“Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him”
Honestly, I cringe when I look over the title I just typed in. Maybe I should add a smiley face or two. There’s just no way of dodging the darkness created by the juxtaposition of those two words.
The phrase has a long history of reference to a belief in the inherent sinfulness of the human heart. For centuries theologians have maintained that we are all brimming with sin because Adam and Eve turned their back on the pleasures of the Garden for a bite of the only bit of fruit denied them. By that brazen act, we have all came heir to their disobedience. It comes with the territory, as much part of us as toenails or fingerprints. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” or so begins the
New England Primer.
And it’s not just the theological tenet that wears a black robe, it’s also the belief in that belief. What might be the most widely read story in 19th century American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” is the tale of a man who becomes so convinced of the darkness of the human soul that he loses nothing less than joy itself. “His dying hour was gloom”—or so reads the final doleful line of that tale.
Herman Melville recognized that feature of Hawthorne’s writing for what it was. When he took note of the darkness in a character like Young Goodman Brown, Melville was sure “this great power of blackness” in his sometimes friend was rooted in “the appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Inner Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is never wholly free.” Scary.
My grandfather, a Dutch Calvinist, was capable of taking a kind of morbid pleasure in his own depravity; when he’d consider the nature of his own sin, the darkness of his soul would make him weep. Those very tears were a kind of release.
What there is of him in me is, quite frankly, a haunting question.
I have this much at least: a firm belief in original sin. I’ve watched too much television not to have it, read too many books about the Holocaust, felt horror at what white people—my own good, Christian white people—have done to Native Americans. I’ve seen my daughter through junior high, for pity sake; I know that even little girls can be spiteful as Satan. I’ve sat in poison rooms with two people who feel nothing but hate for each other, even though they’re married, maybe because they are. I’ve felt the grip of silence between people who haven’t spoken for decades.
What’s worse, I’ve felt my own original sin in every last manifestation—pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lechery, avarice, gluttony—each one of the old seven deadlies. I own them all; at times, they own me. I honestly believe it would be nice to have faith in the eternal goodness of the human character, but such a faith would be, to me, simple-minded.
Sin is a condition, like dandruff, only infinitely worse of course, because the end of the road it creates in our lives is perdition, hell, destruction—both here and in the hereafter.
What David suggests in the first two verses of Psalm 32 is that not only our transgressions—those things we commit, knowing better—but also our original sin, the factory-built condition of the human heart we inherited from Uncle Adam and Aunt Eve, our sin, “not in part, but the whole/is nailed to the cross/and I bear it no more;/Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O, my soul.”