The Dobby Effect (Hebrews 9:6-10)

Humans have an innate need for punishment.  Perhaps ingrained from childhood, we tend to view our guilt as deserving of pain.  It’s only been recently that contemporary psychology found a name for it.  The Dobby Effect—named for the self-punishing Harry Potter character—refers to our tendency to “atone” for misdeeds by seeking either avoiding pain or avoiding contact with those we’ve wronged.  Researchers at the University of Brisbane conducted a study to confirm this.

62 volunteers were split into three groups.  Two groups were asked to write about a time they “rejected or socially excluded another person.”  The third group wrote about normal social interactions.  Afterwards all participants received questionnaires to measure feelings of guilt.  After that, some were asked to immerse one of their hands in ice water, while others in warm water.  Following that, guilt feelings were re-measured.  I know this is a bit confusing, so let’s try and summarize in a table:

GROUP 1: Wrote about excluding someone GROUP 2: Wrote about excluding someone. GROUP 3: Wrote about normal interactions
Guilt questionnaire given Guilt questionnaire given Guilt questionnaire given
High feelings of guilt High feelings of guilt Nominal feelings of guilt
Hand immersed in ice water Hand immersed in warm water Hand immersed in ice water
Much lower feelings of guilt High feelings of guilt Nominal feelings of guilt

Not only did the ice water make guilt parties feel roughly half as guilty as their counterparts, they also tended to leave their hands in the water substantially longer than those who wrote about normal interactions.  The lesson is clear: guilt makes us seek out punishment, and the act of punishment seems to have a relieving effect.

According to one of the researchers, these forms of self-punishment send “a signal by which a [wrongdoer] shows remorse to his or her victim when there are no other less painful means available, such as giving a bunch of flowers.”

Yesterday we re-discovered the Israelite temple as a symbol of Eden’s beauty.  But because of sin, many of the temple’s elements—particularly the curtains that segregated the outer courts from the Holy of Holies—reminded worshippers that their sin resulted in both physical and relational distance.

Now, the writer of Hebrews turns from the general to the specific, describing the activities performed in the temple—that is, the sacrificial system.

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6-10)

Sacrifices were not unique to Israel, nor were they unique to the days of Moses.  The earliest sacrifices go back to the pages of Genesis 4, where outside the garden the first family learned to worship God by offering sacrifices.  Sacrifices likewise became an occasional part of the life of Abraham and his descendants.  It was only through Moses, some 1500 years before Jesus, that sacrifices became codified into a system of atonement.

The writer of Hebrews alludes to this elaborate system, which largely defines man’s relationship with God under the “old covenant.”  We note at least two things: (1) the need for a priest and (2) the need for sacrifice.  Though the nature and exact purpose of the sacrifices varied (Leviticus records as many as seven different types of regular sacrifice), the allusion made here is to Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement that we discussed last Friday.

Yet as unique and significant as that day may have been, the writer of Hebrews ultimately concludes that these rituals deal with external things—and never truly man’s inner conscience.  So wait—so why was the system ever in place at all?  The sacrificial system served as an elaborate—and bloody—object lesson, a lesson that pointed toward the need for a once-for-all sacrifice in the future.  In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham says:

“The sacrificial system therefore presents different models or analogies to describe the effects of sin and the way of remedying them.  The burnt offering uses a personal picture: of man the guilty sinner who deserves to die for his sin and of the animal dying in his place.  God accepts the animal as a ransom for man.  The sin offering uses a medical model: sin makes the world so dirty that God can no longer dwell there.  The blood of the animal disinfects the sanctuary in order that God may continue to be present with his people.  The reparation offering  [i.e., the “guilt offering”] presents a commercial picture of sin.  Sin is a debt which man incurs against God.  The debt is paid through the offered animal.”

But Wenham would later note that “Christ’s death…made [the sacrificial system] obsolete…It is no longer necessary to attempt to compensate God for our failure by bringing a ram or a lamb to the altar.  Our spiritual debts have been written off in the sacrifice of Christ.”

Think about it.  Isn’t the Dobby Effect really just another form of selfishness?  After all, it has more to do with alleviating personal guilt than addressing the brokenness to begin with.  If you wreck my car, I might appreciate that you’re sorry—but I’ll still demand you pay the debt of repair.  What about things where a simple “I’m sorry” won’t do?  How can we repair trust?  Remorse can’t reverse the effects of infidelity and betrayal.

Something similar is going on here.  A sacrificial system may have allowed many devout Jews to feel a sense of relief.  But now they’re hearing that such rituals can’t fix the real problem—the problem that goes deeper and darker.  Only a perfect sacrifice can produce true atonement, true purity.  This is the point our author is building to.

If you’re skeptical regarding the Christian faith, I understand.  My gentle challenge to you is to evaluate how justice can ever coexist with a society of radical individualism.  If morals and ethics are (largely) man-made, do we not have the freedom to unmake them?  Why, then, does guilt universally persist?  And why does our education and our technological advances not help us move beyond such feelings?

If you seek to follow Jesus, this passage raises another challenge.  Do I trust in God’s forgiveness through Jesus, or am I still trying to bring a sacrifice?  Do I still think of Christian virtue as “being really hard on myself?”  Perhaps you’re in a season where you’ve experienced the need to “get really serious this time.”  While there is value in a life of devotion, you can’t turn your spirituality into means to an end.  Jesus is the end of all such means.  The pain we bring on ourselves can melt into sweet, sweet joy.  Spirituality, therefore, transforms from a quest to earn God’s approval into a glorious state of affairs where we finally learn to rest in God’s approval.


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