My essay on sin.
What is a “Sinless Life?”
It is interesting how many of our human foibles, when they are our own, tend to be more effectively dealt with as if we are correcting a missing of the mark.
Are we not trained to face up to our sins and sinfulness and feel the cultural guilt, shame and sense of having offended a God who cannot tolerate sin with any degree of allowance?
Congregations are full of mark-missers, many of whom have missed the mark big time. Were they to consult with those who insist that sin is not mark-missing, they would be called to repentance as having offended a thin-skinned God who cannot tolerate you-know-what with any you-also-know-what.
A God who cannot tolerate mark-missing to any degree is a God to be feared but not respected.
We know we are not expected to be perfectionists in this life. We know that perfectionists not only die young with high blood pressure, but also have unreasonable expectations and make unreasonable demands on those around them.
Perfectionists tend to be highly intolerant of flaw-ful-ness and imperfection in others. Likewise, most perfectionists imagine themselves and live in terror of not being tolerated with much degree of allowance by those they view as powers that be.
Why would we need to believe in a Supreme Perfectionist who has labeled His own children as inherently sinful and therefore too tragically flawed to turn out perfect?
… and who stubbornly and relentlessly insists that He(God) is is unable to tolerate you-know-the-rest?
For a long time now I tend to groan every time the word “sin” pops up in writing or conversation. In my own Episcopal congregation, when we cite the Confession, I’m reminded of Dr. Marcus Borg (also an Episcopal and Professor of Religion at Oregon State Univ.) who expressed this thought about the Confession in the Episcopal liturgy:
“Goodness, it’s only 9:00 A.M. and I’ve already sinned.”
Sin has been incorrectly defined and then institutionalized for the most part as a wicked act, something that is in a nasty way an affront to God.
Whoever started that notion so long ago has wreaked a permanent havoc within a believing Christian society. Acceptance of the notion of sin suggests that the God of Compassion is obsessed with morality as the foundation that defines Goodness – and also suggests that therefore we too should obsess on sin.
Sin originally meant “missing the mark,” as in, to “try and not succeed”.
If one’s “sin” has negative consequences on someone else then one is guilty of missing the mark with a wider and more serious consequence. In any regard, sin meant a choice based on poor or faulty judgment.
So many among us accept the changed meaning and image of sin as something immoral which is then married to the image of a judgmental and punitive God.
It then follows that sin creates in our lives a sense of something connected with the more powerful word, “evil”.
It becomes easy to accept the idea that the monarchical God is offended because when we sin; because we commit evil acts.
One might conclude that when the phrase “we are all sinners” is expressed, the horrific “we are all evil” is just around the bend.
Sinfulness in that regard relegates humanity to living in a state of criminal activity as viewed by God.
That seems to be the desired state needful to those who equate morality to theology and whose pastoral livings are based on teaching sin and offering advice on how to clean it up in exchange for income..
But … once we can conceive of God being offended, we cause Him to no longer be God. He he has become judgmental to a fault.
God seeing things only in either/or or black/white terms is something lacking in mercy and compassion and ultimately wanting in wisdom.
It gives lie to any pronouncement of mercy. Jesus understood this and used the Prodigal Son to demonstrate it.
From the labels of sin and evil, the next logical step with sin is a concept of punishment or exclusion or discriminatory thinking in which the sinner somehow has failed.
Meanwhile the rest of us are still acceptable to God.
The sinner now has a handicap that leaves him/her “less-than” until the other FORMula (as in form over substance) ingredient of repentance is accomplished.
Exclusionary thinking awakens discrimination at this point. Many believers almost unconsciously decide that since the sinner is now “less-than” who or what they (believers) consider themselves to be, many believers suddenly find themselves “uncomfortable” in the presence of sin and/or sinners.
Believers can and many do exclude by condemnation, by social avoidance, by shunning, by excommunication or by something worse.
All of that is a false and non-scriptural path and reflects the thinking of the Prodigal Son’s older brother.
There is nothing scriptural or revealed from the mind of God that invites us down that path in the first place.
The doctrine around sin is part of our inheritance from the politically victorious founders of Catholic Christianity who magnified the concept of sin through fear, shame and guilt – using those tools to gain control over politics and human lives.
The arrogance of that act is reflected in Roman Catholic calls to Crusades and more horribly in the Inquisition.
