I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.
While I was in seminary I became fascinated with the way particular theologians lived their lives. I would read the great treatises and reflections from the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Barth and have my mind opened to the great wonders of God’s interaction with creation. Their words became life-giving for me as I found myself persuaded by how they understood the world and their critiques of human behavior. However, for as much as I loved their writing I became frustrated with the ways they lived out their faith. With every wonderful theologian I discovered a dark and dangerous life of sin that appeared incompatible with what they were writing about.
For example: Karl Barth, my theological mentor, wrote the massive collection of Church Dogmatics which have slowly become earmarked and absorbed throughout my brief career in ministry. Barth engaged a new theological perspective focused on the paradoxical nature of divinity while at the same time opposing the rise of the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Barth’s thoughts have greatly shaped my understanding of God and church and I am thankful for his witness to the divine in the realm of theology. But like all Christians, Barth was both a saint and a sinner.
In 1924 Karl Barth met the young and gifted Charlotte von Kirschbaum after he had been married for 12 years. They quickly hit it off and became enamored with one another to the degree that she was invited to live with the Barths beginning in 1929; a relationship that would last for 35 years. They worked together on Barth’s work and were indispensable to one another while creating the Church Dogmatics. While Barth’s wife, Nelly, took care of the children, he and Charlotte would take semester break vacations together. The relationship caused incredible offense among many of Barth’s friends and colleagues and Barth’s children suffered from the stress of the relationship.
After I learned about Barth’s academic and perhaps physical affair, it was hard for me to respect his writings. The dialectic theology that had been so compelling quickly collected dust on my shelf. It took a long time for me to return to Barth’s work, only after I reflected about the sins in my own life.
Sin is unavoidable. Paul reflected on his journey of faith and the temptation of sin in his letter to the church in Rome: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” What an incredible reflection on sin. We know, those of us who have been raised in the faith, what not to do. We have been taught how to recognize the sinful temptations in our lives. We want to be good and make the right choices. But sin is unavoidable. We choose they very thing we hate and sin continues to creep into our lives with disastrous consequences.
I wonder how often we reflect on our sinfulness. We might hear about what to avoid from the pulpit or from scripture but do we admit our sins to ourselves? I will freely admit that for me it is far easier to reflect on the good things of my life than to admit my short-comings. Perhaps today is the day that we should join Paul and begin to wrestle with our sins. We can begin by admitting the inner conflict within us and then recognize that, like with Barth, God has come in the form of Christ to redeem even our greatest sins so that we can live into a new life of faith and forgiveness.