The Nature of Sin

When I was 9 years old I broke a glass thermometer.  My then 15-year old sister and I were home alone and neither of us knew that mercury was toxic.  So when the thermometer broke, the little grey ball gushed out of the water and went rolling across the linoleum floor.  It looked like the shiniest little ball I’d ever seen, almost like a baby pearl.  So I reached to pick it up.  I looked at my fingers and they were empty, the mercury ball still on the wet kitchen floor a few inches from where I had reached for it.  For the next 15 minutes, I attempted unsuccessfully to pick up that perfect shiny grey ball.  It was elusive and no matter how many times I thought I had it in my grip it slipped away. 

Sin is a toxic, elusive, little ball.  I’ve been thinking about sin within myself, and how I see it manifest in my life. I’ve been thinking about its individual and global impacts. I’ve been thinking about what it is, where it starts and how it can be nailed down.  I’m not sure I’m any closer to grabbing that little ball but I’ve decided it definitely isn’t Phil Robertson’s definition.  When the reporter asked him, “What, in your mind is sinful?” he responded, “Start with homosexual behavior and morph it out from there.”  There are lots of people infuriated by his comments, and lots of people infuriated with the response to his comments but I’m most concerned that a man who loves God thinks that sin starts with homosexuality.

For centuries, Christians have had a stance on homosexuality that has not deviated: it is sin, it is to be avoided, and most people agree.  For centuries the Church condoned slavery.  For centuries the Church maintained that women should not have the vote. For centuries birth control and divorce were considered sinful. These ideas were widely accepted and practiced and by in large remained unexamined by the actual people that made up the Church.

Things continue in a certain way for centuries but then society shifts and grows and changes.  These change points are full of dialogue and beauty and ugliness. These shifts are like a woman in labor. It is when our culture grows and changes that the congregants are forced to form their own beliefs about the issues.  That’s the beauty of the change: there is talking and thinking for one’s self.  But the pain is because most people don’t like change because change hurts and change means adapting.  There is pain because perhaps we are doing it wrong, perhaps we are rejecting God’s heart. There is pain for the people involved. And change starts and stops and spurts and is awkward and gangly.  Kind of like puberty.  These times are awkward and tense but they are also great.  It is a time where people have to truly seek out what they believe, what the Bible says and what our response to it should be.  The church has been having birth pains about homosexuality for decades now, and a new era is about to be born.

I used to be bothered that Jesus didn’t directly address the issue of homosexuality.  Didn’t He know that thousands, millions of His followers would need His response? Didn’t He know the wounds that would occur to our brothers and sisters without His clear instructions? But Jesus purposely didn’t give us a checklist of behavior choices.  We are not robots He gave an instruction manual to.  We are His beloved children that He wrote a love letter to.  I used to find this irksome and now I find it refreshing.  Jesus did this for a reason; He wants us to seek answers for ourselves.  And the only way to know WWJD is to seek out the heart of God. When you seek, you will find. And to know the heart of God you have to seek Him and form a relationship with Him. And Boom: God wins again. 

We exist in an era where no one wants to be told what to do, and certainly no one wants to be told that what they decide to do, is wrong.  Where there used to be a wide view of sin (drunkenness, adultery, slander, lying, coarse speaking, anger, strife, malice…there are such lists all over the New Testament) we have replaced it with a narrow view of sin. Now, through growing pains and shifts, those things are seen in some circles as merely character flaws and are encouraged in other circles.  The Church, or better put, those in it, have successfully narrowed the Biblical view of sin. 

I recently read that the American Church, “embraced birth control like they did penicillin”.  In most part, the Pill was embraced Church-wide with opened toddler-filled arms. The idea of birth control use being labeled a sin died.  And not much later when infidelity rates skyrocketed, divorce being labeled as a sin died right along with it. And it died with a whimper.  The death of homosexuality being labeled as a sin is a long loud yell, but I’m here to warn you, that yell will not last forever.  It will die.  History has proved such.  It almost seems like we want to keep the sin circle wide enough for our comfort but narrow enough that we are not trapped inside of it. We successfully sidestep Jesus’ voice when He said that remarriage is tantamount to adultery.  We ignore God’s purposeful blessing of children and His abhorrence to those who separate the act of sex with the act of procreation.  We ignore how Jesus told us to spend our money.  We ignore His imploring to give it away, to actually pay our taxes.  All of them.  And when I say we, I do mean me, and you and WE. We as a church have been collectively picking and choosing what we like and don’t like from scripture for quite some time now, which leaves many of us confused and disillusioned.    

