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Holy Spirit disruptions: Sin as vandalism of shalom

Lynne Baab • Friday October 29 2021

Holy Spirit disruptions: Sin as vandalism of shalom

I was emailing back and forth with a friend about Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., one of my favorite seminary professors. My friend said that Dr. Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, was very helpful to him. I asked why, and he said the definition of sin, “not the way it’s supposed to be,” clarified his thoughts. It helped him see that sin is anything that vandalizes shalom.

I loved the power of those words. “Vandalism” implies willful destruction or damage, which raises a question: If our damage to shalom – for ourselves or someone else – is not intentional, then is it not sin? Dr. Plantinga’s definition, “not the way it’s supposed to be,” seems to include unintentional damage to shalom. Maybe it might be better to understand sin as anything that damages or robs shalom.

“Shalom” is one of the richest words in our Judeo-Christian heritage. We often translate it “peace,” but in English peace often means the absence of war. Shalom is so much more. Last week I read numerous online articles about shalom, and here are the synonyms used in the various articles: wholeness, soundness, completeness, safety, security, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, contentment, and well-being. Shalom includes well-being in all areas of life: physical, social, psychological and spiritual.

The idea of vandalizing or robbing shalom helps me understand two instances earlier in my life. When my sons were young, I used to spank them in anger. I truly believed, and still believe, that effective discipline of children helps them grow in wholeness, contentment, and well-being. I could also see that the anger in my spanking negated a lot of the shalom I was trying for.

A major Holy Spirit disruption came when our sons were three and five. My husband got a grant to do research in Sweden for a year, and at that time in Sweden, spanking was illegal. I had to think of other forms of discipline. The creative challenge of using time-outs and withholding of small privileges, as well as rewards for good behavior, was so much more shalom-inducing than my angry spanking had been. I now see that for me at least, spanking in anger was sin. I’m so sorry for the way it vandalized shalom for my kids. I thank God for God’s forgiveness because I still feel horrible about this.

A second area of personal sin is more complicated. When I was a teenager, I turned to cookies and brownies when I was sad, angry, or needed some comfort. The summer I turned 15 was particularly stressful, and I gained 15 pounds that summer. The spring right before I turned 17 was also quite hard, and again, I gained another 15 pounds in a few months. Obviously gaining weight in itself is not a measure of whether or not eating has become sinful, but weight gain indicates that the quantity of food was inappropriate for my body.

Weight gain and the shame associated with it – which continued into adult life for me – definitely vandalized my shalom. Those cookies and brownies that I ate in quantities too large for my body did reduce my wholeness, welfare, tranquility, contentment, and well-being in the long run. But in the moment of eating them, they increased my sense of tranquility and contentment. The difference between shalom in the short term and long term in many areas of life is confusing.

The concept of self-compassion or self-nurture is relevant here. When I wrote a post a month ago about Holy Spirit disruptions related to niceness, several people replied with stories about the priority of niceness in their childhood. I was taught that part of being nice was looking good, but no one ever talked to me about God’s desire for me to pay attention to the patterns of my life that did and did not nurture shalom in myself as well as in others. The ideas of self-compassion and self-nurture were never talked about.

For decades the Holy Spirit has been disrupting my shame about eating for the purpose of self-soothing. It is not sinful to need comfort, and it is not sinful to turn to food for comfort. However, other forms of comfort do not rob me of long-term shalom like large amounts of cookies and brownies do. Sin is mixed into my past history of turning to food for comfort, but the entire pattern was not sinful. Whatever part was sin is being revealed to me bit by bit by God, and all of it has been forgiven by God. Viewing sin as robbing or vandalizing shalom is one more step toward insight. This perspective also helps with self-acceptance, self-nurture, and my ability to receive God’s forgiveness.

Perhaps viewing sin that way will help you gain insight, as it did for me, and also help you grow in self-acceptance, self-nurture, and your ability to receive God’s forgiveness.

(Next week: the last post in this series on Holy Spirit disruptions, an overview of what the series taught me. Illustration by Dave Baab: me on a visit to Sweden 20 years after we lived there. I love getting new subscribers. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below.)

Some previous posts on sin and grace:

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