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Is sin really like a crouching lion hiding in the bushes, ready to pounce on us?

Why do people seek medical care or counseling? Because something inside them or in their lives is “not the way it’s supposed to be,” as theologian Neil Plantinga says in his book of the same name. People come to church for the same reason. Something in their life is not the way it’s supposed to be. As Christians, we believe there is a sinful nature inside us that, just as disobedience did for Adam and Eve, breaks or disrupts our relationship with God and other people—and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

As a pastor, I preached and taught the Christian gospel to sinful people so they would be “saved.” I hoped people would embrace the good news that Jesus died the death they deserve and lived the life they should have lived and that they would accept this gift of God’s grace by believing it. Those who did believe would receive new joy in living a guilt-free, grace-filled life of thankfulness to God. But often it was obvious from observing their behavior that the roots of sin seemed untouched. Relapse was common. I was one of God’s tools to help them be free from judgment of their sin, but freedom from the consequences of their sin was not always a straight path. So when the circumstances of my personal life made it necessary for me to shift my work out of parish ministry, it was a natural choice to become a mental health clinician to fulfill my desire to know better and more deeply the hurts of brokens souls struggling with what was not the way it was supposed to be.

Over the past 15 years, I have treated with some satisfying success more than 600 people with emotional, mental, or relational problems, about half of whom were not Christians. But often I would meet an invisible wall during therapy when, no matter what psychological modality of treatment I attempted, it felt more like a bandage than a cure. I intuited that something, some power deeper than thoughts and feelings, refused to let go of the client and remained hidden in a dark corner of their soul. When that happened, I found myself praying for the Holy Spirit to help us conquer what felt like a formidable force. Was it the force of sin?

In Genesis 4:1-7, God has a conversation with Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn son. Cain is angry and depressed. His offering to God, the fruits of his crops, was not as acceptable to God as was his brother Abel’s offering of fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks. Cain is terribly upset, and his emotional pain has made him vulnerable to sin. God warns him that unless he chooses to do right, the sin that is “crouching at his door and desires to have him” will pounce. God encourages Cain to take charge of his feelings and “rule over them” to be saved.

Wow! Is sin really like a crouching lion hiding in the bushes, ready to pounce on us? Sin does try to stay unseen and unrecognized, like the lion hiding in the tall grass, watching its prey. Sin is also patient, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Sin watches for our vulnerabilities and uses them as opportunities for temptation. Sin is vicious. It has sharp claws and teeth to ravage its victim. Sin uses surprise as a weapon. It pounces when we least expect it. And sin has a clear, strategic motivation: “It desires to have you” (Gen. 4:7).

Is sin an entity outside us that pounces upon us and poisons our soul like COVID-19 germs poisoned our lungs? Plantinga describes sin as “the power in human beings that has the effect … of corrupting human thought, word, and deed so that they displease God and make their authors guilty before God. … This power lies … behind our neglects and inattentions as well as behind our assaults and trespasses” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 13). In Romans 7, the apostle Paul agonizes that the things that he does not want to do, he keeps doing, and the things he wants to do, he can’t do. So, he concludes, “It is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me” (Rom. 7:20).

The original root of sin is not trusting God to be God. God set the stage for sin to appear, so to speak, in humankind by giving Adam and Eve a single command. It was a risk God took to receive unconditional love from his creation. But Satan pounced, attaching concerns about God’s command and suspicions that God couldn’t be trusted, and Adam and Eve fell for it.

This demonstrates that, as Reinhold Niebuhr says, the base problem of sin is unbelief. “Failing to trust in the infinite God,” Plantinga explains, “we live anxiously, restlessly, always trying to secure and extend ourselves with finite goods [or forbidden fruit] that can’t take the weight we put on them” (p. 61).

The essential dynamic of sin, Martin Luther says, is human nature being “curved in on itself”—wanting to be like God, to be in the place of God, to be one’s own savior. This self-centeredness cancels out a relationship with God, in whom we are created to “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It also cancels out our ability to love people sacrificially.

As a mental health clinician, I ask, “What good is psychotherapy without this biblical interpretation of what is wrong with people at their spiritual core?” The answer is that it is still very good. Secular psychology explains many things about the human brain and soul (will, thoughts, and feelings). Addressing those truths scientifically leads us to significant improvements in behavior, clearer thinking, and more positive feelings. Even faith, hope, and love increase with medication, empathy, wisdom, kindness, truth, and reconciled relationships. That is because all truth—social science and theology alike—is still God’s truth, which sets us free. But it is not enough. The healing of a broken person cannot stop with social science because still hiding in the bushes is this power called sin crouching at our door, desiring to have us.

Jesus died, so our sin can’t condemn us. He rose from the grave, so our sin can’t defeat us. But whatever is left of sin in our hearts, even after we accept these gifts, still attacks our fellowship with God. So, to be a full-service therapist, I must do not only psychotherapy, but also “sin therapy,” which is simply an intense examination of a client’s relationship with God. Through our therapeutic relationship we can cultivate the Holy Spirit’s work of restoring unconditional trust in and love for God.

I might have left church ministry, but I’m still in the business of helping people examine and address sin. But I am often not invited by my Christian clients to guide them through sin therapy. Many come to church or to a Christian therapist because they want God’s help, but they reject God’s hold on their life. And there lies the crouching lion, ready to pounce. God, have mercy!

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