There are an endless variety of “vices” that prevent us from reaching our full potential. Some are externally destructive to us, like: drugs, alcohol, gambling, sexual immorality, smoking, lying, stealing, accumulating debt and gluttony. Others are more subtle, and destroy us from the inside, like: pride, greed, anger, holding grudges, avarice, worrying, selfishness, jealousy, envy, fear, apathy, or being overly critical of oneself or others.
A “vice” is behavior that is a bad habit, illegal, unhealthy, or immoral. While it can be something for which we have no self-awareness, a vice is usually something in our life that we know we need to change, but are usually unsuccessful and return to it over and over. Thus it’s a vice from which we are not able to free ourselves. Nonetheless, our vice can teach us a few things.
Our vice teaches us something about our understanding of freedom. A vice by definition is a loss of freedom. This proves out when we seek freedom from our vice. The most imprisoned we can be is to think freedom is the ability to give full vent to our vices. Freedom is not the endless buffet on the cruise ship, freedom is being able to find joy in eating only what is needed and most beneficial. Freedom is not doing whatever we want in Las Vegas (as if it really stayed there). Freedom is the ability to enjoy Vegas and not be “hoovered” by any of its entanglements.
Our vice points us to an authority beyond ourselves. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “That part of us that tells us to temper our instinct, cannot itself be instinct.” Our vice reveals that there is a moral law which is integral to all humanity. The Apostle Paul says: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” (Romans 2:15) God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31)
Because this moral law is tattooed on our heart, we all begin with a sense about things and whether they are right or wrong. If this did not exist, if right and wrong were merely social conventions, we would have no sense of injustice until this were taught to us, yet even toddlers know when a toy is taken from them unfairly. It’s this tattoo that gives us road rage-think about it. We know when this law presses against us on the inside, we call it our conscience. It tells us when we overspend, over do it, when we should avoid indulging in our appetites, or when we are mistreating ourselves or others. If we ignore it, there is always a commensurate amount of suffering that follows. If we heed the voice of the moral law within, we may suffer the loss of temporary satisfaction, but a commensurate amount of healing and well being always follows.
Along with our vices, we also possess a dream. Our dream is what we think we want for our lives if everything were to work out. Our dream is an ontological (being) extension of who we think we really are or who we really hope to be. In our Western culture, we mistakenly weld together who we are with what we do. Therefore, many people feel as though they don’t get to be who they want to be until they accomplish what they want to accomplish. “I want to be famous, so until then, I’m a nobody.” The truth is that our doing does not create our being, but vice-versa.
Our dream is actually much deeper than what we want to do with our lives, but it’s linked. Our dream reflects our divine impulse to create which stems from the truest part of our self or soul found in God. Our dream is not so much what we hope to accomplish as much as it is that work or gift to the world for which we have been purposed. Our dream is the outflow of our discovery of why we are here. This is much harder to access and if those who try and help us find it are working from the ethos of the world (doing creates being) then it is impossible. Our dream flows first from our being, not toward it. This is why I call myself the un-coach. Deconstruction is almost always required first. We can’t just add effort and output on top of not knowing ourself.
In our dis-integrated world, many people conclude that our vices and our dream are separate realities when in fact they are directly related causalities. Like grabbing both ends of a rope that is suspended in a pulley, the action on one side directly and proportionately affects the action on the other. Talking about our vice is like talking about sin and our modern world tries to avoid this. As a result people think they are accomplishing their dreams despite ignoring their vice. What is actually happening is they are not actually finding their dream and have adopted a surrogate. The true dream can only be held by the true self, and only the false self can be satisfied with a replica dream.
Religion loves to come in and teach us that we will accomplish our dream if we free ourselves from our vice or sin-which is only partially true. Then it sells us its version of stain removal and convinces us to let go of one side of the rope. Next religion convinces us that our vice or sin is in the rear-view mirror once we’ve bought their naughtiness shampoo. Yet any truly honest person will tell you that despite the rituals, our sin stains remain. This begs the question: Did God actually remove our sin or not? Are those steeped in religion somehow better off than the rest of us? Of the most devout among us, who is without sin? Seems the pious are no more rid of sin than the skeptic.
A deeper look reveals something bigger. God is more optimally glorified by our struggle with sin than he is by the removal of it. If the Christ story is true, then Jesus is the end of appeasement and religion’s naughtiness cleansers. Sin was not removed from us, because it is a necessary precondition to help us navigate. The punishment for sin (not the sin itself) is what is removed “once for all” (Hebrews 9:26). Thus God has altered forever the ethos of justice and as a result he has altered forever the relationship between our vice and our dream. We’ve been approaching our dream on a misunderstood ethos of justice.
Rather than retribution as a basis for justice, the Christ story reclaims justice through restoration. Things are not obtained or made just by evening the score any longer, things are made just by making all things whole. The message if we are able to see through the obscurity of our religion is that freedom from sin does not mean we’ve become sinless, it means we are free to move into our dream despite it. Our vice is a prison with only three walls. When we venture out from our cell we quickly realize that freedom scares us and we prefer the small, stuck, false self to the free, vulnerable, empowered dream.
Overcoming our vice and realizing our dream is not a matter of focusing on what is wrong with us, which is like decorating the three walls of our prison. The dream requires the faith to venture into the unknown. The sin that besets our efforts provides the gravitational friction that when resisted allows our strength to grow. This strength which is required for our dream emerges because of our vice, not in its absence. The weight of our vice is a daily reminder to bring compassion to others who labor under its gravity as well.
Like a headwind, the faster you strive the greater the resistance. Thus freedom to possess our dream is not the experience of having no resistance from our vice, it is the lift generated by our vice in combination with a new found strength. Freedom from sin is the gift of grace given to all to rise not once, not twice, but continually in the face of that which would keep us stuck within our cells.
Sin then is not the bad thing we do, it is as Kierkegaard so brilliantly put it: “Sin is, in despair, not willing to be oneself before God.” The greatest sin is not the worst of our vices, but the throwing down of our hands to our sides and resigning ourselves to a false and un-lived life. Sin is settling by believing that we are what is wrong with us rather than seeing our last name as “Beloved.”
We can test this at our next temptation. Is it another chance to fail and remain in the despair of a false self, or is it a gift of grace inviting us into our dream flowing from our true self found in God? Who will we be on the other side of our vice? We can’t get to either place without the causality of our sin. What the weak call a temptation, the strong call a trial. By such, the love of God is proved moment to moment by inviting us, regardless of our numerous failures, yet again into a new life.
This causality of our vice and our dream is no doubt the scourge of love. It points us to a new world, not a ruined one.