November 11, 2013

Hard Questions: Sin - What is it Exactly?

This doesn't seem like a hard question, at least not for fundamentalists and literalists, but it's a hard question that a lot of us feel needs to be discussed with a mind towards progress and unity.

We tend to think of sinning as a sort of overarching wickedness or evil, acts done maliciously to another. The word translated as 'sin' in the Bible actually means 'missing the mark'. That leaves a whole lot of room for almost anything to be a sin. It also leaves us with a need for a code by which to judge ourselves and our actions, so that we can know if we're sinning. And when we look at it that way, what happens often is that grace and love get pushed aside for legalism.

The idea that all sins are sins against God is easy enough to back up with Scripture, but what does it mean exactly to sin against God. Might we have been looking at it wrong? Might we do better to think about it in another way? Have we sinned against God and our fellow man by not looking at it a different way, and by holding some Scripture as unchangeable commands when they shouldn't be?

"Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." God and love are two nouns; this is describing God's essence, not an attribute. Let's consider the possibility that when we are sinning against God, we are, in essence, sinning against love. And in considering that, we can also imagine that when we sin, we are experiencing a failure in our grasp of love.

In 1 Cor. 13 Paul writes of the characteristics of love, which are by extension, characteristics of God. "Love never fails". Indeed, it does not, and God never fails, either. But we fail constantly. We don't understand the immense fulness that is love, we get distracted by things that should be secondary, sometimes fear keeps us paralyzed, and sometimes, we simply don't put in the effort needed to fully grasp love.

But sometimes we get it right.

And it's very obvious when someone gets it right.

Those poignant stories of quiet bravery or sacrifice that bring tears to our eyes. The radiance of a mother holding her newborn child. The person that makes a living organ donation so someone can keep living. The embrace of a friend that seeks to be present in our grief, and not to fix it.

So if we're thinking about these 'missing the mark' sins as failings in our grasp of love, then we need to consider the ways that we can love more purely and completely.

And as Christians, we have to consider those things in the context of church.

Are we truly being loving to our neighbors and fellow Christians when we tell some of them to sit down and remain silent, simply because they lack a Y chromosome? Or are we failing to grasp love because it's easier or more convenient to abdicate our own responsibility to wrestle with issues, pointing to the appropriate verses and letting God take the blame for the inequity?

Is it loving to insist that people struggling with addictions and hardships change themselves immediately and "get right with God" (which many times really means, 'don't be an embarrassment to our church' )? Is it loving for us to expect a group of people who we have historically condemned, and continue to condemn and ostracize, to come to us in their search for grace, love, and salvation, and tell them that they're wrong for avoiding us?

Our attempts to love fail because we're human, and we let our selves get in God's way. In those instinctive moments where we shrink with knowledge of our inadequacy, He appears. In those spaces where we strive to die to our selves and our agendas, He appears. He appears because love is flowing freely.

Don't we owe it to God, our fellow man, and ourselves, to once again wrestle with our conceptions and opinions of Scripture asking ourselves if we're failing love by following legalism? Instead of confining God's interactions with us to the pages of the Bible, shouldn't we be actively seeking His wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

We all know when we sin through malice, selfishness, and evil. But it's so easy for us to miss when we sin through oversight, omission, or certitude.

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