I’ve actually heard surprisingly few sermons focused on sin during my years in the church. This is partly because my adult religious life has been spent in mainline Protestant churches where we tend to avoid talking too much about sin so that people don’t confuse us with Bible-thumping evangelicals. But even growing up in a small-town evangelical church, I don’t remember a lot of sermons specifically on sin. Sin was like porn for Potter Stewart; you knew it when you saw it. Sin was difficult to handle on our own, but it wasn’t very complicated, so there was no need to talk about it in much detail on the way to the good stuff (forgiveness and salvation).
But what is sin? If you’ve been reading my blog, you won’t be surprised to know that I have a liberal take on the question. I don’t mean “liberal” in the “anything goes” way; I mean it in the “expanding beyond the original” way. I’ve been discussing the (only slightly heretical) “gospel according to Greg,” which includes new commandments (to listen and empathize), new beatitudes (borrowed from Nadia Bolz-Weber), nontraditional modes of prayer, and relatively underemphasized aspects of God (as feminine).
I believe that expansion is built into the very nature of Christianity. Jesus himself expanded on Judaism by emphasizing that serving God involves more than just doing good things and avoiding bad actions; it is also a habit of the heart and mind. Those in the Jewish faith say that we give too much credit to Jesus’ efforts to refocus attention away from obeying laws and toward our internal motivations. After all, the first two of the Ten Commandments are about our thoughts and emotions, about loving God and making God a priority, and daily prayers remind observant Jews of this orientation. But you have to admit that these commandments get a little lost in the 611 other regulations in the Torah. Jesus certainly took these ideas from the Torah, enlarged them into a commandment to “love your enemies,” and made them more central to the faith.
I think it’s also significant that the first issue for the Christian church was whether to expand the religion past its narrow Scriptural confines, whether to interpret Jesus’ teachings broadly and open up to those outside Judaism. The disciples became convinced that you didn’t have to be born to Jewish parents to be part of the chosen people of God. The new faith had seemingly easy entrance requirements: a change of heart and belief and not chopping off the end of your penis (ending these requirements certainly helped make it possible for Christianity to spread more easily throughout the world). By documenting Peter’s struggle to accept a broader vision of Christianity, the Book of Acts gives us a model for what we all should do: to expand our understanding of Scripture and the Kingdom of God.
It is in that spirit that I offer an expanded notion of what sin is as an extension of Jesus’ efforts to do the same. Although we typically think of sin as something you do, it can be something you don’t do. When the religious people ignore the wounded robbery victim in the Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, that is sin, just as it is sin for us to ignore the suffering of others today. Then Jesus seriously upped the spiritual ante on sin in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that thought could be sinful and not just your actions.
It’s possible for this radical ante-upping idea — that thinking about murder/adultery is the spiritual equivalent of committing those acts – to become paralyzingly guilt-inducing. I know that I will never become so spiritually advanced that I don’t think sinful thoughts. I am a parent, and like all parents I have thought about throttling my child. I certainly have “lusted in my heart” just like Jimmy Carter, and I can’t imagine being so sexually dead that I won’t do so again.
In my college years I considered suicide for a while, and whenever something bad happens to me, those thoughts briefly reappear. Because I lingered over the idea of killing myself when I was younger, I will always be aware that suicide is an option (though it’s an option I have long ago rejected). Because of my history, there will never be a time when such thoughts don’t flit past my consciousness.
I like Martin Luther’s poetic nuance on this idea: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” (I can only hope that he had a tonsure when he said this.) Luther recognizes that our thoughts are unruly things. He also understands that there’s a difference between thinking of sin and dwelling on it, revisiting it, relishing it. The uncontrollable thoughts that visit our minds are not sin; instead, sin is the dark thoughts that take residence and set up shop inside us. (Thank God for Luther’s updating of this particular Scripture.)
Powerful sinful thoughts are the ones we loop, the self-talk that denigrates ourselves or others, rehearses old hurts, imagines new ones, replays obsessive fantasies. Imagination is one of our greatest gifts from God; it allows us to think beyond our current circumstances and envision new possibilities. It also allows us to populate our internal world with hateful or self-lacerating tormentors. We nurture these tormentors with data that we seek and find in the world around us (and in the extended world that comes to us from self-confirming media feeds). These are the thoughts that separate us from God, from others, and from our core identity.
