Book Review: Not the Way It's Supposed to Be

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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995).

Plantinga begins his books with the assertation that Christians need to restate the doctrine of sin, even though it has stated in the past. A restatement is needed because “Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough” (x). The need for a restatement of the Christian doctrine of sin is all the more urgent when the consequences of ignoring sin and the grace that deals with it. Ignoring sin makes us less conscious of it, and when we become less conscious of sin, we become less conscious of grace. He explains,

Many of us have lost this knowledge, and we ought to regret the loss. For slippage in our consciousness of sin, like most fashionable follies, may be pleasant, but it is also devastating. Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic, a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system. What’s devastating about it is that when we lack an ear for wrong notes in our lives, we cannot play the right ones or even recognize them in the performance of others. Eventually we make ourselves religiously so unmusical that we miss both the exposition and the recapitulation of the main themes God plays in human life. The music of creation and the still greater music of grace whistle right through our skulls, causing no catch of breath and leaving no residue. Moral beauty begins to bore us. The idea that the human race needs a Savior sounds quaint (xiii).  

Plantinga helps renew our awareness of sin, not to make us overly burdened with guilt, but to open our ears to the music of grace that our eyes to moral beauty. This book was now, just as it was needed in 1995. Writing in Lewis-like prose, Plantinga introduces a theology of sin for the modern person.

In what follows, I will bullet some of the most helpful or insightful quotes from the book, but the book is more than a collection of quotes and cannot be replaced by them. Still, they may spark enough interest to take up the book and read. Nearly 39 pages are available for preview on Google Books, so you can see many of the quotes in fuller context there. For those who are interested, Plantinga also wrote an essay, “Sin: Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be.” This essay is essentially a chapter-length abridgment of the book.  

Introduction

  • “Sin distorts our character, a central feature of our very humanity. Sin corrupts powerful human capacities—though, emotion, speech, and act—so that they become centers of attack on others or of defection or neglect” (2).
  • “Sin, moreover, lies at the root of such big miseries as loneliness, restlessness, estrangement, shame, and meaninglessness” (3).
  • “These and other images suggest deviance: even when it is familiar, sin is never normal. Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony. Above all, sin disrupts and resists the vital human relation to God, and it does all this disrupting and resisting in a number of intertwined ways” (5).
  • “…whatever we say about sin will qualify whatever we say about grace” (6). 

Chapter 1: Vandalism of Shalom

  • “As the great writing prophets of the Bible knew, sin has a thousand faces. The prophets knew how many ways human life can go wrong because they knew how many ways human life can go right” (9).
  • “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight - a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affair that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. S Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be” (10).
  • “In biblical thinking, we can understand neither shalom nor sin apart from reference to God. Sin is a religious concept, not just a moral one…. Criminal and moral misadventures qualify as sin because they offend and betray God. Sin is not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of covenant with one’s savior. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond” (12).
  • “All sin has first and finally a Godward force. Let us say that a sin is any act—any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed—or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame, and let us therefore use the word sin to refer to such instances of both act and disposition. Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God” (13).
  • “God is, after all, not arbitrarily offended. God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be…. God is for shalom and therefore against sin” (14).
  • “In sum, shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption; sin is blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder” (16).
  • “…we should not confuse sin with mere error…or innocent folly…. Nor should we confuse sin with finiteness, let alone mere awareness of finiteness. We are not to blame for being human instead of divine, and we are to be credited, not debited, for knowing the difference” (20).
  • “All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. Acts are either right or wrong, either consonant with God’s will or not. But among good acts some are better than others, and among wrong acts some worse than others” (21).
  • “…we are seldom in a position to make accurate judgments about even our own blameworthiness, let alone someone else’s. Judgments about degrees of culpability, unless they are demanded of people filling such special roles as that of parent, judge, or jury, may therefore wisely be left in the hands of God” (25).

Chapter 2: Spirit Hygiene and Corruption

  • “in fact, self-indulgence tends to suppress gratitude; self-discipline tends to generate it. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin: oddly, it is an appetite suppressant. The reason is that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for justice. And they spoil the appetite for God” (35).
  • “Just as in sports and music, discipline in spiritual hygiene has a point. Anybody can play, but only a disciplined person can play freely. Discipline is the basis and presupposition of both freedom and power” (36).
  • “To enjoy God forever is to cultivate a taste for this project, to become more and more the sort of person for whom eternal life with God would be sheer heaven” (37).

