Step one: Admit we have a problem, and need God’s help.

Denying we have sin, or hiding it, isn’t gonna grow us any.

1 John 1.8-10

Maybe you already know this; maybe you don’t. But 12-step recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery, take their 12 steps to recovery from Christian discipleship. The founders of AA, in order to get pagans to participate in the group, made it secular—considering they still talk about depending on our Higher Power (whom to Christians would be God) for help.

Step 1, therefore, is to admit we have a problem which we’re unable to solve on our own. For addicts that’d be their addictions. For Christians that’d be sin. ’Cause frankly we can’t defeat sin on our own. Legalists try, and fail. Fail hard. Their efforts to live perfect lives involve a whole lot of judgmentalism, harshness, and hypocrisy to cover up the many missteps. If you truly trust God to guide your steps, you shouldn’t require so very many of your own rules!

Step 2 is to admit we need our Higher Power’s help. We can’t defeat our problem—can’t conquer sin, won’t conquer death—without God.

We find these ideas in 1 John and elsewhere. John got directly to the idea of living in the light, the light God is—of confessing the truth, to ourselves and others, that though we really shouldn’t sin, we do. Let’s not lie to ourselves. Let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not invent some fantasy-world fake Christianity where we’re not really sinners, ’cause Jesus’s blood magically undid our sins. Atonement doesn’t undo sin. But it does fix the sin problem, which ain’t nothing.

1 John 1.8-10 KWL
8 When we say we have no sin, we lead ourselves astray; truth’s not in us.
9 When we admit our sins, this is faith and rightness.
Thus God can forgive us of sin and cleanse us from all wrongness.
10 When we say we don’t sin, we make a liar of God: His word’s not in us.

Lots to unpack from these ideas, but again, the point is we have a sin problem and God’s here to help. 1Jn 2.1-2

Perfection by omission.

In verse 8, a lot of commentators are sure John was writing about gnostics. ’Cause seriously, what Christians claim they have no sin?

Yeah, there’s the occasional preacher who claims once God forgives our sins, he blots them out so entirely, to his mind it’s as if we never sinned at all. It comes from the bible, after all:

Isaiah 43.25 KWL
“I, I’m the one wiping out your transgression for my sake.
Your sins? I don’t remember them.”

God’s deliberately giving himself selective mini-lobotomies. Functionally we never did sin against him, ’cause he blotted them out of space, time, and his very own memory. He said so more than once. Jr 31.34, He 8.12, 10.17

Taking these statements literally becomes a really problematic teaching, though. Since we Christians claim God knows all, we can’t very well teach it, and the idea God suffers selective amnesia. It’s more accurate to say God doesn’t forget, ’cause he knows all. He recalls our every act, and that includes our sins. Now, we humans have to forgive and forget, ’cause if we don’t put those hurt feelings out of our minds, they’ll tempt us to get vindictive and seek retribution of old wrongs. We won’t really forgive. Whereas God doesn’t act that way. God retains his memories perfectly—but he doesn’t do grudges. When he forgives, he doesn’t have to forget. We’re good. ’Cause God’s good.

Okay, so other than strange teachings about the nature of forgiveness—and the odd heretic—who claims they have no sin? ’Cause whenever someone foolishly tries it, the rest of us automatically cry foul. “Who d’you think you’re fooling? You ain’t perfect.” Some of us, especially spouses and parents and kids and close friends, can list a bunch of sins. None of us are that stupid to claim perfection. Cult leaders might, but only when they’ve frightened everyone who really knows them, into silence.

But actually lots of us Christians claim to be perfect. We do it by omission.

See, we don’t admit our sins. We don’t confess to one another. We figure that’s none of their business anyway; our sins are between us and God. 1 John never overtly tells us to admit our sins to one another, so Christians read verse 9 and figure, “That means I confess ’em to God. And God alone.” Doesn’t matter what James taught:

James 5.14-16 KWL
14 When anyone’s weak among you, summon the church’s elders.
Pray for them, anointing them with olive oil in the Master’s name.
15 The request of faith will save the weary. The Master will raise them.
If they’d committed sins, he’ll forgive them.
16 So confess these sins to one another:
Make requests for one another, so you can be cured.
A moral, energetic petition is very mighty.

Full-on confession is one thing, but we don’t even admit we sin at all to one another. I mean, it’s no big deal to admit to people, “Okay, sometimes I lie. I try not to, but every so often the wife’ll ask me if her butt looks big in some outfit, and come on—am I supposed to hurt her feelings?” We won’t even cop to little, mundane sins. We just pretend everything’s hunky-dory. When people ask us what’s new, we tell ’em nothing of consequence, nothing that’s wrong. Kids doing great in school? We’ll tell them that. Kids suspended for stashing guns in their lockers? Skip that story. Boss gave you something fun to do? Share. Boss chewed you out for using the company credit card to buy weed? Don’t share.

