Sin Boldly! – Part One: The Paradoxical Garden

This blog has experienced a long absence of anything new posted because I lost internet for three weeks. This did not mean, however, that I had stopped writing. I began working on an extensive project to lay down what I felt was the groundwork of my current theological mindset – half an attempt at therapy because of my recent rapid loss of enthusiasm for a religion I felt marginalized and disappointed me, and half an attempt to put into words what I believe.

Lately I’ve been introduced to a quote by Martin Luther which has reinvigorated my theological outlook on life. Luther infamously declared, “Sin boldly!*” While Luther and I have come to theological disagreements, two things we believe in common – the mercy of God is paramount to any Christian faith, and it is impossible to get through life without sin. Reliance on Christ is the key. When Luther made his famous declaration, he meant not to go out and sin but that it is impossible to not sin. Therefore, we cannot sit idly by, petrified that we may make mistakes. Of course we’re going to make mistakes; this is inevitable. Thus, we go out and sin boldly, doing all that we can that we believe to be right, and rely on God’s ability to read our hearts and find our good intentions, despite our imperfect actions.

This idea comes into play when my wife and I recently discussed a most distressing and perplexing situation in the Garden of Eden narrative. My wife is of the opinion that the entire story is allegorical rather than factual. I’m more reluctant to abandon the Garden of Eden as a factual narrative. However, we both agree that the Garden of Eden is useful only if we apply it to our lives as a metaphor – we’re taught as much in the temple. This brought us to a very morbid conclusion. God gives Adam and Eve contradictory commandments – multiply and replenish the Earth, and don’t eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. You can’t complete one without breaking the other. What kind of a cruel, arbitrary God would do that? He counsels harshly against the prospect of sin and yet purposely sets up a situation where sin is impossible to escape.

This troubled my wife and I greatly. If the Adam and Eve narrative is a metaphor for our lives, it would then lead that perhaps our lives are also made up of contradictory commandments. In fact, we see this all the time. We are to honor our father and mother, yet cleave unto our spouse and leave our parents. God tells us to keep the Sabbath holy, but His Son tells us that sometimes, the proverbial ox falls into the proverbial mire, and you need to do everything you can to save the ox. Sometimes, it feels like God sets up the impossible situation for us as well; in fact, we may very well suspect this to be the case. He commands us one thing and yet commands another that seemingly contradict each other. Hence, we have a multitude of varying religious beliefs and ideologies that clash and sometimes war against each other.

Needless to say, the idea of such a God disturbed us. What would be the purpose, the intention behind such a scenario? My wife and I have struggled with this concept for years; I remember wrestling with this subject during the early years of my mission while she never found any comfort in the Garden of Eden narrative – only fear.

This whole adventure starts with the question of God’s somehow bizarre behavior – why does He propose contradictory commandments? What is He trying to say about sin? My gospel scholarship began to flower many years ago when a dear mentor of mine opened up my eyes while speaking about the Garden of Eden and connecting it to the Atonement; the experience instilled within me a love of the scriptures and theology in general. Thus, it seemed appropriate (even poetic) that as I investigated the Garden once more to answer some persistent questions, it led me on an intellectual and spiritual wild goose chase that ended in an eye-opening realization of God’s true mercy for us.

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* The full context of the quote is thusly: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from:Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche SchriftenDr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sin Boldly! – Part One: The Paradoxical Garden

  1. Jamie

    I see contradictions in more than just commandments, and that idea has always fascinated me. The meek will inherit the earth. The “least of these” is the “King.” The shepherd caring so much for the one that he’ll leave the 99. We’re supposed to provide for our families, yet “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” “When I am weak, then I am strong.” In feminist literary theory we learn to look beyond opposing binaries, and I wonder if these contradictions are the Lord’s way of helping us do that.

    It’s strange, but I find the greatest intellectual joy in the gospel when I attempt to straddle two feuding ideals: feminism and the priesthood. Faith and doubt. Free agency versus obedience. I sometimes wonder if it’s simply a limitation of our moral minds that prevents us from fully embracing things that seem to contradict.I know that’s basically the cop-out “we’ll understand it all in the after-life” answer, but I strongly believe that this angst over contradictions addresses one of the most important parts of the Gospel. As you point out, it’s humankind’s first story – The Garden of Eden. And key to the Atonement: mercy versus justice. Two more opposing ideals that could only both be satisfied by the Savior.

    Great post. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    • Ted

      i would definitely agree that religion in general adopts a very Zen-like approach at one point or another. Eventually, intellect doesn’t really explain some of the crazy stuff that happens in this world. We need to either struggle with these concepts in an attempt to reconcile them with each other (probably for the rest of our lives) or, in a Zen-like way, jettison logic and try to embrace them in a holistic, spiritual sense.

      I’m definitely more struggle-y than Zen a lot of the time, so I figure before I adopt the Zen approach, I’d exhaust all of my options first. I might be making a mistake. Not really sure. Maybe a type of actively passive acceptance would be better or healthier for me?

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