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Our Sin-Nature

The Human Sin-Nature is Formed from Distorted Values and a Lack of Knowledge

Posted 1/3/2018

Revised 2/19/2020 

Our sin-nature emanates from our system of values. One of the earliest values, that comes with birth, is something we all value above virtually everything else, and that is self. No one has to teach a child to stand-up for itself when something important is threatened to be taken away. Because humans acquired a nature that is able to discern good things from bad things, coupled with free-will and a high value of self, those three things naturally cause people to gravitate toward choosing pleasure over pain. This forms the basis of what Freud referred to as the Pleasure Principle. Basically, he first observed that humans seek pleasurable experiences while—at the same time—avoiding painful ones.[1] & [2] The ability to experience both pleasure and pain creates a mental synergy that makes both seem stronger than what they would normally be alone, which means that, the good things that Adam and Eve experienced before eating the fruit became even more desirable afterward and the bad things that they were about to experience would now seem worse to them. In other words, the synergy of having both perspectives magnifies both ends of that spectrum. This is why the Bible was written using the phrase “knowledge of good and EVIL” rather than knowledge of good and BAD. By doing so, the Bible is telling us that because we subconsciously compare the two, bad things will seem evil. By juxtaposing good with evil it also shows us that God created the mind to give greater emphasis to painful experiences over pleasurable ones for the purpose of learning and avoiding repeated injury. Because of a greater psychological emphasis on bad experiences, that extreme also causes humans to value pleasure more highly than they ought and to devalue pain and struggle more than they ought. This does not mean to suggest however, that pain should be something desired or sought. For someone to value pain for pain’s sake, would be masochistic. But, always choosing pleasure over discomfort can be equally dysfunctional. It is the human preference for pleasure that can lead people to destructive behaviors thus causing their behaviors to become sinful which then makes “valuing” a matter of personal integrity. Choosing pleasurable behaviors knowing that they will harm other persons constitutes a breech in morality and is what makes these kinds of actions “sinful” in God’s mind. These two poles of thinking and behaving are precisely where Bipolar Disorder comes from.


Philippians 2:4, in an effort to counteract our sinful valuing, says that we should look not only to our own interests but should also take into account the interests of others. In other words, we should “value” what is good for others as well as for ourselves. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 10:33 Paul writes, “I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved.” (NIV). This is what is commonly referred to as “win-win” situations in which both people get something good without one of them having to sacrifice something good for themselves. To prevent someone from receiving good, or to force something bad onto another person, is where sin enters the picture. It should be noted that it is not sinful to seek something good for self, unless to do so, brings harm or injury to another person. This is where ascetics go awry. Some believe that they should be self-punishing, and that having good things is wrong. Who can say that lovingly caring for oneself by feeding, bathing and resting are bad? Paul states in Ephesians 5:29 “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—“ (NIV). To hate oneself by becoming a doormat is akin to overvaluing others while devaluing self. Therefore the antithesis of Philippians 2:4 is also true. We ought to value self as well as valuing others. Distortions in the amount of valuing between self and others, determines whether our sin is against others or self.


In regard to valuing self too highly, our desire to seek things we like can easily work against us by compelling us to choose things that look attractive, but which are ultimately destructive. Our desire for pleasure also compels us to avoid things that seem difficult but would ultimately benefit us. Physical exercise is a prime example. Most of us avoid it while the couch looks awfully appealing. How is it that we choose destructive behaviors and avoid helpful ones? As we allow our sin-nature, grounded in our values system to rule and control our thinking and behaving; as we give in to gut reactions and subconscious impulses from our body, it makes seeking personal comfort paramount over what is actually best. By doing so we are allowing the limbic system part of our brain to control us which in essence is allowing our flesh (instinctive brain) to be in-charge. Thus Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:5 that we should “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” makes perfect sense. If we don’t take hold of our instinctive and subconscious thinking, then we simply float along through life being tossed to and fro by our whims. Therefore Paul writes in various places “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die;” (Romans 8:13a - NIV); “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24-ff. - NIV); “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” (Romans 6:12 - NIV) Paul’s admonition then is for self awareness and deliberation in thought and action.


