What is sin (and does it matter)?

Over the next few posts I’d like to take a closer look at two of the most troubling and controversial topics in Christian theology – sin and suffering.

As a recovering evangelical, I hesitate to talk about ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘depravity’. I’m not convinced by the (alleged) Puritan/Calvinist view that humans are utterly depraved and evil to the core, incapable of any good thing. I certainly don’t believe that enjoyment of dancing, games, theatre, cinema or sex is inherently bad. Nor do I believe that we’re less moral than we used to be.

Yet I have to acknowledge the reality of persistent moral failure in my own life, and failure to be all that I could be. More than that, I have to accept the dark side of my own nature which is with me all the time like my shadow.

So I’m convinced from my own experience that sin is a significant reality; but I don’t always find traditional understandings of ‘sin’ particularly helpful. I’m not sure they go deep enough for a start. So I’m looking for new ways to express some of the old truths on which fundamentalist religion doesn’t have a monopoly.

Rethinking sin

Forgive the implied obscenity, but one way I look on sin is as the innate human propensity to **** things up. This includes our propensity to **** up our own lives, relationships and anything else we’re involved with for any amount of time. I use this wording to convey something of the intensity of the problem – the ‘offense’ of sin. It’s not just that we occasionally mess up a little. It goes far deeper than that, and has far more destructive consequences.

If we reduce sin merely to ‘sins’ – prohibited acts or behaviours like adultery, fornication, drunkenness, violence, theft etc – then we’re only dealing with surface symptoms and we miss the darker heart, the real roots of the problem.

So I don’t find helpful the understanding of sin merely as disobedience to a divine command or the violation of God’s law – at least not when that’s understood as anything equivalent to human law. If it is a violation, it’s more like a violation of a law of nature, indeed of a fundamental law of our own natures – of who we’re meant to be on the deepest level.

Sin is not an abstract concept, nor is it merely the breaking of an arbitrary law or moral code. It is rather the marring of the divine image in ourselves and others. It’s whatever leads to our becoming less truly human, and to viewing or treating others as less than fully human.

So sin is not so much about individual acts and words as about a deep inner brokenness. This manifests itself as an orientation of the soul away from reality, from rightness, from wholeness and health, from life, from love, from true intimacy, from openness, from mutual loving relationships. It is a self-destructive path that leads to increasing inner dis-integration. It’s an addiction to ways of being and behaving that makes us less real, less whole, less integrated, less able to give and receive love.

Failing to love

One way of looking at sin then is as the failure to love, to embody and live out of love – love for God, for ourselves, for fellow humans, and for the world and cosmos. Love is the overarching divine law (and divine attribute); sin then is whatever we do (and are) that militates against that.

Alternatively, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines sin as the ‘culpable disturbance of shalom’. In this understanding it’s the shattering or violation of God’s intended peace, order and harmony, and in such a way that we bear responsibility for it.

Failure to be ourselves

I’ve written that our primary purpose in life is to become truly Christlike (i.e. completely good and loving) and fully ourselves.

So perhaps one of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard for sin is that it is ‘an addiction to being less than truly ourselves’. In this sense it is a ‘falling short’ as Romans 3:23 puts it; falling short of our real, full selves; the people we were created to become.

Sin is whatever gets in the way of human flourishing. Similarly, M. Scott Peck writes of ‘original sin’ as the spiritual entropy or innate inertia that holds us back from doing the hard work of growth, of becoming who we’re really meant to be.

For the point is who we’re becoming more than where we’re coming from. I’m no longer convinced that humanity was created perfect and fell. Rather, following Irenaeus I think that humanity was created incomplete and immature, needing like a baby to grow and develop towards wholeness and fullness. The ‘fall’ in this view was not from original perfection but was rather an attempted false shortcut to maturity, bypassing the all-important journey of growth.

Good aspirations, unhelpful instincts

So, like most of us, I have genuine aspirations to be a good, kind, loving, compassionate and ultimately Christlike person. I also want to be a truly happy, healthy and whole person. I believe that these two things are inherently bound up together; that goodness and wholeness are two sides of the same coin.

Sadly though there are also desires, drives and fears in me which militate forcefully against these good aspirations. And these unhelpful drives seem to be entirely natural, instinctive and innate – fundamentally part of who I am. They include the desires to be universally wanted, loved and admired; to experience pleasure and avoid pain; to be safe and comfortable and have an easy life; to be in control. They also include the instinct to hit back when I’m hurt, and to seek to blame others when things go wrong.

