How we’ve thought about sin throughout the ages

I offered a speech on this subject last night at our public meeting; a lot of it is based on what I’m learning in Dr. Francesca Nuzzolese’s Spiritual Formation class at Palmer Theological Seminary.

How we think about God affects us in how we relate to him and how we tell people about him.

When it comes to the question of sin, I think it is important to think about it so that we can help people understand what it means to follow God. People have been thinking about sin, or maybe overemphasizing it, for a long time so it might be a bit hard to get started.

Sin is a complicated subject because when Jesus refers to it, it’s almost like it is a given. He doesn’t spend much time defining it. Much of the time he says things like he’ll forgive our sins, he’s come to save the lost, “go and sin no more,” and so on. So we are often puzzled at what sin exactly means.

Some have come up with the idea that “sin” means to miss the mark. The Greek word is hamartia (ha-mar-tee-a) which means “missing the mark.” That mark is God’s “ideal” mark, and we can debate all day about that. And Paul knows that people will. So in Romans 14, he writes about it.

Paul is taking about purity laws. He and Jesus spent a lot of their ministry talking about what is pure and what is not. At this point, they are both observing Jewish people who are so strict with the rules that they are missing the point. The rules were set up so they wouldn’t miss the mark, but they have missed it.

One of those rules surrounded purity of diet. For the most part, these rules were set up for health reasons—sometimes food was literally unclean and dangerous to eat. Other times, it was set up for environmental reasons—a camel was more useful as a beast of burden than as a burger. But ultimately, the reason that Jewish people observed “kosher” laws was because the Torah, the law of the Jewish people, said so.

Paul didn’t want these strict rules to miss the point of Jesus’ redeeming work and that’s what he is talking about in Romans 14. Paul thinks that some new Christians will still follow the dietary law. And for him, that’s OK, and he might even do it with them if not doing it causes them to stumble. He develops an attitude of hospitality and accommodation for the “weaker” people, but he warns them not to judge harshly. His basic rule for life is “peace and mutual edification.” He concludes the passage with this definition of sin: “everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Paul is connecting sin with faith, and even that word is automatically connected to the idea of God. The dictionary definition of sin is “An immoral act considered to be a transgression against the divine law.”

The inevitability of sin was made clearer to us by St. Augustine who wrote, sin is “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.” Both the dictionary and the person who basically came up with the dictionary definition, Augustine, are coming to the conclusion that it is about a violation of God’s law. That creates a troubling relationship with God. God is essentially defined by a set of rules, not his being, and we react to him based on following them or not.

Wesley made it less inevitable when he said it was a “willful transgression.” It’s not inevitable, but for us, it is a matter of our personal choices. Thomas Aquinas came up with the idea of “mortal sins,” a sort of standard for Christians. You’ve heard of the seven deadly sins before, I’m sure (or you’ve at least watched Se7en). Aquinas said that sin isn’t the “wrong product” of God’s creation, it’s not all about the devil’s temptation, but it’s about humans trying to just survive in the world. “A human-creating reality contingently present in particularly living contexts.” We combat the deadly sins with their virtues. You can see how endless this struggle can be, but also how helpful these choices can sometimes be.

Another popular idea, mainly developed by Paul Tillich, is that sin causes us to be separate from God. As we sin we are estranged from God. And we suffer a kind of dread or angst in the places where we are distant from our creator. As we move away from God, we literally become less human. We suffer. We try to cope. We don’t get more virtuous, we just become more complicatedly evil. This is why it’s so hard to figure out how we are sinning and what it means.

That’s why I love Julian of Norwich’s definition and why I’m going to end there. Julian of Norwich: “Sin itself does not have any substance of any form of being, nor can it be known except by the pain it causes.”

We can endlessly debate about what God’s law is and how to follow it. But if we really take Paul’s definition when he utters “Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up” we are getting closer to knowing why we don’t want to sin and why we want to pursue this virtuous life.

What is building me up? And what isn’t? As I dwelled on my pain, I saw things more clearly this week. Much of how I have been sinned against by others has left me with a tattered self-image. It has worn me out, making me feel so often incomplete and empty. The content of my character was so abused, I didn’t think I had anything left inside of me.

The false image that I developed, the personality that I worked out, was an artificially confident one that was defined by what others thought of me. Rather than healing my injured interior, I developed a coping strategy and mechanism that simply pushed away intimacy. That makes thinking about sin even harder because I don’t want to admit where I’m wrong since that makes me vulnerable to an attack. The same kinds of attacks that formed my false self.

What pain are we feeling? And where does the sin of others lead us to sin? That abuse I received isn’t the end of the story. I did something in return that didn’t build up either. In the process I may have forfeited my whole soul.

I keep sinning, keep patching up my wounds because I don’t believe the other thing Julian says, famously: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Do I really believe that? That was a question haunting me this week. If I do, what is with all of my sinful behaviors? Do we really believe that all things work together for good? That all will be well? What do we do when we don’t believe? How do we sin?

The question of pain might be a better question than sin. How do we move away from God? How are we separate from him?

Jesus has overcome the whole world. We don’t have to fear. We don’t have to protect ourselves, or defend ourselves, or ignore our pain.

What do we do with our sin? With our pain? Just a few recommendations.

Know your pain. Become aware of how you have been hurt and how you are hurting yourself. Know it enough to know what you do to deal with it. If they aren’t of faith and of God, our coping mechanisms could very well be sins.

Confess your sin. Tell someone about it! That’s a hard step for me. I don’t want to admit it. I’m afraid of being judged. But it is freeing. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says the truth will set you free.

Be forgiven. Let go of the pain and let God fill you up. The point of forgiveness is that you are no longer guilty. Guilt is really nowhere near this—maybe just as an indicator.

Get transformed. The story doesn’t end with your forgiveness. It just begins there. We need to be transformed into new creations. This is a process, but it’s possible on earth right now.

This isn’t a linear cycle, nor do we do it once, but I hope it is helpful in overcoming your sin. In doing so we become our true selves. We no longer suffer that separation. That against. That less-than-humanness that our sin causes us to be. Our sin makes us less human. Jesus’ transformation makes us more human and more our true selves.

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