 Chapter 3: Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration

  • “Disintegration is the main event in corruption—the breakdown of personal and social integrity, the loss of shape, strength, and purpose that make some entity and ‘entirety’ and make it this entirety…sin tends to disintegrate both its victims and its perpetrators. Disintegration is always deterioration, the prelude and postlude to death” (47).

Chapter 4: The Progress of Corruption

  • “One the one hand, sin tends to despoil things. Unarrested, sin despoils even its own agents, eventually causing ‘the very death of the soul.’ On the other hand, sin is remarkably generative: sin yields more and more sin. In a standard scenario, each episode of sin gets triggered by trouble from the last” (53).
  • “Indeed, like cancer, sin kills because it reproduces” (55).
  • “The predictable truth is that people living sorry lives often hate their lives, and people who hate their lives often hate the most intimate reminders of their lives, including their parents and their children” (56-57).
  • “Victims victimize others, who send their own vengeance ricocheting through the larger human family. Nobody is more dangerous than a victim” (57).
  • [A lie is] “a short-term stress reliver that, like cigarette smoking, puts long-term stress on [the] heart” (61).
  • “The trouble is that this [the heart wanting what the heart wants] is only a redescription of human sin, not an explanation of it—let alone a defense of it. Our core problems, says St. Augustine, is that the human heart, ignoring God, turns in on itself, tries to lift itself, wants to please itself, and ends up debasing itself. The person who reaches toward God and wants to please God gets, so to speak, stretched by this move, and ennobled by the transcendence of its object. But the person who curves in on himself, who wants God’s gifts without God, who wants to satisfy the desires of a divided heart, ends up sagging and contracting into a little wad” (62).
  • “The point is that motives may be various, elusive, and mixed, and we cannot easily sift them” (63).
  • “To be fair-minded about sin—perhaps to be merely observant about it—is to concede that the forces within social and cultural contexts push, draw, stress, and limit human beings in countless ways. Contexts strain and constrain people…. Contexts, and even predictors, of bad behavior are much easier to identify than causes, and we should not confuse them. Nor should we judge personal responsibility on the basis of this confusion” (64-65).
  • Plantinga argues that “’lite’ absolution” for sin should not be offered on the ground that an abused or victimized or contextually strained person has “pre-atoned for it (‘You are not guilty, for you have suffered much’)” (65).
  • “In general, we do not know to what extent evildoers are themselves, as agents, the main cause of their evil and to what extent they have fallen into a trap set by others. Only God knows the percentages in these matters. Only God knows the human heart. Only God knows how much of our evil is chargeable to us as sin” (65).
  • “As a working hypothesis, we ought to assume that anybody who has committed [moral evils] has sinned. Why? The reason is that with this assumption we treat people as grownups. We start them off with a full line of moral credit. We deal with them as people who can accept their debts.… Of course, the assumption that someone’s evil counts as sin may in particular cases have to be suspended or even abandoned…. In all cases the assumption must be held provisionally. But in the meantime, and in general, we ought to pay evildoers, including ourselves, the ‘intolerable compliment’ of taking them seriously as moral agents, of holding them accountable for their wrongdoing. This is a mark of our respect for their dignity and weight as human beings” (66).
  • “In other words, until they are moved by evidence to the contrary, respectful people assume that evildoers are responsible citizens like themselves and that they are answerable for their evil” (67).

