“Sin makes you stupid.”
The last time I said that out loud, a five-year-old quickly informed me that we don’t say that word. Honoring the diligent parents laboring to form his early vocabulary, I immediately apologized. Nonetheless, I would like to double down on the observation for my more mature audience.
Theologians have long reflected on the “noetic effects of sin,” or the way that sin negatively impacts the mind and understanding. The problem with humanity, the apostle Paul tells us, is that our refusal to honor and give thanks to God has led to futile thinking and darkened hearts (Romans 1:21). In other words, our worship habits shape our thinking habits.
When we worship God in spirit and in truth, we see the world more clearly. When we worship something else (because everyone is always worshiping), the world becomes darkened.
Paul’s order is worth noting. We often assume that human beings are primarily thinking beings. Modern theories of education reflect this view. Modern education is concerned with the transfer of information. We appeal to the intellect exclusively. When the school sits down to chart out goals for the year, the conversation revolves around curriculum and content. We might say that modern education has a view of human beings that says, you are what you think.
Paul never discounts the importance of knowledge, but his view of humanity goes deeper. For Paul, what we think comes after a more essential element. The issue that really defines us, Paul says, is not what we think but what we want. Before we think, we desire. Before we contemplate, we worship.
Very rarely does a person make a decision based solely on logic. Truer to our experience, we are drawn to some vision that we desperately desire. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal once mused, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Before we sit down to have a rational thought, we are already being drawn toward or away by a stronger force. Biblically, human beings are defined by worship; we are what we love.
If you’re familiar with C.S. Lewis’s classic story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you’ve seen this process play out. Lewis masterfully narrates the interactions between Edmund and the White Witch, and in doing so, he holds up a mirror to the human race. We are all Edmund.
In the initial encounter with the evil White Witch of Narnia, Edmund is offered Turkish Delight. To win Edmund’s loyalty, the White Witch does not appeal to his intellect but to his senses. She shrewdly realizes something that a certain serpent realized long ago: to hook a Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve, your best bet is bypassing reason and going straight for desire. After giving him an initial sampling, she promises him more on the condition that he return to her with his three siblings.
The rational mind would see this as a trick, but Edmund’s mind is not rational. Driven by an animalistic desire for more Turkish Delight as well as by another promise that he would rule over his siblings, Edmund embarks on a course of self-destruction.
He rationalizes his sin, “Surely, she wouldn’t hurt them.” He suffers for his sin, running coatless through a snowstorm and tripping in the dark over tree trunks and rocks to get to the witch’s house. He blames his actions on others, “None of this would be happening if Peter would have treated me better.” Sin has made Edmund stupid.
Sin always makes everyone stupid. No person has ever venerated an aspect of God’s creation in place of God without being darkened in the mind. If you worship falsely, you will think falsely. If you value anything more than God, you will fail to see yourself, others, and the world clearly.
Space limitations will not allow me to examine all the implications of this insight, but I will end with one. If false worship leads to darkened minds, right worship leads to clarity. It would be unwise to read Romans 1 without continuing through to Romans 12. Christ is God’s answer to humanity’s disordered worship. We have enslaved ourselves to sin, but Christ died and was raised to set us free. By faith alone, we are justified. By God’s Spirit, we are sanctified.
In Christ, we learn, by the mercies of God, to present ourselves to God in worship (Romans 12:1). As a result, we are transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). Sin makes us stupid, but worshiping Christ reverses our course.