Furthermore, the Apostle Paul acknowledges how powerful our subconsciously controlled limbic impulses can be when he wrote to the Romans in 7:19 (NIV) “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Paul also wrote in defending himself from his impulses and instincts “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:27 - NIV). Here Paul reasons that the old adage “No pain no gain” is not far off in curbing the sinful nature. We must become deliberate in our thinking and behaving by submitting ourselves to light and momentary discomfort in order to achieve what is ultimately good for us. The principles of overcoming distorted valuing and/or a sin-nature is found not only in Christianity but in other world religions as well. Take Buddhism for example.


Buddhism, the younger brother of Hinduism, holds that the root of all suffering and evil come from the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.[3] If we understand ignorance to represent the subconscious impulses of the mind or limbic system that are outside of our immediate awareness, that means that we are also ignorant of their control over our thinking and behaving. Of we think of attachment as representing positive valuing while aversion represents negative valuing or rather devaluing, then it is easy to see the connection in the concept of the three poisons in regard to a human sin-nature. The first poison of ignorance would then reflect how humans are unaware that their limbic system thinks and acts for them. The second poison of attachment is indicative of overvaluing or wanting something too greatly which Paul equates to idolatry. The third and last poison of aversion suggests that humans are capable of devaluing something when it is actually beneficial to them. The only contradiction between Paul’s idea of the sin-nature and Buddhist understanding of personhood, appears to be in the terms used. Who knew that Buddhism and Christianity are combating the same distortions found in humans that have resulted from activation of the left amygdala? This comparison does not imply however, that Buddhism and Christian are reasonable alternatives to each other. While Buddhism holds perhaps a similar goal in combating the activation of the left amygdala it does present many serious theological errors especially in regard to making amends for the damage done by actions of the left amygdala. How can those be made right?


As the guiding principles of Hinduism, Buddhism and the Apostle Paul would suggest, all seem to point to some personal responsibility for the nature that causes people to sin against one another, especially in regard to promoting the belief that the person could and should control these aspects of personhood. In either regard, whether of Buddhism or Christianity then, the development of personal self-discipline appears to prescribed for controlling our sin-nature. Paul admonishes the Christian in 2 Corinthians 10:5b to "...take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." as well as, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Romans 12:2 - NIV. In my mind, self-discipline is THE Christian discipline, even dare I say over and above daily Bible reading, journaling, fasting and prayer. Why? Because if we get this one right, and we control ourselves from harming other people, then everything else will fall in line. Why? Because when we exercise self-discipline we are restraining ourselves from sinning, which is a major theme of the Bible. Because of this, self-discipline is listed as the crescendo of the fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23 and one that Christians ought to embrace. That is―if only they could. Unfortunately however, while personal self-discipline goes a long way in preventing sin, it is not the panacea for the universal human problem of valuing pleasure over pain, or for allowing the subconscious mind to control us. But you may be asking, why not?


This is because no one has, or ever will, be able to perfectly control themselves (short of Christ Himself). Here it is interesting to point out something relevant about the human sin-nature and Christ. In speaking to the virgin Mary, Luke 1:35 records for us what the angel said to her, ‘“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”’ Through the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, many have come to believe that Christ, who was born “holy” was born that way from having not been conceived by the seed of an earthly man. They say this is why He was born holy. This doctrine implies then, that males are the genetic carriers of the sin-nature. Having been conceived by the seed of an earthly father, some cite King David’s self-acknowledgement of his sinfulness from birth in Psalm 51:5 as further proof. If that is correct, then Christ’s perfect and sinless life would have meant that he was born without an active left amygdala because an active left amygdala is what brought a sin-nature to the world when Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Of course the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not accurate because Jesus did demonstrate an active left amygdala. He expressed great fear as He sweat droplets of blood concerning His imminent crucifixion. His left amygdala worked just fine yet, He did control Himself perfectly.


