It was 1971 and I was enrolled at college. I was an impressionable, inquisitive young guy from a rural upbringing, seeking an education and enjoying exploring ideas that were new to me. My college had a movie theater where they screened films that were a bit out of the “mainstream.” My girlfriend and I would often go see some of those films; I recall one that made a distinct impression on me because of its portrayal of lawlessness: A Clockwork Orange. In this post, I won’t synopsize the film to any great degree, but one can view it and see that it was a controversial depiction of a group of ruthless, young, British men who wreaked havoc on their world. In the context of 1971, many complained about the film’s violence, language and sexuality. By today’s jaded standards, many may judge it less harshly. Like many at that time, I remember reacting to the film with dismay but I looked beyond the obvious shock factors of violence, language and sexuality. I was disturbed by the main character Alex because he and his cronies committed crimes with impunity, absolutely enjoying their attacks on defenseless people. No one seemed to have any conception of remorse. Eventually Alex is forced to change his behavior, but it is not by his own choice.
Today I recall the experience of viewing A Clockwork Orange in the context of John Stott’s discussion of “True and False Guilt”, a section of Chapter 4 in his book The Cross of Christ. Stott’s whole chapter considers how man handles sin. He has already written that man makes the effort to ignore sin [we just refuse to think about it, much less take responsibility for it]. He has already discussed that man tries to blame sin on factors outside of his control [eg. genes, social environment, parents etc]. Now Stott is ready to discuss what Alex and his cronies don’t feel: they don’t feel they are sinning and they don’t feel guilt for what they have done. “If human beings have sinned (which they have), and they are responsible for their sins (which they are), then they are guilty before God” [Stott, 98].
As I approach this discussion, it seems to me that Stott is trying to make a case that Christians are bi-polar. We either deny the existence of sin or rationalize it away or we go the opposite direction: we become obsessed with sin and guilt.
“Christians have often been criticized (not least evangelical Christians) for continuously harping on sin, for becoming obsessed with it in our own lives, particularly in our evangelism, for trying to induce in others a sense of their guilt” [Stott, 99]. I know this may be hard for some to swallow, but is the role of the church to induce guilt? Does the church exist to convince us we are “sick,” and after conviction, we need the church to get over the sickness of our sinning? This makes Christianity the medicine for the “sin-sick.”
For many, this approach is anathema: how could anyone look at the cross of Christ and see anything other than forgiveness of sin? How could anyone look at Christ’s sacrifice and think of our shame? We caused Him to go to Golgotha? Aren’t we supposed to focus on the glory of what He did for us?
Stott writes there is such a thing as a “morbid, overscrupulous conscience.” In these cases it may be unhealthy to insist on the gravity of sin. Some are already holding themselves too responsible for their actions, maybe even feeling bad about evil they have not done.
They are suffering from an extreme responsibility toward sin and they are living miserable lives.
Let’s try to find a middle ground.
All of mankind suffers from what I call the “bent toward” sinning. We can’t help it. God has given us all the freedom to choose our behaviors. In some cases, it all boils down to this: we either sin or don’t sin and we get weak from time to time and are tempted to sin. We just do it.
We all know that Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden. He gave them freedom to choose their acts with one limitation. They must not touch the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could analyze what triggered their weakness all day: was it curiosity, was it the quest for power, was it pride, was it simple disobedience? The fact of the matter is that they could not follow God’s rules. They ate the forbidden fruit. In Chapter Four, Stott writes that Adam and Even could have denied that the sin existed [that snake just told us what to do and we were simply following his direction-that is not sin]. Maybe God has made us with fatal flaws; it is not our fault that we have defects due to poor manufacture.
No, it was their fault and we have been able to choose sin over righteous behavior since their grievous error.
What must we do when we commit our own grievous errors?
Wallow in guilt?
That is unhealthy. Wallowing does not lead to God’s forgiveness. Wallowing does not allow us to enter the joy of His salvation. Wallowing does not allow us to grow into more complete human beings, healthy human beings. “A full acknowledgement of human responsibility and therefore guilt, far from diminishing the dignity of human beings, actually enhances it. It presupposes that men and women, unlike the animals, are morally responsible beings who know what they are, could be and should be, and do not make excuses for their poor performance” [Stott, 102].
The church does not exist to make us “sin-sick.” The church exists to provide a means to escape the sickness we feel from guilt. The law that condemns us becomes God’s good gift because it sends us to Jesus Christ to be justified. Jesus says in Mark 2: 17 that He comes to this world to help “tax collectors and sinners”: it is not the “healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. With this in mind, do we begin to see the church taking on the role of helping people with their sickness, alerting them to their maladies so they can turn to the Great Physician?
As part of his discussion Stott references C.S. Lewis who agonizes over “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” In his discussion Lewis “bemoans” the modern tendency to concentrate on criminal reform and deterrence instead of grappling with the link between punishment and justice. “When we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case.’”
Spoiler Alert for A Clockwork Orange
That is exactly what happens at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film. At the end, Alex is caught and is forced to undergo some form of aversion therapy. The government made him into a person who hated violence so much that he could not be violent even if there was a need [e.g. to defend himself from evil assailants]. He was “cured” against his will, what Stott calls put on “a level with those who have not reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles and domestic animals.”
No we don’t need to wallow in guilt. We don’t need to take on responsibility for acts that we do not commit. We don’t need to think of the Christian church as an institution that makes us feel “sin sick.”
We need to take our punishment, however severe. We need to take it because we deserve it. We need to take it because we “should have known better.”
Stott says we need to be treated “as a human person made in God’s image.”