Chapter 5: Parasite

  • An often-noted irony of history, including the history of the Christian church, is that people bring dirty weapons to holy wars. Ambitious preachers libel secularists and caricature their positions. Crusaders force conversions. Orthodox believers light fires under the heretical. Then, after the war, the winners sometimes reintroduce the very evil—despotism, for example—that they had fought to overthrow. The sobering fact is that reforms need constant reforming. Rescuers need rescue. Amendments need amendment. Repentant sinners need to repent even of some dimensions of their repentance, such as their pride in the humility that has driven them to their needs. Evil contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it” (80).
  • “Pride can take the form of proper satisfaction in the achievement of excellence, the virtue of the diligent. But pride can also take the form of inordinate self-congratulation, the vice of the pompous. Significantly, cultural decay shows up wherever the first form of pride gives way to the second (81).
  • “God wants to fill us with his Holy Spirit, but when we are proud we are already full of ourselves There’s no room for God” (82).
  • “What has changed is that, in much of contemporary American culture, aggressive self-regard is no longer viewed with alarm. Instead, people praise and promote it” (82).
  • “So a proud person thinks a lot about herself and also thinks a lot of But one familiar complication is that in some people the narcissistic aspect of pride arises from insecurity; such a person may think a lot about herself just because she’s worried that she isn’t making it, that she doesn’t measure up in some way. She then may overinflate her self-appraisal in order to compensate, especially if she has a guru at her elbow, and most especially if she thinks she has to present a high profile in order to attract the kind of attention she wants’ (84).
  • “Sinful pride is an exceedingly unstable compound, one that looks alternately grandiose, desperate, and foolish” (85).
  • “In general, the proud love humility in others and often try to sell it to them. Then, in one of the tragic ironies of sin, the humbled sometimes reply by usurping the very pride they had hated. They reach for proper self-respect but end up overreaching—as in the case of oppressed people who revolt against tyranny and then become tyrants or the case of certain feminists who respond to the pride of dominant males by searching for God themselves and somehow end up believing that they, or their abilities, are identical with God. In sin as on ice, people coming out of a skid tend to oversteer” (86).
  • “The parasitic nature of sin accounts for the fruitfulness of sin” (91).
  • “We notice only those features that sin has pirated from goodness—energy, imagination, persistence, and creativity. Everything sin touches begins to die, but we do not focus on that. We see only the vitality of the parasite, glowing with stolen life” (95).

Chapter 6: Masquerade

  • “To do its worst, evil needs to look its best. Evil has to spend a lot on makeup.… Vices have to masquerade as virtues—lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern. And this is so whether the masquerade takes the form of putting on an act or making up a cover story. Either way, deceivers learn how to present something falsely, and they exert themselves to make the presentation look credible” (98).
  • “Evil people are simultaneously aware of their evil and desperately trying to resist that awareness” (99).
  • “A number of preachers dispense altogether with the confession of sin. Perhaps they think people already know they are sinners and needn’t be reminded. Or maybe these preachers have gained a reputation for putting a high shine on people’s self-esteem and see public confession of sin as a smear on this reputation. Or perhaps they want to attract secularist seekers and assume that such frank and traditional acts as confessing sin will seem gauche, painful, and generally off-putting to them.…teachers, preachers, and politicians reflect as well as shape general cultural trends where sin is concerned” (102-3).
  • “Remarkably, people who take a casual attitude toward, say, pornography, tax evasion, or mockery of religion can at the same time show a fierce (even legalist) opposition to sexism, racism, self-righteousness, and air pollution…. Such people resist moral judgment and rebuke of traditionally recognized sins—the seven deadly sin, for example—at the same time that they try commendably to sharpen our awareness of ecological violence and of such anti-egalitarian sins as sexism. So what we now have in the elite precincts of contemporary North American culture is a simultaneous evasion of the big, old understandings of sins and a heightening awareness of a number of newer ones” (104).
  • “Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche.… We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions…. We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We actually forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them. To the extent that we are self-deceived, we occupy a twilight zone in which we make up reality as we go along, a twilight zone in which the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth” (105).
  • “But not nearly all religious practice is honest. Evil perverts religion as well as everything else that is vital and momentous. When it does, religious beliefs and practices may mutate into a self-serving substitute for the service of God…. We believers are entirely capable of using mutant religion to conceal form ourselves the character of God; we are entirely capable of using our religion to oppose the project of God in the world” (108).
  • “Religious people are often slow to judge a movement that carries a cross or repeats the name of the Lod. And, of course, every con artist who chooses religion as his vehicle depends on this fact” (108).
  • “How many of us would rather fashion God in our own image so that God’s pleasures and peeves will merge conveniently with our own? Believers, not just secularists, exchange ‘the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being’ (Rom. 1:23)” (109).
  • “…every mature Christian knows that even when we are at worship the wolves may be howling in our souls” (110). 