Many of these stem from perfectly natural, reasonable instincts. But if I let them rule in me, overruling my conscience, they can lead to harmful, addictive patterns of thought and behaviour. I can all too easily let myself be mastered by my urges, desires and fears, to the detriment of my character and my relationships. I know, because that’s what tends to happen a lot of the time.

Doing what comes naturally

Unfortunately, ‘what comes naturally’ – the default impulse or response – is very often the one of selfishness, greed, thoughtlessness, rage, fear, spite, envy or lust. It’s as though we’re fundamentally mis-programmed.

Our bodies crave unhealthy high-fat and sugary foods rather than the fruit and veg we need. Our souls long for love but we struggle to form meaningful lasting relationships. We find it so much easier to be hurtful than kind, critical than encouraging, destructive than creative. We find goodness boring and evil entertaining. We prefer ease to effort, comfort to character development. All in all, we just don’t seem naturally predisposed to Christlikeness.

Focus magazine ran an article a few years back which suggested that we’re biologically programmed towards the ‘7 deadly sins’ – rage, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, envy. These were all useful (even vital) for survival in our pre-human pre-history, but now they’re largely baggage – occasionally useful in specific situations but generally anything but.

Furthermore these responses are supposedly hardwired into an evolutionarily ‘primitive’ part of the brain which starts kicking into action before you’ve had time for rational thought. This doesn’t mean we have to act on these impulses or can’t overcome them, but lasting change requires long-term re-training.

It’s easy to see all these traits when we look at the instinctive behaviour of animals. Humans are not just animals; but from animals we were taken and to animals we can return, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

Cognitive biases

Another similar explanation relates to cognitive biases – unconscious, unquestioned patterns and habits of thought which we’re generally unaware of. We’re programmed this way in order to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world, filtering out things that aren’t useful and taking cognitive shortcuts to facilitate decisive action.

These mental shortcuts can sometimes be helpful. But they also include traits that are anything but – prejudices against anyone different from ourselves; stereotyping people who belong to particular groups; jumping to conclusions based on unquestioned assumptions rather than rational thought; and so on. We all tend to believe that we’re right and therefore others are wrong, and we all assume that we have far greater knowledge and understanding than we really do.

Emotional baggage

Then there are the unhelpful psychological traits which again we’re often largely unaware of. Again, these are often things we’ve learnt in order to deal with pain or troubling emotion in childhood – perhaps in response to fears of being rejected, abandoned, unwanted. We learn to project our ‘bad’, dark, unacceptable feelings out onto other people and things rather than owning them. This may turn into irrational hatred of particular groups or kinds of people, or a tendency always to blame others when things go wrong. Or it may turn inward into neurotic self-hate and self-blame.

We learn unhealthy patterns of relating to other people, perhaps manipulating them to get our needs met or clinging on to them to avoid abandonment. And all of these things lurk within our psyches, disrupting and derailing our attempts to be good, whole, happy people.

Or to put it another way, we’re all to greater or lesser extent messed up by our imperfect parents who were messed up by theirs. Call it original sin if you like, or call it evolution or psychology. Either way, we’re damaged and damage-causing people, receiving and spreading toxicity. Yet that’s never the whole picture, for we’re also made in God’s image and we bear his likeness, however blurred and blunted.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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14 Responses to What is sin (and does it matter)?

  1. Evan, I am continually amazed at your approaches to practical religious issues.

    I think of sin as doing harm to ourselves and others. This often occurs through our selfishness, greed, thoughtlessness, rage, fear, spite, envy and lust–as you describe in your list.

    • Thanks Tim as always! I like your definition – straightforward, practical and meaningful. I guess that’s the bottom line really – sin does harm; it’s damaging and destructive to people and relationships and the planet. The difficulty comes in identifying which things are truly harmful as it’s not always immediately obvious…

      • Evan, I agree that it is not always evident what behavior is harmful. I have decided the best way to grow in not-harming is to reflect on the love of the Father and try to see others as the Father sees them.

        In addition, I respond to the love of the Father by realizing that, to him, I am lovable. Since this is the case, I am free to love myself more appropriately and, therefore, to love others appropriately. We will never become perfect, but we can reduce significantly the harm we do to others.

  2. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    Yesterday, over on Contemplative in the Mud blog, I read the following: ‘The more a man recognizes the good in himself, the more he loves God. For if someone looks in a mirror and finds that his face is very dirty, he will want to wash it clean.’ – Saint Hildegard von Bingen.
    Today I read this. Fascinating.

