Yes, you read that correctly. All the suffering, evil, and pain in the world comes down to one thing: love. But how can this be? Isn't love a good? Isn't God love? And hasn't the Church taught that all the evil in the world is the result of sin? This is true, but sin has many facets. Sin is rebellion, missing the mark, trespassing, indebtedness, and evil. This is an objective way of talking about sin, a way of distinguishing sin from a Holy God. But we can talk about sin another way too. We can talk about sin as extended desire: a hunger, a longing, a movement towards death.
It is on this level, of sin as desire, that Jesus spends some of his most controversial critiques. In the gospels, the religious leaders almost always criticize Jesus for not keeping the law, and in turn, Jesus always deepens the meaning of the law so that it is seen in the context of desire. So, for example, "Keep the Sabbath Holy" does not mean doing no work. For Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man's benefit. Adultery, for Jesus, is a gaze that entertains sexual desire, and murder is much more extensive than killing, it includes hating others. Jesus is always taking us beyond the objective act prohibited by the law and plunging us deeper into our own hearts, where we find our rebellious longings.
Those rebellious longings are longings of love — not love-proper, nor the love poured into us at baptism; instead, a misuse or appropriation of the gift of love that all humans are given as birthright. It is as if God gives us a hammer so that we can help build things up, but we take it and use it to tear things down. The gift is ours, but it loses its purpose and is refashioned into a tool of destruction when it is co-opted for our purposes.
Desire, a form of love, is a type of hunger that seeks the good. But it becomes sinful when seeks the good, wrongly, apart from God. C.S. Lewis explains this well in Mere Christianity:
"In real life people are cruel for one of two reasons—either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it—money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, go things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or the wrong way, or too much… wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way…evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness. All the things which enable a bad person to be bad are in themselves good things—resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself."
Lewis’ observation is keenly appropriate. If we go to Genesis 3, where the story of the Fall is given, we see the desire to “be like God” leading to the eating of the forbidden fruit. Not only that, the story gives subtle hints at how this desire begins to take hold in our hearts. For the first two chapters God is continually seen as a benevolent and generous Creator who, at the finish of each day’s work, declares it good. But when Eve is in the moment of temptation, determining whether she will eat the forbidden fruit of not, we get this telling detail: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” The details here often go unnoticed. Eve is acting like God. It was God who looked over the creation each day and called it good. But now the woman who wants to "be like God" begins to assume his role. She looks at the fruit and in her heart declares it good. She delights in it, takes joy in that which is forbidden. And so she takes, eats and shares. Of course, the tree and its fruit really are good, created by God and declared as such. But when she sees the fruit that brings death as good for her, when she delights in the object that will make her "surely die" all she can see is, "that will make her wise." She is right here again, but the wisdom the fruit gives leads to shame, fear and alienation, and death.
Sin, as it is lodged in our hearts, creates in us all sorts of desires, misdirected, and misused. The love to be wise, to be popular, or to be loved. The love of stability safety, prosperity, or relevance. The love of country, family, and child. The love of intimacy, or fellowship, or forgetfulness. Sin is driven by disordered love, and it is love in this sense that leads to all the pain and suffering in the world. And this is why Christian ethics are not merely prohibitions against behaviors that could have been otherwise, as if traditional Christian morality were merely subjective. When the Church has traditionally taught against sex before marriage (fornication), or when churches stand up against abortion, or homosexuality, or teach on generosity, or helping the poor, etc. These are based on ideas about love's direction because misdirected love leads to sinful behavior that harms the world and my neighbor. This is Paul's argument in Romans 1, often overshadowed by the debate on homosexuality. In Romans 1, Paul makes the case that idolatry (perhaps the most dangerous misdirected love), leads to all other sorts of misdirected loves. When God "hands them over" it is not because God is abandoning sinners. It is because God cannot compete with misdirected loves. Idolaters, for example, exchange the love of God for the love of creature. God's handing over is a deeply painful acknowledgment, by God, that he cannot force himself on his people and maintain his claim of deep love for us. Because he loves us, he must hand us over, over to death.
And he does. But not in the way we think or would imagine. Even when he hands us over, it is not to abandon us but to redeem us. The idolater, the "old man" the "flesh" as it is sometimes called—this part of us that misuses love and lives by desire, that man cannot be redeemed, properly speaking. That flesh is rotten all the way through, and God's only choice is to give up on it or destroy it. To give up on it would be to allow it to fester, to pollute his creation until nothing good remained on earth. So God must destroy it. But his destruction, his death, will be the salvation of his people. Because God kills in order to give life.
Death and love become strangely inseparable: "Greater love has no one than this than he lay down his life for his friends." In our repentance and baptism, God puts to death the old flesh, the old you, the sinning, desirous, failing, missing-the-mark you. S/he is dead: "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This is the Good News: That Jesus has put to death your old self, your old mis-loving self and given you a new self. And this new self is protected, secured from pollution or corruption because it has already been raised to God: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things [desire the things] that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” That's right, your life is hidden (kept safe) by God, and your old self is already dead for you have died! Claim your death on the cross with Christ so that you can embrace the reality of the new life kept by God.
But how can we do that when we still sin, when we still desire wrongly and are weighed down by our bad feelings, choices, and actions? St. Paul teaches us, "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.[Now, pay attention to what follows] So it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.[The the conclusion to all this is] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."
Did you get all that? It is no longer I who do it. Why? Because the flesh is not me. That's not who God sees. God sees the new man, the new life, the regenerated person that is with Christ. Paul had said this earlier: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
There you have it. God destroys the old nature, the old flesh. And causes you to be born again to a new life hidden with Christ and untouched by sin. When God sees you, when God looks at you, he does not see that old person who has been crucified, for that person is dead. Instead, because of Christ, he sees you in Christ, covered in Christ's own righteousness.
So, the next time your sin weighs you down because you failed (again), and the next time that guilt makes a heavy home in your heart, and you descend into self-hate and loathing--and the next time you think you are a "bad Christian" and are not worthy of the Name, remind yourself of this graceful truth: “That old me is dead. Christ killed it. I am a new creation, a fruit of Christ's own work. I stand in Christ, and God sees me through him. I repent of my sins because my sins lead to Christ's death. But in love, Christ took me with him to the cross and killed me too. Then, in his resurrection, I was raised with him to new life. And now I stand hidden in him so that to look at Christ is to look at me. That's what hiddenness means; it means My sin doesn't stick out and that Christ's righteousness is mine, so we appear to God the same. In this, I can rest and take heart because God's Word makes certain that my sins are paid for, and God loves me. I am dead, but also alive. God never abandoned those he "handed over," the idolators and inordinate lovers, the stealers, and sin-repeaters. He brought us all to the cross with him. And he killed that old flesh. And in raising us to new life, he gives us the ability to love him again freely. A genuine love poured into our hearts by grace. A love that is free itself, because it receives the One who is truly good, and in whom all desires find their true end.