A number of years ago, when my twin daughters were three, my wife had arranged a playdate at a park with another mom and her kids. The morning of the playdate came, but my daughters woke up sick with a cold of some sort. The winter having been long and my wife being eager to get out of the house and into the fresh Spring sun, she was quite disappointed: obviously she would have to cancel the playdate, so that the other kids wouldn’t get sick.
She was about to call the other mom, when her phone rang. It was the other mom! She herself had called to cancel, because her own kids had woken up sick. My wife then related that the situation was the same at our house. They then began to commiserate about not being able to go, when the other mom happened to mention the symptoms that her kids were experiencing. My wife then said, “That’s pretty much what my twins have as well.”
The other mom then suggested, “Well, if our kids are all sick with the same thing, why don’t we just go to the park anyway?!”
Disappointment and distance gave way to elation and intimacy. Why?
Because of a common diagnosis.
Paul, writing Christians at Rome, speaks of the differences between Israel and the nations of the world: Israel had been given the rite of circumcision (a sign of God’s promise to be their God), the Mosaic law (as a light to guide their way in a dark world), and the various oracles and promises of God. Because of these gifts, Israel was act differently from the nations of the world. The Old Testament called that task of acting differently being “holy.”
But Paul emphasizes something that God’s people–then and now–are very tempted to lose sight of: acting differently in no way suggested that they were different. Comparing Jews and Gentiles in Romans 3, Paul says:
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.”
It’s as simple as that. Despite the gifts Israel had (undeservedly!) received, despite God’s call to act differently, there was no difference between Israel and the nations (or “Gentiles”).
What reason does Paul give?
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
There is no difference between insider and outsider, because, if you will, all have made the same mistakes; all suffer from the same disease; all have one and the same diagnosis.
We often don’t think so–at least I don’t.
At the specialist level, the American Psychiatric Association publishes a “manual” called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (called the DSM, for short), now in its 5th edition. This manual standardizes descriptions of mental disorders, so psychiatrists can all be on the same page, so to speak. The diversity of symptoms and categories in this manual is extensive. While various descriptions may have overlap, one can imagine that two persons diagnosed with two distinct “disorders” have little or nothing in common. Hence, no shared diagnosis.
At the popular level, we regularly see others as “different” from us–even “classifying” them as weird (“He’s such a freak”) or deeply troubled (“She has serious issues”). Parents and teens look at each other and both wonder how the former could have produced the latter. Husbands and wives regularly shake their heads in amazement and disappointment over the weaknesses of their spouses: Why does s/he struggle with that for? That’s so lame, gross, pathetic, insane, etc., etc.
So why does our culture–both professionally and popularly–see difference where the Scriptures see commonality?
While Scripture can (of course) identify specific sins: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition”–etc., etc. (Gal. 5.19)
Yet Scripture doesn’t leave us with individual, random descriptors of visible behaviors. It goes deeper: not only does it speak of the “acts of the flesh,” but it speaks of “the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5.14).
Underlying our actions are common root passions and desires that fuel our specific (and more unique) actions. For example, underlying both lust, anxiety, and anger–three behaviorally distinct actions–might be a common desire for, say, control or for achievement/status.
But the Scriptures go even deeper than this. Underlying our more unique actions are more common desires, and underlying (or, bound up with) our more common desires is a universally shared fractured relationship with our Creator.
Think of it this way: imagine two siblings, ages 4 and 6, getting into an argument while playing. One grabs a toy that the other is playing with; in response, the other takes a swing at the first. There are unique wrong actions (taking and hitting), with a possibly common desire (control over the toy). But bound up with these is a relationship with parents in which both siblings are persuaded that mom and/or dad haven’t provided enough toys: mom and dad are incompetent and apathetic.
But what is the relationship between our desires and our fractured relationship with God? The “greatest commandment,” according to Jesus, is an act of love–of desire, expressing itself in total devotion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….”, says Deuteronomy 6 (which Jesus quotes).
That is, the relationship between our desires and our relationship with God turns on inordinate desires: we desire something (or someone) more than God. There is nothing wrong with wanting something per se; it is when we want it inordinately–this is deadly (more about this in the next blog).
Another clarification: If there is a universally shared fractured relationship with God, with common underlying (invisible) inordinate desires, why aren’t our wrong (visible) actions and behaviors the same? That is, if there really is a common diagnosis underlying our different behaviors, what accounts for that difference?
To answer that we return to Scripture’s view of humanity: humans reflect God’s image, but we do so collectively. He creates each of us with different personalities, temperaments, dispositions, gifts, capacities, facilities, etc., etc. We are, wonderfully, like snowflakes. Just as the same light will reveal itself differently through different shapes and shades of glass, so inordinate desires will reveal themselves differently through different kinds of personalities, temperaments, etc., not only individually but also collectively–whether at the level of a family/clan or an entire culture or civilization (e.g., different cultures will have their own distinct reflections of God’s image and, thus, of how they tarnish that reflection).
But the bottom line is this: we humans tend to see ourselves as different from others (especially in our diagnosis of what is wrong with others and self); such difference leads to distance, exclusion, self-approval and other-condemnation. But the common diagnosis of the Scriptures–embodied in the crucifixion of Jesus–unites us.
Crucially, if this diagnosis is common to all, then so is the cure: Paul, having stated that there is no difference (between Jew and Gentile), because “all of have sinned” (Rom. 3.23), he then says:
“…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3.24)
No one–absolutely no one–is excluded from this cure.
The implications are twofold: (1) When Christians gather, no matter what their differences (ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, etc., as well as differences in sinful behaviors), those differences (which are often to be celebrated) are informed and relativized by the common diagnosis of the cross. (2) When Christians go out into the world, they encounter persons who are at bottom absolutely no different from them.
Little wonder, then, that Paul next asks a very important question: “Where, then, is boasting?” That is, is there any place for the insider in the community of faith to boast (because they are better / different)? He answers: “It is excluded.”
So, yes, Christianity does exclude: it excludes boasting. And it is boasting that excludes people.
In place of that boasting, when there is a common diagnosis, there is intimacy. That’s why on a Sunday morning many churches will have a corporate confession of sin, or a pastor / lay leader will lead the congregation in prayer, confessing our sins (“forgive us our debts, as we forgive…”). We are united together by a common diagnosis.
Personally, I can say that some of the most powerful and intimate moments in my marriage have been when my wife and I–who struggle with very different sinful behaviors–discovered that underlying our different behaviors are inordinate desires that we share. We realized that we desire things like control, acceptance, and productivity–things that are not wrong per se, but become toxic when desired inordinately. The other person’s sinful behaviors went from being “weird” to being altogether plausible, and sympathy for one another was far easier. In those moments, the “other” became the “identical,” and we locked arms to fight together against a common enemy.