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A shrink thinks: Unconscious sin

April 2019 | by Alan Thomas

As you pray, you have finished your adoration of God, thanked him for his amazingly gracious love for us in Jesus Christ and praised him for all his blessings day after day. Then you come to your confession of sin….and grind to a halt.

Of course you haven’t physically broken any of the commandments, you haven’t committed obvious outward sins and even the words of your mouth don’t seem to have involved you transgressing against God and man. So what sins do you now confess to God?

You search your heart for those inward sins, those desires for what is wrong. Again you find it difficult to specify much in the way of clear sins. So perhaps you have achieved a kind of Christian perfection?

Was Wesley right after all? Maybe all that teaching you have heard on the prevalence and persistence of sin was wrong? Maybe our Protestant heritage with its emphasis on depravity and the impossibility of keeping the law of God is misguided? In this new covenant era of the Spirit we might have been freed from the shackles of sin after all! And perhaps then you have made it!

Then you remember Jeremiah 17:9. Our hearts deceive us. The problem is sin is so fundamental it is woven into the core of our being. It is part of who we are. It pollutes and corrupts all we are and so we cannot see ourselves rightly. We are all like statues which have been twisted and distorted. We have never seen an untwisted one.

When I look in the mirror I see the real me, but this real me is the twisted me, the me twisted by sin. And (at the risk of forcing the metaphor) it is the cleaned up me. Before being brought to faith in Christ the twisted me was dirty, the outward defilement of my many sins obvious to one and all who knew the law of God. Following conversion I have been cleaned up, I have applied the teaching I have received and now am a cleaned up statue. But still a twisted statue.

So as we pray we search ourselves, seeking to probe and identify any sin we have committed. You remember that Mary gained that promotion which you had been aiming for. You congratulated her, but did you envy her success? Your neighbour’s dog fouled your lawn again and you spoke (again!) with her about this, and did you harbour unrighteous anger at her when you did so? You saw that advert with the half-dressed model, and did you covet her body?

We may exonerate ourselves because we find no sinful motives, no perverted desires. But most of our sins are unconscious. We cannot see our twistedness.

Moving away from metaphor, the reality is that the great majority of our mental activity is unconscious. This is good. God created us this way so that behaviour becomes learned and then overlearned and so we cycle and swim and drive without having to consciously work it all out.

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God tells us to train up children in the right way, so that they learn righteous patterns of behaviour and automatically do what is right (outwardly at least), or the opposite. Many parents teach and model wicked behaviours and train up their children in vanity and greed and lies.

The obsession with appearance is driven into children from their earliest years. A lifestyle of deceit and infidelity is lived out in the family and inculcated into young minds. Gluttony becomes the norm in society and no one, not even Christians, condemns it (until obesity becomes a health crisis, and even now the argument is medical not moral).

For unconscious sins occur not only at the individual level but at family and societal levels. And, dare I say it, at the church level? Does the easy-going, jocular and matey approach to congregational worship allow worshippers to come with the humility and reverence due to our awesome, holy God?

The whole church with clear consciences breaks the third commandment with a smile. They have learned and overlearned a style of worship which demeans our great God and Saviour.

Then there are those churches which elevate their powerful preacher to the level of an idol. The respect due to his office and the appreciation due to his fine handling of the Scriptures becomes an adoration which should only be given to God. Because everyone respects him like this then no one can see the sin. It is how everyone has been trained to behave.

But deeper still than this training up in sinful heart-attitudes is our inherited sin. The level of these learned unconscious behaviours can be probed, at least to some extent. I search myself in the light of biblical teaching and get better at finding them out. I compare myself to the beautiful holiness in Jesus Christ and I expose some sinful trait.

But you see more than I do. When I visit another church I see concerning unconscious patterns of behaviour which suggest unconscious sins. But at home in my church all I see looks good! For we are most blind to our own faults.

However, deeper than all of these is that unfathomable depth of sin which we inherit from Adam. From our forefather Adam we have received a twisted nature, one that is corrupted to our very core. Only God sees the depths of our sinfulness.

And so how wonderful to know that he is also a forgiving God! And that in Jesus Christ, the pure and untwisted One, he has provided the cleansing and the power to straighten us out so that one day we will be those Christ-like, God-honouring ‘statues’ we ought to be and long to be in him who so loved us.

Alan Thomas is Professor and Honorary Consultant in Psychiatry, and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church