Our neighbor from across the landing in our first Berlin apartment 14 years ago told me about her mother one day. She refuses to go out into gardens for fear of encountering…a rake. You heard me right, not a snake, a rake! I had never heard of a rake phobia before. What could a rake possibly do to a person anyway? A phobia is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance (thanks, Mayo Clinic for that definition!). But, of course, like most phobias, the object at stake is just a trigger or a button that, when pushed, sets in motion a whole set of irrational fears linked with the object.
She avoided rakes not because she feared stepping on one accidentally and being whacked in the head by its handle as one sees in funny movies. Not because she had stepped on one barefoot one summer and feared a puncture wound on her foot again. The reason is a lot grizzlier than you can imagine. But now I’ve made you curious. So I’d better explain. When she was a youngster, this woman’s assigned job, as we have since learned was typical for the Hitler youth, was to clean up after the bombings of German cities during WWII. The boys were usually in charge of stacking the bodies. The girls had an easier task. Her specific assignment was to rake up the smaller body parts such has hands and feet that had been blown off of their owners during the bomb attacks. Now you’re starting to understand… She was scarred for life. She will never be able to look upon a rake innocently again. And, actually, her fear is not irrational because what she experienced was real, not a figment of her imagination. She lived through a living nightmare and those memories are stronger than anything else in her life.
I am often asked how I think it was possible for Germany to fall so low. There is only one quite simplistic explanation: the nature of sin. Nobody likes to talk about sin. But let's say that sin operates in similar ways to a phobia (of course the analogy is limited too!) and let’s take the example of Nazi Germany, though there are many others in history one could choose from.
Sin is not something we control, it takes control of us
Yes, sin is something we are born with and born into. The propensity towards sin of each individual creates systems and environments that are inevitably stained by sin. This is the case in general and in every culture but let’s take what happened in Nazi Germany because I think anyone would agree what happened there was really evil and examine what such a system does to people. It makes us both victims and victimizers, even if we feel, like my neighbor’s mother, that we are innocent and only doing our duty. German youth were lied to, deceived, controlled and brainwashed, a combination that made them into the most committed supporters of Hitler. Right before Berlin was liberated, the young “heroes” became suicide bombers in a last attempt to protect their Führer. Some of them were tried in Nuremberg but many of them were released because Hitler had taken advantage of their youth. Did it make them in any way less responsible? Being part of a sinful system doesn’t exonerate us from personal responsibility even if we were victimized by it.
Sin darkens the mind with lies
How does sin work? It deceives our minds. Like a phobia, sin is delusional, not based on reality, God's reality, namely that people are creatures of his who owe him allegiance because he made them. The phobia of sin causes us to fear God in all the wrong ways and run from him. The delusion continues in our minds as we make ourselves, our feelings, our personally held values into absolutes. We believe lies and build up alternative realities that then justify all kinds of evils. In Germany, it was the belief propagated by Adolf Hitler, that Jews were an inferior, impure race and the cause of all Germany’s troubles. This lie became bona fide truth to most Germans and guided their actions. A “good” German was one who denounced his Jewish neighbors, was willing to pull the trigger and do all of Hitler’s dirty work.
Sin enslaves with fear and weakens the will to do good
Like with a phobia, sin enslaves us with fear. Stepping outside of the delusional alternative reality was a scary thing for most Germans. They preferred to stay deluded rather than suffer the consequences of the truth. Some saw it for what it was but paid dearly for speaking truth. One 16 year old young man named Karl Huebener, listened to truth from outside of the delusional system on the BBC radio. The truth captured his mind so that he decided he needed to make it known. He printed thousands of leaflets and distributed them in his neighborhood. The Gestapo tortured him for 6 months trying to find the adult behind the crime. There was none. He was beheaded at age 17. This courageous boy lived in the truth. But for most, sin weakened the will to do good and gave a twisted sense of empowerment to do evil.
Sin muddies our hearts
Like a phobia, sin messes with our hearts too. We freeze up emotionally, or even feel wrongly. Emotions can be flat out wrong. For many Germans, the result of being involved in such a fallen system was not only the searing pain of losing loved ones, there was also the indelible stain on their hearts: the realization that they had been very wrong and not seen int, not just been innocent bystanders as they thought. The wounds to the German conscience and psyche run deep. The collective soul of the entire nation had thrashed around in the their communal excrement of mass murder. And now they limp around with hearts both wounded and soiled. Sin hurts us and stains us.
Sin scars us forever until someone else’s scars cover ours
Like my friend’s mother, involvement in the Nazi system left people scarred forever, whether they were actively a part of it or just cogs in the machine, too afraid to budge and jam the system. But the good news of the gospel is that there is forgiveness and freedom from the guilt and the power of sin found in the death of Jesus Christ. His scars, still visible on his resurrection body, have the power to cover up the most horrendous scars inflicted on us by our own sin or the sin of others towards us. Jesus took our punishment, as if he were responsible for the world’s most horrendous crimes. Jesus enlightens our minds with truth so we can see sin for what it truly is. Jesus frees us from the bondage of fear and enables us to step out in faith and do good. Jesus cleanses our hearts form the guilt and the stain of sin, as if we had never sinned at all and gives us his good record of righteousness as if it were ours to boast about! There need not be a rake hanging over our heads. I don’t know what happened to my neighbor’s mother but I wish for the soul of this nation to experience the freeing, forgiving love of God that is able to deal with the most unfathomable sin and guilt.
And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments" (Zec 3:3-4).
Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1Ti 1:8-14).
So what about us today?
The question of sin cannot leave us unmoved because it affects each and every one of us. We are all personally responsible for our conduct and attitudes and also all part of systems in which our lives take their course. So here are some questions to ask ourselves:
- In what sense is sin controlling me, causing me to be enslaved to fear?
- What are the common lies believed by the fallen system in which I live that need to be uncovered and brought to light?
- How have I burdened myself with guilt by being a part of this sinful system?
- Do I know where to go with my sin and my guilt?
- Am I still living with my scars as my primary source of identity or have I let Jesus cover my scars with his and free me up to live as he wants me to, in truth and boldness and light?
When we do not ask these questions on a personal level and on a systemic level, we are all at risk of following in the footsteps of Nazi Germany. It may be other times, other places, other issues, other political systems, but sin still operates in the same way. But so does the gospel. It still applies and will until we stand before God in glory. But even there, I'd venture to say that Jesus will still have his scars to remind us all of what he did once and for all to rid the world of sin and death!