Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Void (The Six Shades of Sin, Part 1)

"Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there is no place [left], [so] that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth." Is. 5:8

God had taken care of His people (vs. 1-2). He had protected them , nurtured them, and built them up. But they had not brought forth the "good grapes" of "judgment" and "righteousness" (vs. 2, 7). Instead, they brought forth "wild grapes," which Isaiah categorizes around six "woes" that God speaks against His people. Each of these "woes" points to a specific type of evil that Israel had been infected with, evil that any and all people (whether they be a believer or not) can be infected with. The first one (vs. 8) deals with greed.

It has been said that it is lonely at the top. The real truth of that statement is often missed. If it is lonely at the top, then those who seek the top want to be alone. They want silence and solitude, an absolute severance from all others. That is the diabolic root to the bloom of greed. Those who are greedy (whether for material possessions, or fame and popularity, or even religious status) are driven by a fundamental narcissism. They desire what they desire because they deem themselves and no one else worthy of it. They desire the top because they alone are fit to have it. Consequently, others mean very little to them. Even those who are greedy for attention or affirmation or affection care little for those who give it. They care only about the attention or affirmation or affection, which means they only care about themselves. So greed is not an over-accumulation of things (as if "things" were the problem). Rather, it is a void, a vacuum, a yawning abyss whose insatiable limits can never know peace. In old fantasy stories, this was the essential theme of dragons: not merely a monster, but a greedy monster, locked away in their lonely mountain, sleeping forever with their treasures, never spending but always slaying. Greed is the teeth in the darkness and the fire in the belly, and there is no grace for those who stand between it and its precious.

God's people ought not to be marked by greed, but we too have had our fill of it. Whether it is the greed for material prosperity that arrogantly presumes upon God's goodness, or the greed for strict moral adherence that arrogantly misreads God's righteousness, we can be and have been and even now are marked by the same basic narcissism. American Christianity is especially guilty of this. Our national religion is not Christianity, but rather the bastard child of Christianity and either the American dream or some perceived "golden age" of America's past. Both are erroneous, and both produce (among other things) greed. Greed for things, and for God to give us things, and for Him to bless our getting of things. Greed for the "good ol' days" of the 1950s or the age of the Puritans or whatever mythical pseudo-history is currently in vogue in the Bible Belt. We desire success and security. We desire social status and acceptance. We desire pious posturing or political revolution. We desire fads and movements and parties and agendas. We desire all these things like wine, but we do not desire God like wine. We do not desire Him at all.

In whatever way we choose to go, we invariably break the two greatest commandments: we do not love God nor do we love others; they are both equally means to our own ends. God is the sugar-daddy of our private dreams and desires or the poster child for our private notions. He is the scarecrow deity of our private fields, meant to keep others away while we plant our private seeds. Likewise, others become stepping stones or tally marks for our private projects and goals, or else they become impersonal points of comparison for our own private piety. They are mere tools in our hands to till our private lands, lands that stretch for miles. Secure in our separation, we can never allow anyone in for their own sake. Especially not others. Especially not God.

In C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, Hell was depicted as a paradoxically contracted place where people tried their hardest to ignore and separate themselves from each other. The worse a damned soul was, the farther and farther it would go to isolate itself. Separation and isolation: those are the key doctrines to the divinity of Hell, the very heartbeat of the diabolical will, for the diabolical will always desires the top, the peak, the lonely mountain (Is. 14:13-14). There is a reason that American Christianity is often seen as (at best) a joke, or (at worst) a threat to its very enterprise. It is because this diabolical will, this endless, living void and vacuum, has taken root at our very foundations, and those foundations will crack under the strain. They are already cracking. How many more prosperity preachers or relativistic revolutionaries or ecumenical compromisers need to come and make the New York Times best-seller list before the whole hollowed-out edifice comes crashing to the ground?

If we are to avoid (or at the very least survive) the collapse of American religion, then we must return our hearts, our lives, and our worship back to the true center: God. God must be everything to us; not His blessings or gifts or approval, but Himself---His beauty and glory and holiness. He must be the Lord and King of our lives, and His heavenly vision must take hold of every inch of us. We must return to the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God above all other loves because He is God, and from that fundamental love there will spring forth a life of love for all (Matt. 22:37-38; John 21:15; I John 4:7-11). That is the cure for our diseased desires: a turning away from ourselves and turning outward towards both the God who loves us and the people that He has given us to love. We must fight the corrupt centripetal energy of our American religion with the holy, centrifugal fervor of the spirit of Christ, who made Himself nothing (Phil. 2:5-7), submitted all to the will of the Father (Luke 22:42), loved to the end those who were His (John 13:1), and gave Himself as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012


  1. Your posts always make me think--thank you for this one, Jonathan!


  2. I find your description of the energy of American religion odd, since centripetal means directed toward the center. It would seem that this would be a good thing, so long as God is the center of our energy and our religion.

  3. There's the key, D: "so long as God is the center of our energy and our religion." But God isn't the center of American religion; we are, our own desires and individualism.

    That's why I called it "corrupt" centripetal energy.