There, I said it. This post is about sin.
In case you missed it, this is the fourth post in my series on what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” This series comes from a personal desire to reexamine the basic tenets of the Christian faith, the things that are at the core of what all Christians believe. I’m using Basic Christianity by John Stott as a reference because I find Stott’s book to be, as the title suggests, very basic in terms of doctrine. It’s not the Westminster Confession, and it isn’t Love Wins either. It’s also not Mere Christianity, which most people are already familiar with. It summarizes the doctrines that I believe all Christians hold in common, no matter our background, denomination, or theological affiliation.
So maybe it’s fitting that the first chapter in this section is one of the most controversial: the fact and nature of sin. I know the word “sin” has become pretty loaded. It conjures up images of fire and brimstone sermons, protest signs at funerals, scarlet letters, holier-than-thou looks of derision, abuse, hypocrisy . . . I could go on, but I think I’ve covered the basics. A lot of people, including a lot of Christians, are uncomfortable with words like “sin,” “wickedness,” and “evil,” especially if they or someone they know has experienced some kind of ill-treatment from other Christians regarding that word – as my earlier sentence indicates.
I’d like to respond to that by referencing NBC’s hit show The Office, from season 5 episode 22. ***SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph contains spoilers to The Office through Season 5. If you want to avoid them, skip to the next paragraph. If you’ve already seen it, or if you don’t care, continue reading.*** Andy has recently called off his engagement with Angela because she was cheating on him with Dwight. Still hurting and very sensitive on that point, Andy begins to think Jim and Pam may be in a bad relationship too, and proceeds to see if he can figure it out. Jim picks up on this and plays along, acting like Pam is controlling and making him miserable. Andy takes all this seriously, and finally makes an announcement to the whole office to be nicer to Jim because he’s having a hard time. Phyllis informs him that Jim has just been messing with him, which leads to a key exchange between Jim and Andy. Jim says, “Two things I need you to understand. One, Pam and I are very happy together. [. . .] And two, that stuff that happened with you and Angela is a bummer, and I know you don’t think you’re ever going to find someone else, but you will. I promise you, you will.” This statement tells us two things: 1) Andy’s pain is legitimate. Nobody should be treated the way he was, and he didn’t deserve what happened to him. 2) Jim and Pam are not experiencing what he experienced, and Andy should not assume they are, much less demand that others do the same.
For many people, the word “sin” triggers past experiences of injustice, or feelings of shame and self-loathing, and other terrible realities. It’s true that some people have been brought up to hate themselves or others because of sins (real or imagined), and it’s also true that some people can’t focus on their past without feeling a huge wave of shame that drags them down almost to despair. To those people, I can only say, I’m sorry those things happened to you, and I’m sorry you’ve been made to think that way. That isn’t your fault, and it isn’t the gospel either. And maybe this post isn’t for you as much as it is for me.
However, as with Andy in The Office, I don’t think we can assume that the experiences some people have are the experiences everybody has. For some people, talking about sin brings about the emotions I have already described. For others, like me, it brings incredible relief and joy that I have been set free from my sins, that God looked at me, with all my scars and scabs and ugliness, and wanted nothing more than to take me into His arms and make me part of His family.
So when we talk about sin, I think we have to be aware of these two realities, and I think we have to be sensitive to both. People who are relatively “undamaged” should recognize that people have been legitimately hurt by false teachings or an unhealthy overemphasis on sin. A lot of Christians think we need to emphasize human sinfulness more because people don’t believe they are sinful. Here’s a news flash: most people already know they sin. They may disagree about what qualifies as sin, and they may or may not admit it to you, but chances are they are fully aware of their shortcomings. You have to be pretty thick to think you’re perfect, and I’ve actually only encountered one person who claimed to be sinless (this person was a Christian who believes in the contemporary Holiness doctrine, the idea that once you’re saved you can no longer sin – very different from the original Holiness doctrine taught by John Wesley himself).
On the other hand, people who have been damaged by the Church’s teachings in this area also should be aware that not all churches, and not all Christians, have had this unfortunate experience. The doctrine of sin, properly taught and seen in its correct context, is extremely important to Christianity. We need to know that sin is a real human problem, and that it is a personal human problem, in order to understand so much of the Bible, of Jesus, and of the world we live in. And talking about sin does not necessarily lead to the shame and despair that many people have unfortunately experienced.
So I’m going to talk about sin, and I hope that I will be talking about it in the right way. If I mess it up, I hope you’ll understand.
Christians have different ideas about why man sins or how sinful man is, but I think we can all look at the world – and more importantly, at ourselves – and agree that the way things are, is not the way they should be. Call it brokenness, wickedness, rebellion, missing the mark, selfishness, immaturity, or any number of other words – the bottom line is, we are far from perfect. In Stott’s words:
“Much that we take for granted in a ‘civilized’ society is based upon the assumption of human sin. Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest. A promise is not enough; we need a contract. Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them. The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issues, inspected and collected. Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them. All this is due to man’s sin” (emphasis mine).
What exactly is sin? I’m not going to sit and make a list of every specific action that counts as sinful; that’s above my pay grade. Suffice it to say that there are two “types” of sin, which Stott describes as a “negative” type and a “positive” type.
The “negative” type of sin is failure to do what is good. One of the definitions for both the Hebrew and Greek words translated “sin” is “missing the mark,” as in shooting an arrow at a target and missing, or as in missing the correct path. The idea is that there is a standard of goodness or rightness that we fall short of. Every society, religion, and individual has standards of right and wrong. Some people set the bar higher than others do; the funny thing is, no matter what your standards are, chances are you sometimes fail to live up to them. Am I right?
The “positive” type of sin is doing what is wrong. Stott writes, “sin is transgression. One word makes sin the trespass of a boundary. Another reveals it as lawlessness, and another as an act which violates justice.” I like that last definition the best, because it includes things which I think we Christians often like to overlook.
Whether you believe in total depravity or tabula rossa, I think we can all see that the entire world is implicated in the above descriptions. Moreover, I think we can all agree that we are personally guilty (another trigger word; substitute a different one if you want) of sin. You can blame Adam or society or the devil, but ultimately the responsibility lies with each individual. Sin is not merely external; it is inside us, like a cancer seeking to overtake and kill us from within. Only by acknowledging this fact – by diagnosing the disease, as it were – can we ever hope to find a cure.
There’s a famous story about how the London Times once asked G. K. Chesterton to write an essay answering the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” His response was brief and to the point:
Dear London Times,
G. K. Chesterton
Okay, so there was sin in the world before I entered it, and there will be sin after I depart, and I am not responsible for all the wickedness in the entire world. But there is something very important about recognizing and admitting our own culpability in the problem of evil. And the thing is, this puts us all on a level playing field. Sure, some sins are more damaging than others, and some people may sin a lot more than others, and nobody likes the implication that they are “just as bad” as the Really Bad Sinners (and to be fair, there’ a biblical case against the “all sins are equal” idea). But on the other hand, it also means nobody is better than you. So anybody who claims to have it all together is either deluded or lying. Hey, we have something in common! We’ve got issues. As the saying goes, “to err is human.”
In my next post I’ll move on to the next chapter of Basic Christianity, which deals with the consequences of sin. No, it won’t be a discussion on the nature of hell.