  3. doncher says:

    Thanks for what you’ve written – I’ve found it really helpful, as someone who struggles with the idea of ‘original sin’ and ‘sin’ in general. I also like what Richard Rohr has to say about the ‘fall’ story – that, before the fall, Adam and Eve were united, both with each other and with God. The temptation they gave in to ( ‘knowing good and evil’), resulted in a dualistic mind, needing to have certainty about what was good and what was evil, needing to divide everything into categories and compete to be on the ‘winning’ side. The ‘unitedness’ was lost as they had a sudden awareness of themselves as ‘separate’ people. I wonder whether it’s often (always?) the ‘illusion’ of separateness that causes us to sin, i.e. to act in ways which belie who we truly are, united with each other and with God.

    • Doncher, I know a lot of “New Agey” or “higher consciousness” people who would say “amen” to your thoughts about illusion of separateness. Our natures are such that it takes real growth in “godliness”, “Christ-likeness” or “higher consciousness” (which I see as basically equivalent as I personally understand the terms) to see our “enemies” as connected, NOT separate. Same goes for anyone or any societies unknown and physically or culturally distant… This dynamic is one reason it so often takes having a family member come out as gay to make many heterosexuals feel connected with gays, and thus much more empathetic. (And as an aside: also why it is inevitable that gay rights will continue to strengthen, though with some backlashes, as we now see.)

      • Interesting! There was a time when hearing that ‘New Agey’ people would say ‘amen’ to something would have sent me screaming and running in the opposite direction. ;) There’s still a lot in New Age thought that I can’t square with my beliefs, but I do think there’s something in this idea of connectedness.

        • Yeah, there IS a lot of overlap in worldviews of “spiritual but not religious” and a “Christian worldview” (both of which I have studied, the latter in real depth, and the former quite a bit, it being widely diverse but with some basic common themes within and with Xn views.) If you want to explore a theological system which does justice to both perspectives, while retaining basic Xn categories in other-than-orthodox forms, it is Process theology… if I’ve not recently mentioned that here. See my blog, and the Wikipedia entry (with good summary and biblio) and this site: http://www.ctr4process.org).

      • doncher says:

        Yes, I’m very aware of my own tendency to see others who are ‘not like me’ as enemies who I want to disconnect from. In fact, before becoming a Christian, often this is the way I looked at Christians. Even though I had some good friends who were Christians, I generally wanted to disconnect from the ‘Christian’ part of them. I now find myself in a contradictory position of both wanting to be around Christians more and, at the same time, often wanting to disconnect from them, and I wonder whether this is something similar to how someone feels in the situation you mention above regarding having a family member come out as gay.

    • Thanks – that’s a really interesting point and I’m going to need to think about that a bit more!

      I’m a big fan of Richard Rohr and I have several of his Greenbelt talks on my mp3 player at the moment (you can download them for free here).

      A related point I’ve heard him make is that ‘eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ was about dividing the world up into good/bad, and goodies/baddies – identifying us and our group with the good, and others with the bad. We put all the bad onto others and buy into the myth of redemptive violence, by which we cleanse the world of evil by punishing or destroying the people we identify as bad.

  4. Chas says:

    Harvey, a practical definition of sin, that I know Tim agrees with, is: a voluntary action that we know might cause somebody, or an animal, to suffer in some way. It comes out of a belief that the whole universe is separated from God and all of it is therefore vulnerable to destruction. Since we accept that God is gentle, kind and loving, He acts to minimise suffering, so if we do something that might cause suffering, we would be acting against God, who would be exerting influence to persuade us not to do it. When we are in the Presence of God, that influence becomes much more clear and it is much easier for us to resist doing things that might lead to suffering.

    • Thanks Chas – interesting point, and good definition of sin. I think I’d prefer to define it as causing ‘harm’ rather than ‘suffering’, as I’m not sure that all suffering is always bad or avoidable (depending on how we define suffering). I might cause my children a degree of suffering by thwarting their wishes to stay up late and watch TV, but long-term it’s not harming them but doing them good. But overall, yes, I think that idea’s on the right lines.

      • Chas says:

        Harvey, that is a fair point regarding your keeping your children from staying up late and watching TV, however, it relates to my belief that God works to minimise overall suffering and by this parallel, your actions on behalf of your children would minimise their overall suffering and would be supportive of God. A further point, which relates to your reply to Tim earlier in this discussion thread, is that it is not always easy to recognise the things that might lead to suffering. In obedience to God, I have been required to do numerous things that seemed, at the time, that they might lead to suffering, only to realise later, on reflection, where they would have worked to relieve suffering.

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