanted us to function in that way to begin with!
I am definitely writing too long, but when we look at Jesus, we see that He is introducing a whole new reality to us, a new way of functioning. We killed Jesus because we could not recognize Him, He doesn’t make any sense to our sinful nature. Yet He came to end that for us by meeting our deepest needs and by fulfilling the requirement that our conscience demanded. In so many different ways, believing in Jesus is our salvation from the death of our sinful way of functioning. Thinking we are saved, ‘if we believe’, is just another idea produced out of our insecurity and systems of self-justification.
Believing in Jesus is seeing everything differently. Instead of shame, my belief in Jesus is my belief in my innocence. Instead of feeling like I need value, I see in the person of Jesus how valued I am. Instead of feeling bad about my mistakes, I see in Jesus that they are not held against me. Instead of striving to justify myself through good living, I see Jesus showing me that it has nothing to do with my conception of good and bad. Jesus didn’t come to change our behavior, He came to change the root of our behavior, which was our sinful nature. He came to introduce us to a whole new world, and He did so by entering into ours, submitting Himself to our angst, frustration, shame, pride, and insecurity. When we believe in Jesus we are no longer functioning from insecurity or conscience. There is more I would like to say, and things I would like to articulate in greater depth, but this will have to do. I will close with these verses of scripture.
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14).”
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).”
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24).”
“For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).”