Because Everything Looks Like a Nail
So last week, I griped about a hymn with some mediocre theology.
This week, I’ll gripe about the same hymn with different (but related) mediocre theology.
Return, O holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn
And drove Thee from my breast.
Another verse of Cowper’s hymn is about how sorry the author is for the sin that he’s done that caused the Holy Spirit to leave.
Now, it’s quite possible that Cowper did indeed commit some terrible sin that has made him terribly sorry. There are rather few folks alive (or dead, really) that haven’t done something they regretted. So there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this particular aspect. It is even possible that the sin in question directly led to a diminished sense of God’s presence. This can happen.
However, there is a tendency for two assumptions to get made among evangelicals. Cowper may or may not have made them here, but they’re just so common (Lord knows I’ve made both them repeatedly) that I just kind of doubt he didn’t make them in writing this hymn. The first assumption is that sin inherently causes God to feel distant. Closely related to this is the idea that sin makes God actually retreat from you, and the more you sin, the more God shrinks back.
There is a sense in which God is distant because of sin. Sin does separate us from God. But you have to consider the fact that Jesus showed up among us wacky sinners. He hung out with the vilest of the vile in Judean society: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the Pharisees (okay, they were actually some of the highest of the high, but many of their hearts made them just as sinful as the vile). Sin most certainly did not separate Jesus from people. Similarly, Moses whined at God. David bedded another guy’s wife and murdered him. Peter flatly denied he had anything to do with Jesus. Yet in none of those circumstances did God wash his hands of these people. (That was Pilate, and do we really want to say Pilate had the same kind of character as God?) In a way, sin separates us from God, but in another way, God always remains present.
But there is a difference between God’s presence and the sense of his presence. Could sin separate us from that sense? It can if the sin is neglecting, ignoring, or running away from God, but this is only the case should God choose not to chase after us. If we ignore God, intentionally or unintentionally, many times he lets us be, and once we start ignoring God, we can get into the habit of ignoring God and get into the habit of not sensing him present even when he is.
But not every sin works this way. After all, God remained very present while Moses whined at him. The woman caught in adultery still heard Jesus tell her she wasn’t condemned. Jonah ran from God and could not escape. There is no guarantee that sin will prevent us from sensing God’s presence. Some people even feel God more present (supposedly) when they feel guilty over their sin (though whether or not that’s God is another issue). So sin neither makes God absent nor always makes him seem absent.
The other assumption that gets made is that if God feels distant, sin must be the cause. This sort of makes God into a machine. If you do this, then God does that. God doesn’t have a choice in the matter? Doesn’t God have his own mind to make up? Could there by other reasons that God might seem absent? Paul wanted God to take away some nameless thorn, and God told him no, not out of punishment, but because he wanted to give Paul an experience of dependence on God’s strength. Maybe God is using a sense of absence to help you grow in some fashion. God is too complicated, and we are too complicated for sin to be the only possible reason why it might seem like God’s not there. (Evangelicals, however, tend to make spirituality almost entirely about sin, and when the only tool you have is a hammer…)
But something else that makes me wonder is why Cowper was apologizing. Was he actually sorry about the sin? The verse seems to suggest that he really was more sorry about the fact that God felt distant. There is a place for this. Punishments are intended to make us attach a negative feeling to things we do wrong. (The research seems to show it doesn’t work terribly well, but that’s the intention, anyway.) As you mature however, the hope is that you have a sense of right and wrong that goes beyond reward and punishment. It may begin that way, but it shouldn’t stay there. If Cowper was hurt mostly about the fact that his sin (supposedly) made God go away, then it feels like the sin the real issue; God’s disappearance was. God’s felt absence made him feel bad, so he wanted it back so that he could feel good again. While on some level, we all do this, it’s highly simple-minded. We are called to care about the things God cares about and not merely what feels good.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t feel bad about not feeling God present. That can be trying. It’s a break in relationship. But was that all that mattered?
I suppose after all is said and done, there’s just too much in this verse that could be taken badly. It can trigger too many common and faulty assumptions about how sin affects God’s presence and about what really matters. Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but I see so many people making these assumptions to their detriment. “If I just stopped sinning, God would show up!” Maybe. Or maybe God is trying to take you somewhere beyond yourself. Beyond the idea that not sinning is all that’s really important in the spiritual life.