 I see considerable confusion from people who say things like, “hate the sin love the sinner.” These people may say, “I have a gay brother (uncle, aunt, cousin) and I love them but I still have to let them know that I don’t condone their actions! Right? Hate the sin, love the sinner?’

So, what is sin? What are we supposed to hate? When does it start? How do you know when someone else is doing it and more importantly how do you know when you are doing it?

The Bible is clear that sin is contrary to God and those who choose sin and persist in sin will get their hearts desire.  If you don’t want God, in the end you will get what you want.  Sin is separation from God.  The Bible is equally clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  The entire Old Testament and all its specific teachings are meant to show us God’s perfection, God’s glory and how very very short we fall from that. 

We are born into sin.  We are sin.  We are broken. Every act is merely a logical conclusion.  Every misdeed is a working out of that cancer within us.  I have an unfounded speculation that the Bible’s first recorded sin was not when Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit.  I think it may have been many steps before that.  Somewhere along the line, she separated herself from God.  Maybe she stopped walking with God in the cool of the day.  Maybe she began to doubt His goodness towards her.  Maybe she thought, “What God has given isn’t enough”.  She turned away from Truth.  So when that sneaky snake said, “Did God really say?” She was ready to agree.  Maybe Adam too, in his thoughts harbored distrust against God.  He may have already turned, already sinned, because as he stood there next to her he didn’t slap the fruit away from her mouth and yell, “RUN!” He took and ate too. 

My view of sin has become wide- it is every way we turn away from God.  Sometimes that turn is a 180 in an opposite direction and sometimes it is an almost unperceivable shifting. That’s all it is.  Everything else is a natural product of that turning.  Adultery isn’t its own separate sin.  Its not a one time compartmentalized flaw.  It’s not the one-time actual act of having sex with someone who is not your spouse. And when we view it as that we are deluded into thinking that if we just don’t do that one thing, we can be ok with God. We become obsessed with sin avoidance. We become people who value behavior modification over a transformed heart. 

Perhaps our biggest problem is that in our narrowing of sin we have become complacent over our own sin while being excruciatingly nit picky about the sin we see in the world. But what if we chose to ‘hate the sin’ in ourselves and ‘love the sinner’ in the world? What if we actually opened our ears to the things Jesus did say? Like when He told us how to address sin in the world, in our brothers and sisters? Jesus is clear that other people will sin in this world.  He calls their sins ‘specks’.  He calls our internal sins ‘planks’.  This is meant to illustrate how we view sin.  Our sin? Huge.  Sins of anyone else? Tiny. 

“Do not judge or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in you own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye when all the time there is a plank in your won eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

And we read these words in church and agree in theory but do we really? Do we really see our own sins as huge and the sins of others (no matter what they are) as tiny? Do we take our own sin so seriously that it is magnified in the face of what we see externally? Or do we compare? Do we justify?

I think I have perhaps lost quite a few of you who ask, “So what? So we just condone sin? We just let them off the hook? We just roll over and let the world go to hell in a hand basket? What about family values? What about free speech?” 

We live in a country that was founded on Christian principles.  The Bible was used to form our laws.  And I am so grateful for that.  I am so grateful to live in a country where the laws are founded on the idea that I am God’s workmanship.  The rights I have were delegated to me by God alone.  But the problem is, that the rights God grants are very few.  Our country grants free speech, which is a blessing (in most cases), but God does not grant free speech.  In fact He says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” He tells us to guard our words because the tongue is like the vessel of a mighty ship, able to turn the boat in any direction it wishes.  God tells us to use our words only to build others up ‘according to their needs’. God tells us to keep a tight rein on our tongue while America tells us to flap our gums at every opportunity. God does not condone the spewing of any idea and every idea that pops into our heads.  Jesus Himself modeled this during His trial.  He was like a sheep led to slaughter and not a word escaped His mouth.  The king of heaven, who could, at any moment, have called down legions of angles, chose not to avenge Himself.  He chose to stay silent.  He had more right to ‘freedom of speech’ than we can comprehend; yet He stayed silent.  It is an American idea to ‘use our freedom of speech because others died for that freedom’, which is true.  But it’s not a Biblical truth.  The freedom Christ died to give us does not leave us grappling for Our Rights. It is a hard reality that we are called to pattern our behavior after a Savior “Who being in the very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing.”(Philippians 2:6)

Our job as a church is to love people; we are not in the business off behavior modification.  We need to acknowledge that no one changes their behavior or rejects sin, whatever their sin, unless they are compelled by God to do so. A human can never change another human’s heart.  There is a war to be fought against sin.  A war so vast and so wide that only God can overcome it.  Only God holds that power, and He holds onto it very delicately.

