Born guilty10

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.    Psalm 51:5

I’ve never liked this verse.  The image of a new life, yet forming in the womb, blemished by sin?   Before any harsh word, any selfish act, any spiteful response — before any decisions or choices at all are made — the psalmist declares himself guilty at birth (part A), a sinner at conception (part B).

This verse of the psalm brings two theological notions into tension.   In the creation story from Genesis 1, God does the following on the sixth day:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . .  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply . . .  God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Gen 1:26, 27, 31)

All that God had created, including humanity, God deemed not just good, but very good.

But then comes the Garden in Genesis 2 and 3 and Adam and Eve’s fateful choice to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God in turn casts the first couple out of the garden.  Many Christian interpreters, beginning with the Apostle Paul, came to understand this episode in the garden to be humanity’s fall, or “original sin” which convicts all who follow.   As Paul expressed it “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19).

I personally don’t read Genesis 2 and 3 literally, but rather see the episode in the garden as a poetic expression of the theological claim that people have a tendency toward the sinful.  But whether you take the garden literally or as a poetic expression, the claim is the same.

So which is it?  Are we innately good (Genesis 1), or innately sinful (Genesis 3)?

I would have to say — both, if you can tolerate the tension.   We are, first of all, made in God’s image.   As such, people have a natural goodness.  But at the same time, it is undeniable that people have not only a  capacity but a tendency on both an individual and a corporate basis to act sinfully.  The nightly news is a quick primmer on the sinfulness and the brokenness of humanity.   And then if we do an honest assessment of our own lives at the close of a day, I expect we would recognize multiple times when we acted with less than generosity, charity or grace.

So as much as I dislike the image of a child guilty at conception or birth, the psalmist is capturing a truth, poetically, that the image of God, which we each hold, is tarnished.   It’s tarnished by our jealousies, our greed, our spite, our vindictiveness, our impatience, our prejudice, our [add what else enters your mind].

If we fail to recognize the sinfulness in our lives and in our world, then we will be less able to comprehend and fully appreciate the Christ event.  For as  Paul proclaims, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).


Dear Lord,

We confess our sin and our sins.  Forgive us, free us, restore us, redeem us, renew us.   Call us again, this day,  into faithful discipleship and help us to order our lives accordingly.