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Enslaved to Sin

By Michael Schut

When you see or hear the word "slavery", what images come to mind?

Were any of those images connected to your own experience? I ask because the apostle Paul (Romans 6) claims that we are all "slaves to sin." This is strong language — it suggests that you and I are in some ways as bound as those literally held in captivity. We are oppressed to the extent that we, like slaves, are unable to become the persons we are created to be.

Would you describe yourself as enslaved to sin?

I don't think I did, at least not until the summer of 2000. I was teaching at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center, and listening to fellow teacher Dale Jamtgaard reflect on the story of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.

After fasting for forty days, the devil visits Jesus and says, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Did you notice how the devil's first word, "if," serves to raise doubt — are you really God's son? — in Jesus' mind about his identity. The devil tempts Jesus to prove who he is by his abilities, rather than trusting that he is who he is by the grace of God. This, then, is the essence of our enslavement: the need to prove or justify ourselves. This temptation, the first of three, entices Jesus to prove who he is by his abilities — but the core of all three temptations is self-justification.

In the second temptation, the devil again challenges Jesus’ identity. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down off the temple — surely God would save you. The devil entices Jesus to prove who he is by the reactions and responses he receives from others (in this case, God).

The third is a little more straightforward: it is not so much a questioning of Jesus' identity, as an appeal to greed. In offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, the devil offers Christ unlimited power, prestige and wealth. The third temptation beckons to Jesus: prove who you are by your possessions, and your positions of power.

Reflecting on this, I was stunned. All three temptations — prove who you are by your abilities, by how others respond to you, and by your positions of power and possessions — seem common to Western humanity's experience. How much of our time, energy, and money do each of us expend on justifying our selves?

And notice how Madison Avenue knows so very well that we face these temptations. Every advertisement projects the message that "you are not okay as you are — buy this, look like this, be like this."

And notice how Madison Avenue knows so very well that we face these temptations. Every advertisement projects the message that "you are not okay as you are — buy this, look like this, be like this." Of course once we do, it is never enough, and we need to prove ourselves all over again.

Caught in the squirrel-cage of self-justification, our lives become filled with more activities and more stuff than we could ever possibly need, and our planet groans from the weight of our consumer choices. In rejecting these temptations, Jesus shows another way, based not on self-justification, but on living deeply the truth that we are who we are by God's grace.

I left Jamtgaard’s session with a new sense of freedom, which I described in my very next class at Holden. If my self-identity and worth were based on how others responded to me (the second temptation) as a teacher, I could very quickly become enslaved to that need. I would potentially need to manipulate them to get the response I needed. Alternatively, I could teach from a place of freedom. I could trust that I was called to do such work, to offer what gifts I had as a teacher, and not become attached to others' reactions to me.

I offer this reflection on the temptations in the hope that it might help you too: help you become more free from the need to justify yourself and help you rest your identity in God's grace.

(Thanks and credit to the Rev. Dale Jamtgaard, a retired Lutheran pastor from Portland, Ore.)

Michael Schut is a contributing editor to The Witness. He is on the staff of Earth Ministry, a Seattle-based organization with a mission to connect Christian faith with care and justice for all creation. Michael edited the best-selling Simpler Living, Compassionate Life and the just-released Food and Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread. He may be reached by email at mschut@earthministry.org