Let’s face it, all this talk about sin can be a bit gloomy and depressing. So let’s change the mood a bit and look at the bright side of sin… well, at least of confessing sin.
Christianity has a bit of a bad press over this, I think. Because of its focus on our sins, there’s a general view that Christianity wants us to feel miserable, guilty and bad about ourselves. If I was sure I believed in the devil, I’d be impressed at how far he’s managed to twist the truth on this, because I believe that the real Christian message is the precise opposite.
No more guilt
For surely the whole point of confessing our sins is precisely to release us from burdens of guilt and shame and self-hate. The purpose (and effect) of bringing our sins out into the open before God is never to bow us down with shame, but rather to buoy us up with gladness. When we truly experience divine forgiveness, it’s a wonderful thing – a sense of being set free, of burdens lifted, chains falling off and all that sort of thing.
So I don’t believe that all the biblical talk about our sin is ever meant to make us feel that we’re miserable worms who can do no good and who God only loves because he has to (and then only just). The focus is not on how guilty and depraved and generally awful and worthless we are, but rather on how utterly fantastic God is and how much he loves us and wants to free us to be fully ourselves.
Christianity emphasises sin not so that we might wallow in our guilt and shame, but only ever that we might be free from these things. It’s a hugely positive and reassuring thing. God isn’t waiting by the Smite button; he’s waiting like the prodigal son’s dad to rush out and welcome us home with open arms.
In light of this, asking us to look at our sins, to confess them, even at times to focus on them, isn’t a morbid or unhealthy thing – quite the contrary. And it’s not about beating ourselves up about these unpleasant realities, nor about God wanting to do that.
Knowing and owning our sins
The point is rather that these are realities in our lives, and if they’re not brought out into the light they have the power to go on doing harm, eating away at us, even destroying us from within like a cancer. Until we bring them out into the open, the process of change and healing and liberation cannot genuinely begin. But as soon as we do face them and honestly bring them before God, that process can and does start.
A sin confessed may not yet be a sin resolved, but it’s at least a start. The point of confessing is not so that God knows about what we’ve done, but so that we do. It’s so that we own and accept our failings and flaws and misdemeanours as things that come from deep within us, that are ours and not someone else’s. This isn’t about blame and shame, but about honesty and reality.
And sometimes it’s helpful to confess our sin not just to God but to one another, because that gets it properly out into the open where we can’t pretend it’s not a problem. Of course, it has to be people we can trust, and in an appropriate and safe context.
The positive side of sin?
We clearly all have flaws, weaknesses, problems and sins; that’s the human condition. So when we stumble and commit an obvious sin, there is at least the one sort-of positive consequence – that we can now know that this particular sin is one of our problems, something that we need to deal with. And knowing that, we have the chance to do something about it.
The more dangerous sins are the ones that remain hidden, that we’re just not aware of. For these maybe we just need to pray that something will bring them out to the light. That won’t be pleasant of course; it’s never nice to discover a new ‘bad’ thing about yourself, a new aspect to your dark side. But once it’s discovered, the process of redeeming or overcoming it can begin.
Of course, it is sadly all too possible to confess some fault and then just learn to accept and accommodate it, rather than seeking to change. We’re masters of self-deception and spiritual inertia. So we have to really see our ‘sin’ as a problem and genuinely want to change.
Yet at the same time we do need to have compassion on ourselves (and each other). We’re not going to be rid of our faults overnight. And God still completely accepts us in our deeply imperfect state, while always calling us on towards the full, whole persons we one day can be. And we also need to realise that our sinful behaviours are generally only the surface symptoms of deeper underlying issues that need locating and healing.
So let’s stop beating ourselves up for being sinners. We’re human beings; of course we’ll mess things up on a fairly regular basis. And while that may not be something to celebrate, what is to be celebrated is that no sin of ours is beyond Christ’s forgiveness, no darkness in us is too great for God to redeem – if we’ll only bring it into his light. And furthermore we can change if we genuinely seek to, and by God’s grace we already are changing.
Postscript: sin and God’s holiness
Now there’s a common evangelical view that sin separates us from God because God is Holy and cannot look on sin, nor be in its presence. And God’s perfect righteousness and justice also requires that sin be punished.
This underlies – yet I think also undermines – the evangelical gospel that the entire purpose of Christ’s death was to take the punishment for our sins, make the proper sacrifice for them to propitiate God, and that now that they’re legally dealt with God can accept us again.
I say undermines, because this makes little sense to me. If God can’t look on nor be in the presence of sin, then just because it’s ‘paid for’ surely makes no difference here and now. I still sin sometimes, and there is still some sin in me, so by that argument I must still be separated from God, even if that sin no longer results in my punishment. Evangelicals get round this by saying that God sees us ‘in Christ’ and therefore not as sinful, but this just sounds to me like divine self-deception, which I don’t buy.
While we’re here, I’d also query the evangelical understanding of sin and forgiveness as the incurring and payment of a debt. I don’t think sin and forgiveness are best understood as a financial transaction or an accounting problem. Forgiveness can’t be bought or earned, nor can all losses and wounds be ‘paid’ for in some way, nor recompense be made and restoration achieved simply by means of sacrifice, payment or penalty. No payment can restore a dead loved one; nothing can cover the cost of something truly priceless.
Now I do think there are truths buried in these teachings, but they’re metaphorical ones that have been read literally. Sin can (in a sense) separate us from God, but I think the shutting out is primarily on our side, not his. And there probably is a kind of reality that the debt metaphor points to, but the main point is that Jesus has swept all such guilt-debt away.
Shutting out reality
I’ve said I don’t believe sin to be primarily about breaking a moral law and incurring the penalty. Rather it’s about ways of thinking and behaving and relating that militate against reality and relationship, against life and love, against emotional and psychological health. So when we follow ways of sin we become less real, less human, less ourselves, and less able to relate to others and God; less able even to recognise God.
But in the light of Christ and of Easter, I don’t believe our ‘sins’ any longer shut us – any of us – out of God’s presence. What they may perhaps do is blind us to God’s presence, or make his light seem dark to us. For God is reality and he is love, and unless we can learn to accept reality and learn to love then I suspect we cannot fully enjoy or experience his presence.
Finally, God meets us where we are and uses us where we are. We’re not perfect yet and we don’t do things perfectly. Even our best and most Christ-directed efforts at the moment will have elements that we could call ‘sinful’ – less whole, less real, less good. But God still accepts them and makes good of them; accepts us and makes good of us.
And by the same coin, he accepts and uses those others who we dislike and disagree with, who are doing things the ‘wrong’ way, whether they be fundamentalists, liberals, heretics, and (dare I say it?) people of other faiths and none…