“I’m so used to shacking up with whomever I want that even if I wanted to actually commit myself to one person, I’m not sure I could. Well, who am I kidding? I pretty much know I couldn’t. I mean, at the end of the day that’s what most women want–at least at some point: they want a guy who wants to marry them and be, you know, committed. And that’s really depressing, because that’s just not me. Or, at least, it’s not what I’ve become.”
Jesus said, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
In the ancient world being a slave meant a number of things (actually somewhat different from our understanding slavery in British and American history; for slavery in the Bible, click here). But two things it definitely meant were:
(1) someone else controlled you;
(2) someone else defined you.
So when Jesus speaks of sin as a slave, he means (at the very least) that it both controls and defines us.
But is this really true?
Consider: at times–indeed, perhaps most of the time–we may not feel controlled or defined by sin, right? In fact, it’s religious people who have to live with all kinds of rules–they’re the ones who are being controlled; they’re the ones who aren’t free to do whatever they want.
Jesus was hardly alone in speaking of the slavery of sin. Seen within the wider context of the Jewish Scriptures and the wider Jewish literature of his day, his statement is hardly unique. (What does make him utterly unique is his claim that he can set people free from sin. See John 8.34-36.)
So it’s not surprising that the Apostle Paul speaks of sin in the same way: it enslaves. In fact, for Paul it’s not only that our past sins begin to haunt us (via regret, missed opportunity, etc.). For Paul, sin is a power that dominates–everyone. He writes:
“…Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.”
And Paul, again in a way true to his Jewish heritage and milieu, describes the power of sin in terms of desire.
This is crucial, because it is both paradoxical and brilliant. He exhorts the Roman Christians:
“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its evil desires.”
Did you catch that? How does sin “reign”–how does it control us? By its desires. Paradoxically, we are enslaved by our own desires: we can’t stop wanting what we want.
And that’s why it so often doesn’t feel like we’re enslaved.
(It’s also why Paul is also fond of describing sin not only as incredibly enslaving but as deeply deceptive: simply because we don’t feel enslaved,…)
Here’s an experiment you can do if you have a dog (or, perhaps, a cat!). In fact, it’s a great teaching tool, if you’re a parent (with kids aged 3 and up).
Simply hold out a treat to your dog, beyond its reach. Then carry the treat around, in a direction away from the dog. What will the dog do in response?
Well, your dog will (almost invariably) follow. Now ask yourself (or your kids) the following questions:
1. Who is in control–the person holding the treat or the dog?
2. Does the dog feel controlled (or “enslaved”)? Why or why not?
3. As long as the dog continues to obey its desires, will it be free?
Hopefully, the answers to these questions are fairly obvious. But they are profoundly important.
So here are some follow-on questions for further consideration and discussion:
1. Once I begin to recognize (usually through the help of others) the sinful desires that control me, I must ask a crucial question: Do I want these desires to own me?
2. If we don’t want these desires to own us, then how can we free of them? As Paul says, “Who will rescue us from this body of death?” Who, indeed? (Could there be a more pressing question?)
3. If I decided to live my life battling these desires–that is, if I to choose to spend my life saying “No” to these desires–at times winning, at times losing, as a result of that decision, would I be more free (or less free) than if I decided just to give in to them?
Well, that’s part–a crucial part–of what a Christian is: someone who chooses to battle (and is often defeated by) their sinful desires. And that’s why Christians are more free. (For why they choose to battle these desires, go here.)
The opening quote came from a wonderfully gifted, humorous, and hard-working friend of mine who isn’t religious but has begun to think about the possibility of following Jesus. Why?
Because he is beginning to see that a lifetime of giving into his desires has trapped–enslaved–him. And it may keep him enslaved, locked in a prison of loneliness, doomed to an endless empty series of one-night stands, of relationships that never seem to work out.
Jesus says, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Is he right? Or are our (immediate) feelings right?