Right before the big diatribe in Romans 1 that everyone on the internets seems to be quoting lately about homosexuality being a natural derivative of God ‘giving them over’ (Romans 1:28) to their sinful desires there is something profound in verses that follow.

In Romans Chapter 2:1-4, “You therefore, have no excuse you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.  So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?’

When we deem another person’s actions as sinful and condemn them in our hearts we are showing contempt for God’s kindness toward that person. Have we forgotten that ‘while we were dead in our sins, Christ died for us?’ We weren’t just kind of messed up.  We weren’t just sinning little sins.  We didn’t need a Band-Aid.  We were actually grey, bloated, dead carcasses and God brought us back to life.  I don’t ever want to show contempt for this rich kindness He shows to us. 

As the moral or societal view of sin becomes narrower it is my opinion that the church’s view of sin become wider.  We should ask God humbly to examine our hearts and minds.  Have you ever done this? I do it every night and boy are there ugly things to be found.  God gets out His Maglite and finds all those hidden crevices, pride, anger, and unforgiveness.  I let Him examine the way I speak, the way I think, the way I react.  I let Him inspect my quick responses and coarse tongue.  I sit in silence.  I confess all and every way I have offended Him.  And I let it go.  I give it to Him.  But the most important part of that whole equation is that I have to accept that I did it first.  And that is something we can never do for another person. 

Then God floods my heart with the good things of His spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self Control.  When my heart is full of these things I don’t have room to worry about other people and whether they are sinning or not.  I just don’t have the room.  And do you know whom my heart really loves? Spoiler Alert- it’s The Gays.  I do.  I love them.  When I hear the term ‘gay’ I don’t think of a people group I think of my gay friend and how he takes his coffee.  I think of another gay friend and how one time we were on an airplane and me made me laugh until I peed my pants.  I recall tender coming-out stories. They have faces, faces I know and love.  And so do my divorced friends. And so do my friends who got wasted at a party last Saturday night. And so do my friends who have cheated on their spouses, and so do my friends who refuse to tithe because they are afraid to do without.  So do my friends with unforgiving hearts and ugly minds and backwards thinking. I love them, I do.  Partly because I have committed several of those in just the last week.  But mostly, because I am not their taskmaster and I am not their savior. It is not me they aim to please and I am glad for that.  We were put on this earth to love and support one another.  To share money and show kindness.  But most of all we were put here to point one another to a True Savior, the only One who can take sin and throw it away for good.  When we each go astray we need each other to point the clear way to Him not a pointing finger at each other.  And crazy as it sounds, people can’t hear that we love them when we are poking our finger in their faces. 

The disciples asked Jesus if there were commandments more important than the others, and He was clear, He was crystal clear over and over, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.” If these two commandments are the pinnacle of truth, then they become like an umbrella over us.  Whatever rains on the outside falls, only what comes under Love remains. And I think that this is the answer on how to deal with people on both sides of this issue.  We need to remember that only a select few on both sides are screaming crazy and the vast majority welcomes dialogue. But in our dialogue may we show love in our doubt and love in our certainty. Maybe then Love can grow.

  

3 thoughts on “The Nature of Sin

  1. Judie O'Connor says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful piece. You articulated so well the TRUTH that we miss as Christians, that judging isn’t our job. But I do judge, even though I know it isn’t what God want of me, and I do lots of other things He doesn’t want me to do. I have no other relationship with the unconditional love, the forgiveness, and the encouragement that I have with God. “Create in me a clean heart , oh Lord”. . . . and help me to live in such a way that I reflect that same unconditional love and forgiveness, and encouragement.

  2. michaelliaw says:

    Thanks for your gracious and truthful reflections. Here’s a poetic support for your speculation on the first moment of sin (also, I’m sure John Milton has plenty to say of the same in “Paradise Lost”):


    The Entrance of Sin
    —Scott Cairns

    Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgoing the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.

    For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.

    In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wandered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.

    One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: Every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.

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