By Mr. D.J. Pendley
Oh, how I love a good mash-up—the form of parody that juxtaposes caricatures from various hitherto unrelated works! Reimagine Romeo and Juliet, this time as Romeo and Julie Andrews as Maria(Shakespeare meets Rodgers and Hammerstein)! Or The Fall of the House of Green Gables(Poe meets Montgomery)! Or Waiting for Captain Nemo (Beckett meets Verne)! I could do this all day, but I’ll move on.
Not long ago, as I was preparing a lesson for my adult Connection Group (or Sunday school), my fascination with Greek tragedy mashed with my fresh reading of the familiar I John (Aristotle meets John the Beloved). These two perspectives having collided, the ensuing sparks stimulated in me a reinvigorated meditation on I John 2:1: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not” (King James Version).
No way! Is John the Beloved, now aged and nostalgic, losing touch with reality? His mind does tend to wander in circles of rhetorical amplification throughout his eponymous trilogy. And you’ll have to admit that some of those images in his apocalyptic vision are fantastical and incredible, yet I give them my full credence. I also trust the Holy Spirit, breathing through John’s words here, when He suggests the very real possibility of living without sin.
John has just announced his thematic thesis for the epistle, a notion that he first heard from his best friend Christ, namely that “God is light” (I Jn. 1:5). Not surprisingly, the only way for us to “have fellowship with him” and with other believers is to “walk in the light” (I Jn. 1:6-7). I’m intrigued by the suggestion that we can sustain a lifetime “walk in the light”; but I’m surprised by the manner in which we can do so ourselves—“as he [God]” does in whom “is no darkness at all” (I Jn. 1:7, 5). As God does, we can tread the lightened pathway that has “no darkness”? None “at all”?
As if anticipating objections from Romans 3:23 (“All have sinned”), John employs a typically Aristotelian tactic: concession, refutation, and reaffirmation. Though our very fellowship with God and His family depends upon the unifying DNA of pure light, we must concede that we have walked in darkness. What’s more, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we not only “have . . . sinned,” but we also “have” (i.e. possess) sin (I Jn. 1:10, 8). It’s in our spiritual genetic code. We can no more choose between darkness and light than can the color-blind unaided choose what clothes match. In our helpless condition, praise God, John offers aid through a process of forgiveness and cleansing, predicated upon confession: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:9). Thus, we can “walk in the light, as he is in the light” because “the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sin” (I Jn. 1:7). With the Clorox power of Christ’s blood, John refutes the apathetic hedonist who lives as though we cannot hope to enjoy victorious Christian living.
Then John reaffirms his position in no uncertain terms: “These things write I unto you, that ye sin not” (I Jn. 2:1). “These things” consist of God’s holiness, our helplessness, and Christ’s help—the principles which not only enlighten our understanding but also light our walkway. So, it is possible and necessary that we sin not if we are to have fellowship with a sinless God and other sin-cleansed believers. This verse I judge the most shocking truth in all of Scripture because I find myself—just like Paul (Rom. 7:19)—too often wallowing in the shadowlands, rather than walking in the light.
During my preparation for teaching the passage, I clicked on the Strong’s hyperlink to the Greek word for sin, and I encountered a most wonderful mash-up! The Greek word for sinis hamartia, or “missing the mark.”
Eureka! In his Poetics, Aristotle infers several rules about tragedy from what he considers the greatest of all tragedies: Oedipus the King by Sophocles. It’s a story about a man who cannot avoid his fate, even though it has been revealed to him—a destiny that involves marrying his own mother and killing his own father. (Corinth being one of the key settings for Oedipus, doesn’t this plot put into perspective the enormity of the egregious sin Paul deals with in I Corinthians 5:1?) The fate of Oedipus is the worst that Sophocles and his audience could imagine. One of Aristotle’s many observations concerning the tragic hero has to do with hamartia; moreover, what Aristotle has to say about hamartiaoffers an interesting perspective on I John 2:1.
According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must have a certain sort of hamartia (a shortcoming, i.e. “missing the mark”). For the audience to vicariously share cathartic pity or fear (the way that many of us enjoy a good thriller), the hero’s hamartiahas to be such that the audience buys into the experience. In other words, if we had the same misinformation, given the same plot points as the hero, we would make the same mistake; therefore, we pity Oedipus (sympathy) and experience his fear (empathy) when his hamartialeads to doom. In this sense, hamartiais not merely a sinful character flaw—it’s an unavoidable issue of plot and personality. The hamartiaof Oedipus is symbolized by his injured feet: Oedipus literally cannot help stumbling into tragedy because he is a Type A personality who must act, and he acts on incomplete intel.
Now, with some textual liberty, let’s take another look at I John 2:1—“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye” have no hamartia! In other words, unlike Oedipus, we do have all of the information that we need (“these things”) to avoid “missing the mark”! Oedipus does eventually learn the full disclosure of his situation—his running away from adoptive parents only to kill his real father and marry his real mother—but too late to avoid tragedy. His wife-mother kills herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes. If only some Paul Harvey had told Oedipus The Rest of the Story earlier in the play; then he could have—he would have—nullified the oracle’s prophecy!
In a very real sense, John’s message, fully disclosing “these things,” allows a script rewrite! The “old things [the tragic scripts we are born with] are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). More so, John’s message offers a whole spiritual DNA rewiring: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will [to desire] and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
When we believers choose not to desire or to do God’s will, it’s not because we lack the proper motivation or information; for “His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Pet. 1:3). On the one hand, do not suppose that I’m suggesting the ridiculous notion of a believer’s never sinning while robed in flesh! On the other hand, I John 2:1 does affirm that Christ’s blood not only saves us from eternal hamartia, but also sanctifies us from having to endure tragic lives encumbered by hamartia.
So, when I read John’s notion of a Christian hero who has no hamartia, I envision Oedipus without his swollen feet, sprinting with full knowledge back to embrace his real parents—and not with a fatal blow or a wedding ring! I envision Superman without his weakness for kryptonite, Dr. Banner without his inner beast, Dr. Jekyll without his Mr. Hyde, Hamlet Jr. without his indecision, Juliet without her haste, Achilles without his heel. (Now then, you may object that these stories do not all fall under the category of tragedy. Indeed! Keep reading!)
No doubt, you’ll agree with Aristotle that we don’t have much of a tragedy when the hero lacks hamartia. But this observation is my point. The victorious Christian life is not a tragedy (and it seems redundant to say so). Where then are these Christian heroes without fear of kryptonite, fully protected from head to heel? Unfortunately, some Christians have been duped into thinking that this life is tragic. They are hunchbacked, bent under baggage that God never intended, for His“yoke is easy, and [His] burden is light” (Mt. 11:30). Some Christians do not rise to the status of hero because they are entangled with materialism or other lusts.
Even the real Christian heroes are hard to spot because we often look for them in the wrong places. We tend to look for towering giants, when we should remember the prayer warriors waging closet battles on their knees. There are also the unsung heroes who would never dream of flashing their logos across the horizon, heroes rectifying wrongs in quiet meekness. It’s equally easy to overlook the heroes who humbly stoop, putting their backs into the work of ministry and taking up their crosses daily. If these heroes would stand in their full spiritual stature, we would behold giants indeed, but Christian heroes don’t flaunt their own brawn. Perhaps, you see hypocrisy at nearly every turn, as do I; however, as I look all about me, I also see role models who daily defeat self and sin. Heroes without hamartiaabound! We just need to use our spiritual eyesight to spot them in the right places.