Sometimes people ask me to talk about sin. I’ve actually been accused of being “soft” on sin before. After all, my sermons don’t consist of regular condemnations of people who do this or that. But, I actually talk about sin a lot. Like, all the time.
When asked, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. With this as the litmus test, any action or attitude that is unloving toward God, neighbor, or self would be something that transgresses the command to love. We would call this “sin.”
So, what do we call it when we refuse to love our enemies and, instead, seek revenge against them? Sin.
What do we call stinginess, greed, and hoarding all we have for our own comfort, when so many are living in poverty and lacking the basic necessities of life? Sin.
What do we call actions and attitudes that are hateful, biased, or bigoted toward others with whom we disagree or don’t understand? Sin.
What do we call it when we live our lives for ourselves, and only for ourselves, with no thought for how our lives impact and affect others? You guessed it, sin.
But this isn’t what people usually mean when they want to hear about sin. They typically mean, “Let’s hear about other people’s sin.” After all, it’s convenient to seek out someone you feel is worse off morally than you are, and use your correctness to shame them into being more like you.
Christians are good at organizing against abortion; we don’t care much about greed.
And this is part of the problem. We spend our time and energy on a “Who’s the worst sinner” contest, focusing on these specific things that people do (or don’t do) that we deem sinful, and yet we never get to the core of what we mean by sin.
What is sin? It isn’t just lying, cheating, stealing, or bowing down to idols. We focus on symptoms, when the issue is far larger than any of the symptoms themselves.
While I am very reluctant to ever pluck a single verse out of the Bible, out of context, and build a theology around it, I do want to look at a verse that might give us some insight into what sin might actually be, and why it’s so destructive.
In Romans 3v23, Paul says this:
All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory…
(The next line, verse 24 is amazing by the way…so check that out when you have time!)
So here’s the news: we all have sinned. I don’t hear anyone arguing that point, either. It’s as plain as the noses on our faces.
He goes on to say that this “all-have-sinned-ness” in which we participate means that we have fallen short of “God’s glory.” That doesn’t sound good, but what is God’s glory?
I used to think God’s glory has something to do with God’s reputation. That falling short of God’s glory meant that God had set the standard for us (basically, perfection), and we had fallen short, missed the mark. After all, “missing the mark” is what the word sin means. We failed to live up to perfection, to praise God enough, to thank God enough, and this means we are sinners.
But the idea of God depending on us for God’s self esteem makes God seem insufficient. Does God really need us to tell God how great God is all the time? Is that our greatest missing of the mark?
St. Irenaeus was a bishop who lived in the late second century in, what we call today, France. One of my favorite Irenaeus quotes goes something like this:
The glory of God is a human being fully alive.
Isn’t that great? And, if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Human beings are God’s image bearers, the representations of the divine in the world. We have been gifted with the opportunity to join God and to participate in the ongoing creation and healing of the world. That is what it means to be human, to be God’s partners.
In this framework, then, sin and falling short of God’s glory would mean something different. If God’s glory is a human being fully alive, then falling short of that glory would be humans being less-than-fully-alive.
We often say, “I’m only human,” to explain our failings. Yet, the problem with this is that it assumes humanness is innately bad. If that’s true, God never got the memo. Humanness is good. We were called “very good” by our Maker, and no amount of wrong can undo that original blessing. The problem isn’t that we are human; the problem is that we too often live in ways that are beneath us. Sin is what happens when we choose to live in ways that are subhuman.
Take greed, for example. When we choose to base our identity and self-worth on how much we can obtain and corral, this isn’t a human action that leads to being fully alive. Greed is a sub-human defining of ourselves, not as God’s beloved children, but as somehow deficient without more. Our identity is shaped and grounded in lack, not love. And we take the filling of that lack into our own hands, and we don’t love God, neighbor, or ourselves well in the process.
Sin isn’t being human; sin is what we are left with when we choose to live in ways that are subhuman. Sin is what happens when we ground our understanding of who we are and why we are here in lack, not love. The symptoms (violence, greed, hate, etc.) of sin are painful, but until we focus on the root cause, healing can’t begin.
One of the central metaphors in the Bible for salvation is dying and rising. Jesus dies and rises, and in turn we are invited to that same path of transformation. Perhaps this is a helpful way to process what it means to leave behind our identity as “sinners.” We die to old ways of understanding who we are, and we rise into a new identity. We die to the lies we’ve been told about God and ourselves, and we rise into a new understanding of who God is and who we are. We die to sin; we are made alive–fully, humanly alive–to God. Here’s how Paul puts it later in Romans:
This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6v6-11, CEB)
Yes, we’ve all sinned, and perhaps our greatest sin is that we’ve been less-than-human with each other. We’ve all lived in ways that are beneath us, beneath our calling to be God’s partners and co-creators in the world. We’ve all been invited into the journey of transformation, a journey that makes us more human, not less. And we don’t make this journey alone. Jesus, our older brother, leads the way from sin to freedom, from death to life.