Chapter 7: Sin and Folly 

  • “In the literature of Scripture, wisdom is, broadly speaking, the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it” (115).
  • “The discerning person notices the differences between things but also the connections to them” (116).
  • “The really discerning person, the one whose discernment marks genuine wisdom, does not merely inspect reality or analyze it: the one who discerns loves She possesses what Jonathan Edwards called ‘benevolence to being in general.’ At some level, she affirms the reality she knows and even commits herself to it” (117).
  • “To discern realities at their deeper levels, we have to become engaged to them. The deeply discerning person brings empathy and care to what she knows. Discernment of the hopes and fears of other persons, for example, depends on compassion for them; knowledge of these persons comes into us only if our hearts go out to them” (117).
  • “To be wise is to know and affirm reality, to discern it, and then to speak and act accordingly. The wise accommodate themselves to reality. They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter whether they have derived their wisdom from Scripture or from more general revelation” (118).
  • “If wisdom is knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it, then, predictably, folly is contrariness or destitution in these areas—a kind of witlessness with respect to the world and a tendency either to bang one’s shins and scrape one’s elbows on it or else to miss its opportunities and waste its gifts” (119).
  • “Common sense tells us that a lot of things human beings do are loopy but not sinful, and that the right response to those things is a guffaw, not a rebuke” (119).
  • “The shortest and clearest way to state the relation between sin and folly is to say that not all folly is sin, but all sin is folly. Sin is both wrong and dumb…. Sin is the wrong recipe for good health; sin is the wrong gasoline to put in the tank; sin is the wrong road to take in order to get him. In other words, sin is finally futile” (121).
  • “If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being” (122-23).
  • “To rebel against God is to saw off the branch that supports us” (123).
  • “Sin hurts other people and grieves God, but it also corrodes us. Sin is a form of self-abuse” (124).
  • “A proud person tries to reinvent reality. He tries to redraw the borders of human behavior to suit himself, displacing God as the Lord and boundary keeper of life. At bottom, the fool is out of touch with reality. For, of course, our wills are not sovereign. We are not really our own centers, anchors, or lawgivers. We have not made ourselves, we cannot keep ourselves, cannot ultimately oblige or forgive ourselves. The image of ourselves as center of the world is fantasy—perhaps, in its sheer detachment from reality, even a form of madness” (126).
  • “In the prophetic view, sin against God is therefore outrageous folly: it’s like pulling the plug on your own resuscitator” (125-26).
  • “How do we recover from bad judgment of this kind? We have to go back to the basics” (127).

Chapter 8: The Tragedy of Addiction 

  • “What drives addiction is longing—a longing not just of brain, belly, or loins but finally of the heart. Because they are human beings, addicts long for wholeness, for fulfillment, and for the final good that believers call God. Like all idolatries, addiction taps this vital spiritual force and draws off its energies to objects and processes that drain the addict instead of filling him. Accordingly, the addict longs not for God but for transcendence, not for joy but only for pleasure—and sometimes mere escape from pain” (131).
  • “Predictably, what traps him, what converts him from a mere delinquent into an addict, is that he tries to relieve the despair by indulging his obsession all over again, thereby initiating a new round of addiction” (134).
  • “Yet, the same culture that encourages self-indulgence also punishes the indulgent with scorn fit for a failed God. This is another demonic dimension of addiction…. The addict’s repeated failures of self-mastery devastate his self-esteem in part because he lives in a culture that teaches him that we are our own creators” (134-35).
  • “An addict stands a chance of recovery only if he is finally willing to tell himself the truth. The only way out of the addict’s plight is through He has to face it, deal with it, confess it. With the firm and caring support of people important to him, he has to rip his way through all the tissues of denial and self-deception that have ‘protected his supply.’ The addict has to take a hard step…. Paradoxically, he must help himself by admitting that he is helpless. He must perform the courageous, difficult, and highly responsible act of acknowledging the hopelessness and wholesale unmanageability of his life.… Only then is the way open for his return to a tolerably healthy life—a return that is likely to take time, vigilance, and the support of a number of other human beings, some of them professionals” (135-136).
  • “Still, none of us knows the degree to which other human beings bear responsibility for their behavior, the degree to which they ‘could have helped it’ That is one important difference between us and God. So even if, for the purposes of discussion, we call an addict’s immoral acts sin, we do so only provisionally” (139).
  • “Addicts are sinners like everybody else, but they are also tragic figures whose fall is often owed to a combination of factors so numerous, complex, and elusive that only a proud and foolish therapist would propose a neat taxonomy of them. In any case, we must reject both the typically judgmental and typically permissive accounts of the relation between sin and addiction: we must say neither that all addiction is simple sin nor that it is an inculpable disease” (140).
  • “Everybody fails. But for whatever reason, the candidate for addiction gives in to failure, seeks deadly comfort from the same kind of thing that caused the failure, and thus begins a war against herself that is likely to take a lot of skilled, compassionate, and expensive help to stop” (146).

