STAGES OF MORAL REGRESSION
Teachings from Romans 1:18 - 2:16
By Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D.
Special to virtueonline
July 30, 2010
"Things are getting worse very quickly now. The list of what we are required to approve is growing ever longer. Consider just the domain of sexual practice. First we were to approve sex before marriage, then without marriage, now against marriage. First with one, then with a series, now with a crowd. First with the other sex, then with the same. First between adults, then between children, then between adults and children. The last item has not been added yet, but will be soon: you can tell from the change in language, just as you can tell the approach of winter from the change in the color of leaves.
As any sin passes through its stages from temptation, to toleration, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten. A colleague tells me that some of his fellow legal scholars call child molestation "intergenerational intimacy": that's euphemism. A good-hearted editor tried to talk me out of using the term "sodomy": that's avoidance. My students don't know the word "fornication" at all: that's forgetfulness." -- From J. Budziszewski, "The Revenge of Conscience," First Things, June/July, 1998
The above quote by Budziszewski focuses on moral regression in a culture, especially as we observe it in the media. In his letter to the Romans (1:18-2:16), the Apostle Paul deals with individual moral regression. As outlined here, the process of regression is pretty much the same in individuals and the culture, and as we all know, cultural moral regression requires the regression of individuals to make it happen.
Stage 1: Knowledge and ignorance. Stage 2: Dissatisfaction, anxiety, and depression. Stage 3. Extremity of self-indulgence. Stage 4. Hardened hearts. Stage 5. God's righteous judgment.
STAGE 1. KNOWLEDGE AND IGNORANCE
We are ALL to some degree ignorant. We don't know it all. Most of us don't even know where our most important lack of knowledge resides.
Knowledge (truth) is about light and ignorance is about darkness. Without the Light of God's revelation, we live in darkness and may not even know it. If we've never seen the Light, we may not even believe it exists. Jesus Christ was very much aware of our ignorance: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Of course, Christians know that we cannot actually receive this forgiveness that Jesus asked for unless we admit the truth of our sinfulness. Only a person who hates living in the darkness will truly seek the Light. Only if we confess our sin and ignorance will we turn to God to receive the saving truth that is found in Christ.
There is a continuum of ignorance. Relatively innocent ignorance is at one end and then there is the clear sin of ignoring the truth. Recall that "ignorance" and "ignore' come from the same root. It is sin when we choose to ignore true knowledge when it is presented to us. People can deny and suppress the truth and turn away from God, and instead, honor futile speculations and philosophies more than God's word (see Romans 1:21-23, 25). We all have "blind spots"; prayerfully immersing ourselves in Scripture is the only thing that will enlighten us. "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105, KJV)
According to Paul, despite our ignorance, we have a baseline of intelligence and conscience- an innate (if vague and foggy) knowledge of God that may be increased and informed by religious training: "...what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them ... so that men are without excuse. " (Romans 1:19, 20) "Even the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law ... since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, their thoughts sometimes accusing or even defending them." (Romans 2:14)
Christians who are familiar with Scripture have a conscience that is significantly more informed. In Scripture, God reveals Himself and the real "right and wrong" of things. Jesus is the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14) and we have available "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16b) through the Word of God; Jesus embodied what God wants to communicate to us. The New Testament is the Holy Spirit's witness of Jesus' words to the first disciples and we have the Spirit's teaching through Paul and the other Bible writers.
However, when we know that the Word of God exists but we choose to ignore Him, when we see a bit of the light but prefer the darkness, then we are in moral regression and headed toward self-destruction.
STAGE 2. DISSATISFACTION, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION
It is about cause and effect, reaping and sowing. There are consequences for ignoring the Truth and thereby distancing ourselves from God. As Augustine's famous prayer makes clear: "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee." Paul taught that when our "hearts become darkened" (Romans 1:21-23) we seek satisfaction anywhere and everywhere but in God.
I could write a great deal here regarding the symptoms of clinical depression and the various anxiety disorders, but that is not the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say that millions suffer terribly due to these disorders, and each of us has had our moments. These disorders of feeling and behavior have their origin in all three dimensions of human existence: spiritual, psychological, and physical. But the most important cause (and cure) is in the spiritual dimension, for the ultimate problem is our lack of relationship with God- and the real power for healing can only come from Him.
In our psychic pain, we are greatly tempted to act out, to find some substitute for God that will make us feel better (even if temporarily) but which will allow self to stay in control. "Self-medication" of psychic pain is one of the common causes of all forms of addiction.
STAGE 3. EXTREMITY OF SELF-INDULGENCE
Perhaps the most common substitute for God that humans seek is self-distraction through self-indulgence. Our desires of the flesh (for pleasure, excitement, comfort, material security, power, fame, food, etc.) become first in our life, that is, each of these things can become our "god"- very much an idol. This may be a viable definition of addiction.
God eventually quits protecting people from themselves and "gives them over to their degrading passions," "shameful lusts," and "depraved minds" as they come to worship and serve themselves and created things rather than God. "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts..." God does not deliberately lead us into temptation but He will not keep us from it unless we ask Him, that is, unless we relate to Him as God.
Paul's use of homosexual behavior as an example in Romans 1 is not only because it was a problem in the Roman culture of his time. You see, homosexuality among the Jews had always been a major taboo- the same as incest and bestiality. Paul's main point here is that our moral regression can go even that far if we turn away from God and toward our selves. "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done... Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." (Romans 1: 24-28, 32)
STAGE 4. HARDENED HEARTS
"Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble." (Proverbs 28:14) "See to it brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." (Hebrews 3:12-13).
Some people, in resisting the call of God to repentance over a long period of time, become so hardened and defended against the Truth that they will never want to return. So it is vital that all human beings get beyond denial and admit their sin- as early as possible. To repent means to change direction and move toward God and away from our sinful behavior. "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." (1 John 1: 8-10)
STAGE 5. GOD'S RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT
Continuing to sin and refusing to repent is dangerous indeed, for judgment awaits and we never know when our time has come. 5"But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6God 'will give to each person according to what he has done.' 7To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares." (Romans 2:5-8, 16)
----Dr. Atkinson is a member of Trinity Anglican Church in Douglasville, GA, where he is a teacher and lector. His training includes a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a licensed psychologist with a practice in the Atlanta area and is a clinical supervisor with Richmont Graduate University, training Christian counselors.
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