What is “Sin”?

The following is an excerpt from my sermon this past Sunday, part of our “Praying the Psalms” series. The sermon was focused on Psalm 51 and praying in confession of sin. There’s much more to be said on “sin” than can be said in a thousand words, but this excerpt gives a rough start.

My first introduction to the notion of “sin” was probably much like yours. We learn the Ten Commandments, and it’s easy: the “Thou shalt nots” are sin; and doing the opposite of the “Thou shalts,” that is also sin. Adultery? Sin. Not respecting my Mom and Dad? Sin. Lying? Sin. Stealing? Sin. Murder? Sin.

Michelangelo original sinOther commands are then added from elsewhere in the Bible (and sometimes from outside of it!), and these are then viewed through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount—or at least one common interpretation of it. So Jesus says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28)—and this is taken to mean not simply that our outward actions have roots in our inner desires, which I think is Jesus’ point, but that the desires themselves are sin. Or Jesus says that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt 5:22)—and as a kid I was filled with guilt over every bit of inner anger with my older brother, even if it never saw the light of day in my actions, because that inner flash of anger is itself seen as sin.

So we start with the Big Ten and other commands, then we internalize them and privatize them with the Sermon on the Mount. But that isn’t all. In many Christian circles, this understanding of “sin” is then mixed in with a particular view of the world: that the world is an inherently evil place that is going to be destroyed in God’s judgment, and what really matters is the eternal spiritual realm that finds its perfection in “heaven,” being in a spiritual state for eternity with God. This idea is thoroughly unbiblical, and even heretical—it’s a modern, slimline version of Gnosticism, one of the earliest Christian heresies. But it is a pervasive and tenacious view of the world among Christians.

Here’s what often happens when all this is mixed together: it leads to an idea that this life is just a kind of preparation for the next, even a kind of test. If you pass the test—if you believe the right things and avoid these sins and ask God to forgive you when you do them—then you will make it into the “heaven” that is the real point of our existence.

“Sin,” in this view, is just part of the test: it’s a sort of abstract list of “thou shalt nots” that God has come up with to test our loyalty to him. The way we’ve interpreted Genesis doesn’t help in all this. Rather than seeing God’s command to Adam and Eve as symbolic of the moral struggle we all face, from ancient Israel to today, we see it as a pretty arbitrary command—eating fruit from a particular tree—created simply as a test of Adam and Eve’s loyalty.

The end result of all this is some peculiar notions of “sin.” Sin is a list of “don’ts.” Sin is inward and private. Sin is about religion or personal morality, only applying in certain areas of life.

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sin. At bottom the language of “sin” is simply this: it’s a way of talking about the things we think, say, or do that cause harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and therefore cause harm to the God who created everyone and all things.

There are many biblical texts I could point to that reflect this perspective of “sin as harm,” but let me choose just one: Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm (evil, wrong, kakos) to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

According to Paul, here following Jesus, the commands of the Law of Moses as summarized in the Ten Commandments are further summed up in loving others just as we want to be loved. This is what true “righteousness” is: loving others. The opposite of this, according to Paul, is “harming” others, and this is therefore “unrighteousness,” or sin. “Sin,” then, is really about “harm”—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.

This view of “sin as harm” fits well within the larger story of God in Scripture. God created all things, including us as humans within this world, as “very good” (Gen 1:31). God created us and all living things to flourish in a full and abundant life, to grow in health and wholeness and beauty and goodness and truth, to extend God’s loving and faithful rule throughout all creation in peace and justice and joyful delight. Sin, then, is a distortion of God’s good intentions, which are always for flourishing life. Sin brings a comprehensive, deep death to ourselves and others and the rest of creation, the opposite of real life. Sin is “causing harm”: hindering or stopping or even reversing the flourishing life God our Creator wants for us, for others, and for the whole earth.

When we understand sin along these lines, it keeps us grounded in the real world, not disconnected in some special “religious” world. God isn’t concerned about us keeping a list of rules. God wants us to love others as God loves us, nurturing the flourishing life of others around us.

When we understand sin this way, it helps us keep our inner life in proper perspective. As James puts it, “When one’s desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Our inner desires are not sin. What we do with them can, if harmful, be sin: the settled dispositions and behavioral patterns we develop out of these desires, what we say because of them, what we do to satisfy them. Our inner desires are not sin. But our inner desires are the place where our attitudes, our words, and our actions take root—either for good or for harm.

When we understand sin as “harm” in this way, it opens our eyes to wider, more pervasive, sins. God is not only concerned with our private lustful or angry thoughts and how those might take root and spread into our personal relationships. God is also concerned with the way our personal sins become systemic, social evils: the way our insatiable greed and our thirst for power fuels economic oppression that keeps people in poverty; the way our lust and our dehumanizing of others fuels sexual addiction and abuse that chains people in fear and silence; the way our willful ignorance and self-indulgence fuels environmental devastation that ruins ecosystems and kills off entire species.