Chapter 9: Attack

  • “To covet is to want somebody else’s good so strongly (‘inordinately,’ as the Christian tradition says) that one is tempted to steal it. To envy is to resent somebody else’s good so much that one is tempted to destroy it. The coveter has empty hands and wants to fill them with somebody else’s goods. The envier has empty hands and therefore wants to empty the hands of the envied” (162).
  • “An envier resents; a coveter desires” (163).
  • “Envy, like the pride that spawns it, it is inevitably comparative. The envier wants to tear down a competitor….in an egalitarian culture envious losers have an option: instead of attacking winners directly, they can attack the rules of the game. They can take revenge for their failure by leveling the playing field” (168).
  • “Envy is resentment of someone else’s good, plus the itch to despoil her of it. Its natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of someone else’s despoilment. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to change; he also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist” (169).
  • “Wherever we find envy, he says, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer. They acknowledge someone’s praise of a rival but then push their rival into the shadow of a master…. The envier gossips. He saves up bad news of others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, ‘discord which undoes all friendship,’ accusation, malignity—all these things flow from envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (172).

Chapter 10: Flight

Plantinga lists eight ways that we shirk responsibility for our actions.

  1. Conforming: “We should note that conforming and obeying are distinct phenomena. People obey superiors but conform to peers. Conformity typically includes imitation; obedience does not. To obey is to comply with an explicit requirement; to conform, with an implicit one” (181).
  2. Conniving: “People connive everywhere. Family members avert their eyes from domestic abuse that is obvious to outsiders. Church councils connive at humiliation of members by power-hungry pastors who discourage questions and rebuke dissent. These councils show elaborate mercy to their pastor and offer his victims little justice—sometimes listening hospitably to the pastor’s ‘explanation, disavowals, and reinterpretations’ while ostracizing plaintiffs as troublemakers” (184).
  3. Leaving Town: “Human beings follow fashions not only in clothing, automobiles, and worship but also in going AWOL” (185).
  4. Specializing: “Jesus indicted Pharisees and other respectable believers for specializing in certain details of religious observance while neglecting the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23)” (186).
  5. Minimizing: “People try to settle moral debts by paying just a part of them. They offer an apology, for example, when what they owe is repentance” (186).
  6. Going Limp: “One way to evade responsibility is to play dead, to do absolutely nothing and to do it repeatedly…. Making a career of Nothing—wandering through malls, killing time, making small talk, watching television programs until we know their characters better than our own children—robs the community of our gifts and energies and shapes life into a yawn at the God and savior of the world. The person who will not bestir herself, the person who hands herself over to Nothing, in effect says to God: you have made nothing of interest and redeemed no one of consequence, including me” (187-88).
  7. Cocooning: “Some of us retreat into the small world defined by our friends, work, church, and family and build a snuggery there…. Claiming allegiance to the Christ who speaks in active imperatives (Go! Tell! Witness! Declare! Proclaim!), we Christians nonetheless prefer to keep the bread of life in our own cupboard and to speak of it only to those who already have it” (188).
  8. Amusing Ourselves to Death: “…the value we place on entertainment suggests that it has become a diversion not only in the sense of a playful relief from the main business of life but also in the sense of a distraction from it, an evasion of it, a sometimes grim, big-business alternative to it” (190). “So when people begin to focus their lives more on amusement than on doing their work well, raising their children securely, gaining an education, and helping those in need, they begin to evade responsibility. The problem is that the evasions are lots of fun and therefore very tempting to all of us. It takes strength to resist them…. However far we take them, our flights of amusement cost us more than time and money. They may also cost us our grasp of the general distinction between reality and illusion” (191).

Epilogue

  • “To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom” (199).
  • “But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better. To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it…. To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgement of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to a mere embellishment of the music of creation, to shrink it down to a mere grace note. In short, for the Christian church…to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting” (199).

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