My Understanding of Sin

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  It differs from things we might have heard growing up in a modern American Christian context, whether Catholic or Evangelical.  In the spirit of this church’s emphasis on questioning and conversation, I am not stating that this is the only or right or best way to think about sin.  I am only setting it forward as a starting point that frees us up from some of the issues that plague other frameworks and to try to shift the conversation away from personal piety and guilt.

There are traditionally three ways that sin is considered.  First, behavior.  Sin is doing the wrong thing.  Second, as a condition.  When Eve ate the apple, it stained our nature so that we are evil from birth.  Finally, relationally, socially, and cosmically as systems that sustain injustice.  Not only are humans flawed, but the world is fallen, incapable on its own to produce the Good.  Each of these ways of thinking about sin generates a different response to sin and those ways are not always compatible.

We can see examples of this in the early Christian writers wrestling with the question of salvation: By grace?  Through faith?  By works?  Is it our behavior or God’s that matters?  And what are we saved from?  Our own condition or the injustice of the world?  In my opinion and in my experience as a pastor talking through issues of suffering and evil with people, our explanations of sin lead only to confusion and frustration, rather than the experience of freedom promised by the gospel.  So, here is my understanding of sin, which I hope will serve as the backdrop for our conversations throughout Lent.

It is a fact that we live in a finite world.  Existence is marked by scarcity, limits, loss, and ends.  To exist at all requires the possibility of non-existence.  To be, to have a point of view, is to understand that there are things that are not us.

These limits create fear.  We fear scarcity.  We fear death.  We fear the powerlessness of confronting all the not-us that is beyond our control.  Our psyche is structured to deal with this, to defend us against the threat of the world.  Our fears pile up to become delusions, doubts, and desires that help us cope with our finitude.  In themselves, they are not bad.  We hunger, so we know to feed ourselves.  We tell ourselves we are capable even when we are not sure.  We question things to find truth.  However, those good things can swallow us up and become our whole identity, so that each of us is nothing but a monad of fear colliding with other fearful bits of isolation in the world.  We no longer see the world clearly and become convinced that we are not enough and the world is not enough to bring about wholeness, peace, or justice.  The reality of the world and the formation of our psyche in response to its limitations is the condition of sin.

Out of that condition, we make choices.  You can see how a failure to see the world clearly might result in some bad choices.  We often choose to live into that fear rather than overcome it.  We fear scarcity, so we hoard.  We could trust that there is enough if we trusted one another to share.  We fear judgment, so we isolate ourselves or compulsively pursue perfection.  We could accept grace.  We fear loss and failure, so we disengage from the world, keep everything in our bountiful imagination.  We could have some beautiful failures and invest our hope in the next thing.  All of these choices to live into fear rather than hope are sin.  Note that this is not so much something to feel guilty about, but something to endure, overcome, and redeem.

Of course, our choices produce results.  The trick is that these results do not directly correlate to either our intentions or our calculations.  Sometimes, things simply don’t work out as we had hoped or planned.  Sometimes, things work out far better than we had hoped or planned.  But, either way, those results tend to inform our future choices.  If we take that risk and live into hope instead of fear and it ends badly, we’re less likely to try it again.  Fear is reinforced; we are cast further down into the condition of sin, our escape seems even more impossible, and our choices become more distorted.

The terrible reality is that fear has a lot of power in a finite world and we tend to structure our world in response to fear rather than hope.  Politics, economics, even ethics, are designed to cope with scarcity and limits.  We quantify, manipulate, and exploit our world and even one another.  This is what Martin Buber calls the It-world.  It, like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, is necessary.  We must design systems to distribute goods.  We must, at times, regard one another as objects to be used.  But, also like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, we can allow this to become our full understanding of reality.  We live entirely into the It-world and forget that there is a You-world out there, full of people to be related to with compassion and vulnerability.  Worse, the structures of the It-world become entrenched systems of power that exploit and oppress.  They become so pervasive that they seem to be the nature of things.  Gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, age – all manner of ways of dividing and labeling one another – are assumed to be embedded in the fabric of reality, each person occupying a predetermined place in a predetermined order.  In such a system, there is no room for the story of the individual, no room for vulnerability or variation, and no room for transformation.  This, too, is sin.

In this framework of sin, the tensions between the different ways of talking about sin are eased.  There is no conflict between the condition of sin, sinful behaviors, and the injustice and evil of the world.  The nature of the world forces us to make choices that have outcomes and those outcomes either support or resist injustice.  It is a self-sustaining loop.

The good news is that the remedy also consists of overlapping, intersecting constructs.  Those walls of fear that we use to keep the finite world from harming us can be taken down.  Instead of focusing on loss and limits, we can turn around – repent – to see promise and possibility.  But that is not enough.  We also must break the systems of power that capitalize on fear to oppress and exploit.  It is not a question of whether faith, grace, or works is operative, or even primary, in the work of salvation.  They work in concert, each bringing its own potential for transformation that feeds the others:  trust and faith in God and God’s children; the vulnerability and humility in accepting grace; and the courage to work against the oppressor.  This is salvation.

It is worth noting that this is not radically different from a lot of traditional Christian theology.  Augustine is more nuanced than contemporary interpreters give credit.  Evagrius Ponticus’s demonology is almost a perfect analogue of modern psychology.  These authors and others were wrestling with the weighty issues of human experience.  Unfortunately, we have whittled them down to frightening caricatures, using fear to drive membership, and we have largely failed in Christian education to teach people to think critically or take their own experience and reason seriously.  We are left with only guilt and fear to transform people’s lives.  I think we can do better.

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