Crime and Punishment…

...thoughts on sin, forgiveness and accountability.

I remember a time, when I was growing up, when the biggest question in the world seemed to be whether OJ Simpson was guilty and what the punishment should be. Twenty years later and the world found itself similarly preoccupied by the Pistorious trial in South Africa. Suddenly everyone becomes a forensics expert, a lawyer, a judge and a jury; we become fascinated with punishment as though it somehow sets things right.

There can be something oddly reassuring about the concept of punishment – perhaps it’s a hangover from childhood. You never want discipline but after it’s done there is the feeling that you broke a rule and bore the punishment and therefore everything is right with the world again; as though some cosmic sense of balance has been restored by you missing pudding because you argued with your sister.

We become fascinated with punishment as though it somehow sets things right.

As we grow older the threat of punishment disappears to a degree; assuming we don’t break the law there is no punishment awaiting if we behave unethically or immorally, if we mess up. We are responsible for our own actions and, in an unusual way, this can be unbalancing. The prospect of discipline or punishment, while never appealing, can remain reassuring.

If I screw up I sometimes find myself tentatively looking around for someone to tell me I’ve done wrong and to come up with a solution for my misdeed; as though I could bear their indignation, receive punishment, and feel suitably chastised. Surely that would be enough to rebalance the cosmos, remove my guilt, and everything would continue as fine?

The problem with this is that it underestimates our ability to make mistakes and the effects they can have, while overestimating our ability to fix things by skipping pudding, grounding ourselves for a week, or putting a few pennies in the swear jar. We may get a sense of control from the idea of crime and punishment, of justice being fulfilled, but the truth is that we’re neither in control nor really seeing justice.

We may get a sense of control from the idea of crime and punishment, of justice being fulfilled, but the truth is that we’re neither in control nor really seeing justice.

If I skip pudding, or fast a whole day’s food, have I really absolved myself of guilt for screaming out my fellow man when he cuts me up in traffic? If I carry hate in my heart but give more money to the church, do I in some way negate the existence of the hate? Of course not. This is why the ancient system of fasting and sacrifice could never really set the balance right – it might have worked to assuage the guilt of the masses but it did nothing about the problem of sin.

Only Jesus can fix the problem of sin. An innocent man bearing the full punishment, the most torturous and evil death that humanity had devised. Does His death remove sin from the world entirely? No, not in the present, but it does remove the result of sin for those who trust in Him. Free from the fact that sin kills, we’re able to face up to an enemy that has had it’s sting removed.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
– 1 Peter 2:24

So what is the correct reaction to sin in our own lives? If condemnation is taken away by Christ, what then? If He has already taken my punishment, what next? Do we do whatever we please and sleep content in the knowledge that we’ve gotten away scotfree? Not at all. Sin, defined as falling short of God’s best, remains our adversity.

One of the key weapons in dealing with sin is accountability; James talks about confessing our sins one to another that we may pray with each other and be healed. When we pick up the phone to a trusted believing friend who is doing the journey with us, we take the problem of sin out of the darkness and expose it to the light.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
– James 5:16

Grace and mercy give us forgiveness, but confessing our sin shows that we are committed to change. We may make mistakes but we’re saints now, not sinners.

An accountability partner may pray with us but can also be a source of support and of Godly wisdom. If we continually fall short in similar areas then giving a trusted friend or leader a doorway into our life allows them to help us. It also opens up an opportunity for God to be glorified when He deals with the problem.

If we choose to live unaccountable lives we’re reaching for the freedom Christ gives but failing to fully submit to the call to a radical life change that He presents us with. The shame that once kept our shortcomings in the dark has been removed, so we need to be people who bring them into the light – not to a public audience but to a trusted, Christ following, friend or leader – and see what a difference it makes.

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Photo from James Farmer, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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