Wesley Hill: Sin as longing for God

“The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari, think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love’.”

For two years I worked at a food shelf in south Minneapolis. Many of our visitors came from the Native American population in Phillips, the neighborhood where we housed our stock of canned goods in an aging Methodist church. This was my first time to get to know Native people. I took a childish delight in their surnames -- Afraid of Hawk and Tall White Man were two of my favorites. But it wasn’t long before I encountered some of the darker experiences of their community, particularly those involving drugs and alcohol.

One of the visitors -- Richard (not his real name) -- became a friend of sorts. I always looked forward to the times he’d turn up, mostly for his mischievous grin and warm demeanor. The first time I met him he told me he had a drug problem. He’d been to rehab, but hadn’t been able to avoid a relapse. Laughing, he’d pulled his shirt up to his neck to show me the dozen or so knife-wound scars that dotted his chest and abdomen -- evidence of a drug deal gone sour. ER doctors had managed to save his life.

Richard was in his early twenties when I met him. I tried to encourage him in his (never successful) efforts to stay clean. He showed up randomly, so our conversations weren’t frequent. But I always liked him, prayed for him, wished the best for him. Somehow his struggles never seemed to dampen his spirits.

Coming back to visit Minneapolis a year or two after quitting my job at the food shelf, I learned that Richard had died from a drug overdose. He’d been doing better, but then he’d disappeared again. No one heard from him for a while, and then the news came.

I thought of Richard again recently while listening to Alain de Botton’s TED talk on “success.” There’s a great line where Botton says, “The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari don’t think, ‘This is somebody who is greedy.’ Think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.’ In other words, feel sympathy, rather than contempt.” Our choices -- like buying a Ferrari -- always well up from murky inner pools of desire. In Christian terms, we could put Botton’s point this way: beneath actions lies brokenness, under brokenness we find what Paul calls enslavement to sin (Romans 6:20), and buried beyond enslavement lies the undiminished beauty of the divine artist’s stamp, the imago Dei.

Francis Schaeffer, the evangelical apologist, has been described as someone who “focused and dwelt on the dignity and tragedy of sinful human beings rather than their grossness and nastiness.” Similarly, after visiting an AIDS ward in San Francisco, Henri Nouwen reportedly said of the patients, “They want love so bad, it’s literally killing them.” The deepest truth about people is not their actions, but the aching hunger that set them on their current path -- a hunger, whether they know it or not, for God.

Jesus is the ultimate model here. He always saw through the evil actions of “sinners” (including gluttons and “winebibbers,” like my friend Richard). He saw the heart of addiction -- that beneath its foolishness and recklessness there is enslavement; under its wrong and hurt there is bondage and a cry for help. So rather than simply condemning behavior, Jesus preached liberation. He looked past actions to the underlying condition of brokenness and entrapment: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And then he died to make that liberation a reality.

Learning to see people in this light -- to see past their self-destructive choices to the person God wants to love them into being -- is what meeting Richard helped me to do. I wish I had another opportunity to tell Richard that, and to talk with him about Jesus’ love. I think of how I’d like to see Richard alive again, to thank him for his smile, his friendliness, apologize to him for not offering to drive him to another round of rehab myself, and to promise to visit him every day if that’s what it took to help him stay clean. I miss him, even though I hardly knew him.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University, UK.