Because of that truth, self-discipline can never completely resolve the problem of injury that people create for their fellow man. Christ Himself had to come and resolve that problem―ex post facto. Because we cannot perfectly restrain ourselves from hurting each other, Christ’s work on the cross paid for those injuries and gave us forgiveness to offer in its place. Nevertheless, we should not abuse the cross by failing to restrain ourselves from harming others. Even though Christ makes forgiveness available when we stumble, we do fare best when we make ourselves do the things we know in our hearts, that we ought to do, while also preventing ourselves from doing the things we know we ought not do. While we know that breaking the laws of God hurts others, James takes it one step further by stating that when we choose self over others and fail to do the good thing that we know we ought to do for them, this is also sin (cf. 4:17). At battle within us, is our sin-nature (subconsciously held values) which often desire the opposite of what is truly best for us and those around us.


Because of the universal human problem of seeking pleasure while avoiding pain—in the rush to obtain “good” things for ourselves—our eagerness usually results in a personal loss to others. Many a person has met their untimely death, by being trampled, when a crowd has perceived some threat of personal danger and took steps of self-protection. This principle can also be seen in action when crowds crash “door buster” sales at Christmas time. Our desire to avoid negatives while seeking gain, coupled with our inability to perfectly discipline ourselves, is what makes our propensity to sin more or less inevitable. Human striving to acquire or protect what one values, brings what, as Paul has written in Romans 1:29, (NIV) every “…envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” into the world.


In an article entitled What’s Wrong With People?, Pastor Bob Russell, citing Jeremiah 17:9, notes that in seeking the desires of our own hearts, the human heart is deceitful above all things and capable of doing horrendous things in order to get what it wants.[4] Even Jeremiah acknowledged long ago that what the human heart values is not always evident to the individual. In contrast, the Christian person, exercising the fruit of self-discipline, learns to wait patiently and makes themselves act peaceably with kindness, gentleness and goodness toward others. Against such behaviors there is no law in preventing them from doing so. The reasons that people do not adopt this way of thinking is because other behaviors can be more effective in getting what they want, which causes them to value those more highly while at the same time devaluing better prosocial methods. To answer Pastor Russell’s question of “What’s wrong with people?”, what’s wrong is a fully active amygdala that seeks pleasure and avoids pain at the expense of others. It is the same brain structure that causes Pastor Russell to see a threat in the way people act and to ask his question.


Stanton Jones and Richard Butman, citing Biblical counseling advocate Jay E. Adams and founder of the Nouthetic Counseling Movement, suggest that changing oneself may not be entirely achievable on one's own, which may be part and parcel of the reason why God gave humans the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, through the process of sanctification helps people apply Ephesians 4:23-24 which explains that we are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”, which of course gives Christian Counselors a distinct advantage over secular therapists.[5] Helping people discover the Spirit at work within them is invaluable. Certainly however, just knowing that humans have the capability of distinguishing between good and bad along with acquiring a values system that magnifies every judgment should be helpful in both the Christian and non-Christian alike. This in-turn should make the newly educated person more capable of making substantive changes in the attitudes and valuing that can curb sinful behaviors. One thing is certain, the Apostle Paul makes it very clear that he thinks humans largely have some control of this.

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Works Cited:

[1] Abnormal Psychology, 9th Ed., Gerald C. Davison, John M. Neale, Ann M. Kring, United States: Wiley, 2004. (p.26).

[2] Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 6th Ed., Gerald Corey, United States: Wadsworth, 2001. (p. 69).

[3] On Our Origins, Daniel J. Lepley, Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013. (p.131)

[4] What’s Wrong With People?, Bob Russell, The Lookout for Today’s Growing Christian, October 14, 2007, Standard Publishing, Cincinnati Ohio, 2007. (p. 9).

[5] More than redemption: A theology of Christian counseling, Jay E. Adams, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979. In, Stanton L. Jones and Richard E. Butman, (Eds.) Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1991. (p. 241).