This post goes out mostly to my Christian friends, as evidenced by the title. If you’re not Christian, don’t tune out though. . . there may be something useful in here for you if there’s something you do that you’re not happy about and would like to change. Please don’t let the religious terminology cause you to miss something that might help you be a more compassionate and joyful person.
I was talking to a good friend of mine, Rudi, about a problem we were seeing that was being dismissed. It’s not the type of thing you’d typically get up in arms about. He jokingly said, “well, I’ve got this woman on the side, but no big deal, God understands me.” The implication was that we wouldn’t casually commit adultery and assume it’s a sin that God would shrug and go “oh well, you’re just weak, I get it, it’s cool bro.” So why do we make that assumption about other sin?
Sexual sin gets us, well, all hot and bothered. It’s easy to identify and point out, even if we don’t all agree on what constitutes an actual sin. Some of the no-brainers like murder and theft, we all agree are wrong; it’s easy to identify unjust taking of life or property. But what about those secret, soft sins? What about how jealous we are of our friend for whom everything seems to come so easily? Or how reliant we are on money for our sense of self-worth? Or how unwilling we are to listen when someone is lovingly correcting us, because we know we thought this through and have to be right?
One of the most helpful things my church taught me was a fresh perspective on idolatry. We tend to think of only the most extreme cases when we’re thinking about idolatry; people like the junkie who lost everything, or the slave to lust who blew up his or her marriage. But how many times have external factors in the world changed our emotions and claimed our focus? We wring our hands, weep, and fret over that relationship we couldn’t have or that isn’t going as well as we would like. We rack our brains to come up with a way to make a little more money so we can feel safe. We are raising our love or our money in these situations as idols with the power to determine our joy or take it away. Another perspective, taught to me by a church a while back, was that the definition of worship is what claims your time. Again, in these situations, our energy is not focused on what God’s will might be for us, but on what these things can do for us.
A useful technique to evaluate whether you’re being dismissive of your sin is to perform one of these substitutions. Take your problem that you don’t find abhorrent, but that you feel in your conscience is wrong, and substitute it with one that you do find abhorrent. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable stealing a car from a parking lot, for instance. So pretend instead that instead of chasing money, or worshipping a guy, you were stealing cars and couldn’t stop. What do you think God would have to say to you about that sin then, if you were to ask? What do you think your conscience would say to you? And how serious would you be about fixing it? When you’ve got a good handle on the feeling of conviction, and your feeling about how earnestly you’d like to change if you were that person, keep those feelings and apply them to the current situation.
A non-Christian objection to this notion of sin is that it’s a cosmic guilt trip. I view it a bit differently. One of the things that I find most interesting about Christianity is that everything works in reverse. We don’t fight our human nature and act good so that we can gain the favor of God and be spared wrath. Rather, because we believe a triune God sent a part down as a human to pay the debt we had accrued for past, present, and future wrongs, we fight our human nature that just wants to rack up more debt and serve ourselves and instead seek to know, reconcile, and ultimately be united with this being.
This is why Christians prefer to seek conviction over guilt. Conviction tells you something is wrong, just like guilt does. Guilt, however, carries a seed of wrath; you are either planning on punishing yourself or awaiting external judgment. Conviction carries a seed of forgiveness; as we turn back to God and renew our commitment, we receive the forgiveness that permeates the entire universe and binds its brokenness. I use “receive the forgiveness” rather than “we are forgiven” because it’s easy to confuse the latter with “we’re forgiven because we repent, conditionally”. Forgiveness sits in God’s open hand, and it’s on us to take it and choose its joy and consequence. Of course, we can choose not to take it, but that’s not denied forgiveness; that’s rejected forgiveness, rejected by us.
Oddly, I feel compelled to answer the obvious question my title engenders at the very end: what is sin? I’ve been taught and believe that sin is that which separates us from God, or is anything that we place above God in priority. However, what if your understanding of God is different, or you are currently having trouble believing that there is a God at all? If you’re currently in that place, I think it’s useful to think of sin as something that causes us to choose ourselves over others, or to choose a short-term victory over a long-term one that we know we could have if we persevered. Sure, there are edge cases, but exploring at the margins doesn’t help us get to the center of a truth; it merely tests the limits of that truth. The center is where we wish to be for now, so ask yourself: where am I choosing my desires over the legitimate needs of others? Where am I chasing a short-term win that is destroying my long-term prospects? Then, try swapping that problem with a more serious and urgent one and see where it gets you.