When we casually equate the word “sin” with “evil” we are never very far from looking like and participating in the evil acts of Inquisition accusers who self-righteously assumed that they had a God-approved right to judge and punish.
Reformers such as Luther and co. only put a Protestant spin on the traditional concepts of “sin” which came out of Catholic dogma – concepts that remain reflected and camouflaged within the Bible today.
Protestant fundamentalists thrive on the strength of viewing the Bible as inerrant and absolute and portraying the terrible image of a punitive monarchical God.
It was not Catholics who executed so-called heretics and witches in New England in the 1600’s. It was Protestants.
We members of a Christian society who casually evoke this altered meaning in our use of the word “sin” have habitualized a tendency to judge.
We don’t have to be bigots to suffer from the illness of self-righteousness.
All we have to be is of a mind that one of our spiritual “shoulds” is to discern not “sin” but whoever has “sinned”. We allow ourselves to condemn the action and feel to thank God that we have not done what the “sinner” has done.
However we tend not to stop there and many of us behave in a way that suggests that we personally feel in fact more holy and worthy than the sinner – and even more righteous.
“We don’t hate the sinner. We hate the sin, but we love the sinner.”
There is a smugness and condescension in that statement that is almost impossible to hide. When preached to the choir, such a statement might receive applause.
But as a public declaration of attitude, it is something detrimental to an image of Christian compassion and understanding.
It is not the thinking of the Father of the Prodigal Son.
It is a thinking that lies at the heart of an attitude which accelerates from hating the sin to advocating punitive action against the sinner.
It is not “Go, and sin no more.”
Again, Jesus understood this. He made no attempt to modify the stoning of the woman caught in adultery into something less capital but still punitive. He simply said in effect,
“Go and sin no more. Try to stop missing the mark and you will stop harming yourself and others.”
We as a society have systems in place to apply punitive sanctions against those whose behavior crosses the line into criminal activity. Unless we honestly believe that “sin equals crime”, we have no business in the judgment-and-punish business when it comes to most things we normally consider to be sinful.
It is true that we have every right to make choices around who will be the friends with whom we can safely interact – and common sense dictates that we should do so. But if we truly think we can love the sinner while abhorring the sin, let us put to the test the idea of loving neighbors as we love self –even if we can only do so from afar.
If you who preach can get those who judge to stop doing so, you will do a great work in the social context of your congregations.
The Episcopal liturgy contains in the Confession the following:
“We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
I appreciate this line because it puts me in mind of the Prodigal Son when he returned home. I like what the Prodigal Son said to his Father because of its honesty.
However, it remains hard for me to picture the Father raising his Son by requiring a daily confession of human frailty and imperfection as a vehicle for building self-esteem and, more importantly, confidence sufficient to activating an aggressive and productive faith.
Had the Father raised his Son that way, the Son’s return to express sorrow and penitence would have very much looked like crawling back in permanent shame.)
If the gospel of Jesus was comprehensively conformity based and consistent with teachings and philosophies that insist that humans are sinners and therefore dangerously close to being evil, then why did not Jesus require that kind of confession from all those with whom he interacted as portrayed in the New Testament?
Why do we not read of Jesus requiring a confession of sin and admission of being morally weak, dangerously tempted and flawed before being willing Himself to give of his own strength and wisdom and bless those who petition?
Sin originally meant missing the mark. Is it not easier to deal with mark-missers as opposed to trying to encourage souls who are convinced of their inherent sinful and undeserving state of being – bordering on evil?
I know that I am more encouraged to good works – even repentance – as a mark-misser than as a sinful and undeserving human being.
I also know that in my profession as a social worker, were I to attempt success with individuals and families by first emphasizing their inherently sinful and therefore almost evil state, I wouldn’t get very far with very many people.
If I can know this from my own human experience, what is there that would suggest that God doesn’t know the same thing in much greater depth, compassion and understanding?
It is not God who insists that we label ourselves and convince ourselves that we are sinners, sinful and essentially evil-natured.
It is merely other human beings, equally flawed and imperfect as we are who insist that it must be God’s will that we all walk around labeling ourselves as sinners, as sinful and therefore bordering on evil as our natural mortal state.
Our own human experience has taught us the value of positive reinforcement and its impact on encouraging change that is self-motivated and therefore more likely to come to pass. We already know this.
So does our God, our Father, who does not consider his creation as something evil.
The Twelve-Steppers have it down pat: “God don’t make trash.”
My essay on sin.