As a result, all our fellow Christians really know about us is, frankly, nothing. All people ever hear from us are positive, upbeat, funny, victorious stories. Nothing about our real problems and struggles. Nothing about how God helps us through the rough times—’cause what rough times? Our lives are perfect. We’re perfect. Yeah, everybody sins, but as far as we’ve clued everybody else in on our lives, they’re relatively perfect.

Justify it all you want. “I don’t wanna be a downer,” or “I don’t want their pity,” or “Every time I tell on myself, all I get from them is judgment, or platitudes and bad advice, and I have had it up to here with that crap.” I don’t blame you for tiring of the crap. Even so: If you’re not admitting your sins, you’re basically projecting an artificial, hypocritical image of yourself. You’re making your life look perfect and uncomplicated. And you know it’s not.

If this is the façade you’ve erected, you have so made out God to be a liar. We’re pretending we have lives of victory and success, and that God’ll grant the very same lives to anyone who follows him as devoutly as we do. But the following three things are really true:

  1. I don’t have a lifestyle of sinlessness and perfection. Just hypocrisy.
  2. I don’t have a life of victory and success. It might be good and happy, but it’s hardly perfect.
  3. God hasn’t granted me such a lifestyle as a reward for my good deeds. Yeah, he rewards obedience, but rewards us with his kingdom—not the stuff of this world; not material prosperity and success and power and comfort. Since this world is passing away, it’d actually be sucky of God to reward us with it.

The god we’ve invented.

In verse 10 John wrote psévstin poiúmen aftón/“false we do him.” Most of us interpret it like the KJV’s “We make him a liar.” We could also interpret it, “We misrepresent him,” or “We cheat him.” Regardless of how we sort out the verse, it means we’ve done wrong by God—because we’ve portrayed him wrong. We created, and are presenting to the world, a fake god.

How do you create a god? It’s ridiculously simple: Picture the sort of god you’d want to worship. Do you covet power?—make him really, really powerful. Don’t you wish you could control everything in the universe?—okay, now your god does that. Want your god to forgive you of absolutely everything?—your god will. Largely he’d resemble the actual God. He’d love you unconditionally, forgive you all, and be almighty. ’Cause you based him on the reality. You might even have bible verses to back you up.

But now we’d bend things just a bit—just in order to meet our desires.

Calvinists want a god who created the whole world, and sovereignly directs it, just to guarantee they personally are getting into heaven. Mormons want a god who’ll let them rule the world someday, beyond heaven. Those who covet riches have invented a name-it-claim-it god who pours out riches on them. Those who hate everyone have invented a wrathful god who’ll kill the bulk of humanity in the End Times.

My manufactured god will let me get away with all the sins I want him to excuse. He’ll let me hide ’em from everyone, and would never tell on me. It’s entirely okay with him when I’m obnoxious, unloving, rude, angry, or spiteful. It’s okay to hate my opponents, to mock ’em and be sarcastic towards them. (I can find examples of this behavior in the bible too, y’know. Justifies everything!) I’ve been granted heavenly indulgences because I work for my god, and his ends justify my means: He can make bad trees produce good fruit. (Contrary to Jesus. Mt 7.17, Lk 6.43)

He’s totally okay with me using politics to further his kingdom. Heck, they’re his politics too! How about that. Even if the scriptures say nothing about free markets, gun control, national sovereignty, gold standards… hey, isn’t fiscal conservatism naturally consistent with moral conservatism? Why not?

Or I could spin God in the progressive direction, but you see my point. The consequences of inventing and following a god, is the real God, the LORD Almighty, isn’t in us. Neither is his message. I’m preaching Christianism, not Christ. And I’m doing it with all the wrong fervor, producing works of the flesh which I’ve disguised as fruit of the Spirit, and convincing people to follow my fake god instead of the real thing.

Besides, the fake god is so much easier. It does as we want. It doesn’t interfere. It doesn’t judge. It has no power, either; any “spiritual growth” we experience will be in all sorts of materialistic and philosophical ways, but we won’t have greater faith, ’cause we’ll never be exposed to God’s real challenges, and we’ll never see miracles when we step up to those challenges. Our lives may change, but we won’t be any better prepared for God’s kingdom, and won’t recognize it when we see it. That’s a scary place to be.