And thus – finally – my definition of sin: anything that separates us from the presence of God.
Sin is individually tailored. Some things are sinful for everyone, of course: murder, stealing, and so on. But some things are sin for some but not for others. Alcohol is a good example. For many, a drink is no big deal; for an alcoholic, however, a drink can send them down a destructive path. That drink is sin for the alcoholic but not for others.
In my liberal approach, anything can potentially become sin. The Second Commandment reminds us that if we spend too much time focused on something, then that thing/activity can become a god to us, something that must be served instead of adding delight to our lives. Sin has a tendency to distort the good things of the world (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” according to the quote misattributed to Ben Franklin on many a t-shirt), to transform these gifts into ways of separating ourselves from God.
Football, for instance, is a beautiful thing, a combination of chess and ballet with 300-pound bodies. But if you find yourself watching college football all day Saturday and the pros all day Sunday to the point that you are ignoring your family, you have distorted that beautiful activity into a false god.
Religion itself can become a false god. Volunteering at church or some other nonprofit organization is a way to give back to the world, but I have occasionally seen people for whom volunteering serves as a way to escape the parts of their lives that need attending to. Volunteering (and the good feeling that it brings) can become addictive. Virtue can become an end in itself and not a path toward God. An expanded understanding of sin recognizes that we need to monitor our attitudes, values, and motivations and not just the actions themselves.
The Gospel puts the relationship between motivation and action into the spotlight. Matthew 6 tells us that if the reason we do good deeds is to be admired by others, then those actions are not righteous at all. This apparently sets a high bar for any virtuous action. Any follower of Christ knows full well the warm feeling that accompanies good deeds. It’s hard to imagine any charitable action that isn’t accompanied by at least some feeling of self-congratulation on being a “good person.”
And yet that is the aspiration, part of the impossibly high calling that is following Christ: that we act lovingly in the world not because we are “good people” but because we recognize that God is working through us. One can act morally without involving higher powers. Many fine people do the right thing simply because it’s right – no religion required. But to follow Christ is to see our actions and prayers as being connected to an invisible network, one where our actions begin in God and are magnified and given meaning as they reverberate through the world. In fact, thinking of yourself as a “good person” can actually cause a spiritual problem if it disconnects you from the network, if you begin to see yourself as the sole origin of your righteous actions.
Mother Teresa articulated this desire to stay connected to the source in a prayer that asks God to “penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.” This is one of great paradoxes of following Christ: that by “losing your life” – by loosening your grip on the tempting scripts and self-talk and identities that you call your “self” – you can find a clarity, a transparency that reveals the image of God within you.
Mother Teresa prayed this prayer daily because she never fully got to that point. Neither will I. But just because this is an impossible aspiration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue it, just as we work toward other impossible goals: justice, truth, the eradication of poverty, equality of opportunity.
Although choosing to follow Christ may seem easy on the face of it (“Just give your heart to Jesus! Now available with no penis-chopping!”), it is actually an extraordinarily high calling, one that we all fail at. If you go to church, you’ve probably gotten used to admitting out loud that you’re a sinner, that the things we do and think and don’t do separate us from the presence of God. Sometimes I think that the word “sinner” has become too religious-y familiar. I suggest the word “fuckup,” which has more punch to it. Basically when you walk into church, you are acknowledging that you are one of the fuckups. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes I think the Church took a major wrong turn when individual confession became a private matter between priest and believer. I often think we have a lot to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, that we should walk into church and say aloud, “My name is Greg, and I’m a fuckup.” (Hi, Greg!) Such an admission is necessarily humbling. It openly recognizes that we are far from being good or nice (“nice” is a particularly strong aspiration/temptation for Southerners. Being nice isn’t necessarily the same as being good).
Corporate worship is an acknowledgment of our fuckedupedness and an embrace from other fuckups like us. As professional smart-aleck Mark Russell puts it, “Maybe the whole purpose of religion, like family, is to make people feel loved and inadequate at the same time.”
(Next time: thoughts on sin and repentance.)