I was talking to a young friend recently and found myself saying about a certain kind of sinful behavior — “What they want is real and good, and I believe there’s a real need at its core, but the way they’re going about it is out of harmony with the cosmos.”
The reason the sentence struck me is that it’s not the first time I’ve said that to her, and the prior time had to do with a different sinful behavior. Am I, I wondered, a stuck record blandly repeating an all-purpose platitude, or do I really believe that many — if not most — of the sins people commit are broken and counterproductive attempts to acquire a real good in their lives.
I suppose, if sin is distributed in a bell curve, as most things are, you would find a few saints at one end, more and more giving themselves to God’s way of doing things at the expense of their own. At the other, you would find approximately the same percentage doing things against God’s way, again at the expense of their own (“He’d cut off his nose to spite his face” is the way they would summarize that where I grew up).
And in the middle, you find the nice, the comfortable, the go-along-to-get-along, and somewhere on the one downslope or the other of that curve, you would find the “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
I don’t have anything profound to say about that bell curve. On the one hand, enlightened self-interest can add to social civility. “You treat other people well, and they’ll treat you well,” is not the Golden Rule, but if it’s practiced, there’s less chaos than if it’s not.
On the other hand, in the Gospels, Christ always seems to show a special love for the “looking for love in all the wrong places” folks. As in the case of the Samaritan Woman, he pointed out the dead ends where they were searching for what they needed and where to find what would be real and deep and lasting. He was also quite impatient with those who were pleased and comfortable with themselves for following the rules (which may be another example of looking for love in all the wrong places), even over against the ones who participated in making the chaos (for example, the Publican and the Pharisee).
I’ve never quite gotten my mind wrapped around the notion that in Orthodoxy, sin is not transgressing a law but “missing the mark.” But that’s the key to it, isn’t it? “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Looking for release from pain in addiction, looking for affirmation in illicit love affairs, looking for spiritual reality in fortune-telling and spiritualism, looking for recognition and respect in power games. In all those cases — and more, more, more — there is something real and important and needful at the core of it, but those pursuits can’t fill the need and instead make the need harder to fill and bring their own next level of chaos, disharmony, anti-cosmos, in a downward spiral.
Or that downward spiral can make plain how false and hopeless is the attempt to fill the need outside God’s providence. Hitting bottom (the sooner the better) is the place of spiritual poverty at which we receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Knowing to give up the ineffective treatments of both the woman caught in adultery and her captors can bring us to that place of emptiness where God can fill us.
And of course in true Christ-like fashion, He turns the whole bell curve inside out and upside down. Even as we pray several times a day for “calm and ordered lives,” He proclaims disgust for the comfortable, the go-along-to-get-along, the lukewarm and states a preference for the hot or the cold. It’s a paradox, not a contradiction, but it leaves us, once again, on the high wire with nothing to depend on but God’s own guidance. And that tiny umbrella that the wire-walkers carry.
And the last shall be first, and the first last.