Sunday, December 1, 2013

To Become Like Children

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt 18:8-9).

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Christianity is not a religion that generally promotes self-mutilation. Sure, there are exceptions: Opus Dei and some religious orders practice self-flagellation as part of the mortification of the flesh; crucifixion of the faithful to celebrate Good Friday in the Philippines; the occasional castration of singers, and monks who long too boldly. But for the most part, we consider the body sacred, a temple unto the Lord. And yet, here is Jesus, telling us to chop off our hands and feet, to pluck out our eyes, if they cause us to sin.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that it is not what we put into the body that defiles, but what comes out of it (Mt 15:10-20). Taken together with this passage, we are presented with a human person whose being is profoundly embodied. The hand is not somehow being acted upon by the mind or spirit, being caused by the mind or spirit to sin. The hand is sinning, is the sin. The hand is not something that is defiled by being outside the self; nor is it a part or thing that can come into contact with you and defile you, leaving the soul blameless.

There is in the Christian tradition a profound pattern of trying to make the body bear the brunt of sin, the burden of sin, by saying that the flesh corrupts the spirit, as if the two are somehow separate. Chopping off your own hand is a sort-of metaphor for cutting out all the bits of you that lead you to sin. What good is it to cut off the hand if the desire for sin remains? Sin arises from each and every part of you, not just the one bit or the other, the body or the soul. It’s a question of the whole person, and the sometimes drastic changes we need to make to be able to stop committing particular sins.

I struggle with this passage because I struggle to understand exactly how much, and in what ways, my depression is leading me to sin. Apart from some of the more extreme things I’ve done while in the grip of depression (which are clearly sins) there are all sorts of ways my illness causes me to sin. It makes me more self-centered and self-absorbed because I begin to live in a bubble of my pain. It makes me less aware of other people and their pain. It makes me put myself, and my struggles, at the centre of my life instead of God. It makes me angry and hate myself. It makes me believe that my life is pointless, and meaningless, and that there’s no good reason to do anything, or even to keep going at all.

Is depression a part of me, or is it something that comes from outside and does not defile? The question plagues me because I struggle with knowing whether or not what it causes me to do is sin, or just illness. I think the answer is complicated. I think there isn’t just one answer. My depression lives inside me, in my body and in my mind, and so is profoundly who I am, and its sins are mine. My depression is not me but something that has gone wrong inside of me, a thing apart from me that cannot defile, though it resides within me, and its sins are not mine.

Both statements are true. Both statements are false. My depression and I are intertwined in complicated, unknowable ways, and while we can be conceived of separately, we are not, in fact, separate. Sort of how my body, mind, and soul are not separate. The difference is that I will always be embodied, but at the judgement only I will be thrown into the fire, and all that I am, and nothing that I am not.

We all have things about us that lead us to sin. Desires, personality traits, impulses of the flesh. And it isn’t as simple as chopping off your arm and being done with the whole business. There are things in the world that lead us into temptation (My 18:7), and we must try to avoid them. There are things about ourselves that lead us into temptation, and we can’t avoid them; we must strive to change ourselves, to get rid of those things. It’s painful, far more painful and difficult than plucking out an eye. We must be willing, in the face of God, to let go of those parts of ourselves that in their own way make us who we are, that they may be thrown into the fire so that we may have life.

Jesus tells us that we must “turn and become like children” (Mt 18:3) by humbling ourselves. It’s difficult to admit that there are parts of us that are just plain wrong. It’s difficult to admit that our lives, in all their glory and sorrow, are permeated by sin. It’s difficult to let go of the parts of ourselves that lead us especially to sin, because it’s always difficult to let go. We cling, and we cling, and we cling to our selves, to who and what we are, as if it will save us or be what about us is saved. But to have eternal life we must be willing to lose our lives (Mt 16:25). Jesus will save us, and we will not be saved by anything that we are. But we will be transformed, and we will be different. The old self will have to be let go, and we need to be ready and willing to do it.

No one can live this life free from sin, though we are called to struggle with all our might against it. Thankfully, we have God on our side: “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). God is helping us as we seek to turn and be like children, to be humble enough to admit our faults, and to seek a better way – God’s way – no matter what the cost.

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