Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be*, might be one of the most important books on the topic of hamartiology (the study of sin) that I have ever read and at the same time one of the most accessible and engaging as well. Sin, is a topic that has fallen out of fashion in many Christian circles. It’s accusatory, unfriendly, uncomfortable, and unwelcoming. We don’t like labelling people as bad, and we long to be re-assured that we are all simply imperfect people who are lovingly being guided towards perfection without much consequence for the ways we (temporarily) fall short. Plantinga’s declared intention in writing this work is to shake the cobwebs off our consciences and “retrieve an old awareness that has slipped and changed in recent decades.”
The book is a short and punchy, ten-chapter journey from God’s original intention for humanity through the corruption, perversion, and pollution that sin has unleashed upon our world and then ultimately settling in the second half of the book on the ways that sin takes hold in our lives and robs us of our true humanity.
For Plantinga God’s original plan is Shalom. Not just “peace” as it is often translated, but a sense of everything being as it ought to be. The right ordering of creation, society, and our experience of it. "God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be." (pg. 14) And sin is the great disturber of Shalom, it undermines the very fabric of what God set out to do in this world and what he lovingly offered us in his ordered creation. For Plantinga, humanity’s fall into sin is an act of “anti-creation” severing bonds and disordering the good order of the world.
As regents in God’s creation we are called to participate in this goal of shalom by actively seeking to "discover God’s purposes for us and to make them our own. The point is to learn ways of loving God above all and our neighbour as ourselves and then to use these loves the way a golfer uses certain checkpoints to set up for a drive. The point is to be lined up right, to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), to try above all to increase the net amount of shalom in the world." (Pg. 37)
But we don’t. Not by a long shot. In fact we embrace neither the right and healthy limitations of God placed upon us, nor the unwavering commands of God to extend his rule and reign throughout the world through the love of neighbour and the extension of compassion. And so the latter three quarters of this book focuses on the ways in which we diminish, and are diminished by, the net amount of shalom in the world.
Plantinga spends time looking at the culpability of people in regards to their short falling with interesting explorations of the parasitic qualities of sin; the way we try to hide our sin — not only from God and neighbour, but from ourselves; the ultimate folly of sin (with some interesting thoughts about wisdom as well); ending the book with a two-chapter investigation into our dual responses of fight or flight as it pertains to our sins of both commission and omission.
Probably the most interesting and challenging chapter was chapter eight where Plantinga expounds on the intersection between addiction and sin, or sickness and culpability. This chapter was fascinating because it delved into the common post-modern excuses about whether the addict os truly the master of their own behaviour, and whether they can truly be held accountable for their actions. Plantinga proposes a continuum between physical evil and moral evil with very little space on the extremes for behaviour that is exclusively one or the other. The net effect is that virtually all shalom-breaking addictive behaviour is indeed sinful — but perhaps not in the same way that wilful, non-addicted behaviour is. In addiction the sinful behaviour can be both the source and symptom of addiction and should be recognized as such.
Overall this was an enlightening and challenging read. Deeply sobering without being depressing. Plantinga has a way of keeping a heavy subject light without in any way making light of it. Some of this is done through his liberal use of biographical anecdotes and illustrations that really make the issues seem real and accessible to even a lay person who has never studied theology.
*A copy of this book will be available to borrow from The Bridge Church library beginning in the fall