And when we understand sin like this, as causing harm, it is not excessively negative. Yes, what I’ve just described is terrible: sin is still sin, and there is real evil in the world. But we are not burdening our children and ourselves with a label like “totally depraved.” We are not implying that some people are beyond the scope of redemption. We are starting with a positive story—God creating all things as “very good,” for a flourishing of life in love—and that story controls the way we think even about sin and evil in the world, in others, and in ourselves.

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5 Responses to What is “Sin”?

  1. Ken Kroeker says:

    liberation at last….. freed from sinful notions of sin. Thanks Michael, well said.

  2. Michael Pahl says:

    I had a comment from a friend on Facebook that I thought offered a good question, so I’ve copied his question and my response:

    His comment: “Nice piece. The times I’ve read arguments like these they often feel motivated by a hidden goal, like altering the traditional list of sins. Including some more, or excluding previous understandings. I trust this isn’t your motivation, but simply to have a more biblical view. What do you make of biblical notions of sin that don’t neatly fit into your suggested sin-as-harm model (eating strangled meat, eating meat sacrificed to idols, forms of sexual immorality where there is consent).”

    My response: “Thanks for the comment… I hope it’s evident from the blog post that I’m not trying to get humans off the hook for sin. I’m simply trying to give an account of sin that is both “biblical” (in quotes because it’s such a slippery, oft-abused term) and fits with common human experience. Tradition is also in there – as I was writing I had conversations in my head both with “traditional lists of sins” (not sure if you meant biblical lists or things like the “seven deadly sins”) and with notions of sin like Augustine’s “disordered desire/love.” As for your question, I think this idea of sin-as-harm actually helps illuminate some of these things. For example, eating meat sacrificed to idols: Paul is clear in 1 Cor 8-10 that this is not in itself sin, since idols are really nothing in the world and meat is meat; yet it becomes sin when that action causes harm to another believer, encouraging them to eat idol meat against their conscience. Or the sexual immorality where there is consent: adultery, for example, is between two consenting adults, yet there is harm caused at least to their married partner(s). Of course, this idea of sin-as-harm does create questions about some things we have traditionally identified as “sin,” and at the very least can force us to think carefully about what is actually “sinful” in some of these instances.”

  3. Michael Pahl says:

    Another comment on Facebook worth reproducing here: “[You say,] “‘Sin,’ then, is really about ‘harm’—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.” I had trouble with the inclusion of God in this statement. The way it reads to me, is that God is harmed by our sin. I know through Christ’s suffering and death, he endured harm, but it was by his choice, and to fulfill the requirements of the law. Also, to harm, is to cause an effect or change. Our sin cannot change God, not like it changes us. I must have a different definition of the word harm.”

    My response: “I understand—I had trouble writing that! I debated whether to describe God as “harmed” by our sin, but decided to keep that in. A general definition of “harm” is to “have an adverse effect on.” It’s hard for me to read biblical descriptions of human sin “grieving” God (e.g. Gen 6:5-6 or Eph 4:30), or of the pathos of God’s pleas to Israel in her sin (e.g. Hos 11), or of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), and not think that our sin “has an adverse effect on” God. I imagine this as the “harm” experienced by an artist when her creation is damaged, or the “harm” a parent experiences when her child is harmed by another—or does harm to another in defiance of the parent’s wishes. The notion that God is not affected by things we say or do, neither experiencing pain nor pleasure because of our actions, is called “divine impassibility,” and the idea that God does not change is referred to as “divine immutability.” It seems to me that if we’re going to take these biblical descriptions of God seriously—not to mention the incarnation and the cross—then at the very least extreme notions of divine impassibility and immutability don’t work. God in Christ became something that God previously was not, and God is affected—adversely—by our sin.”

  4. Michael Pahl says:

    Another comment on my Facebook post questioned my description of sin, pointing to several biblical texts that together could be taken to indicate that for sin to have occurred the following must have been present: 1) There must be a law of God (Rom 4:15); 2) we must know the law by having been taught it by others, by the light of Christ, or by the Holy Spirit (Acts 17:24-30); 3) we must have the ability to keep the law – we must be free of constraint and have the mental capacity to understand the meaning of our actions (John 9:41); 4) and then, knowingly, we must do the forbidden act or fail to perform the action we are commanded to do (1 John 3:4; Jas 4:17).

    Here was my response: “Some good thoughts there, especially on “culpability” for sin. And I agree that we are only culpable or blameworthy for our sin when we have freedom to act/not act and knowledge of what our actions/inaction could bring about. Intentionality plays a part in there also, though in at least some instances one can still have a degree of culpability for one’s sin even when the sin is unintended. My concern was more with the “inner workings” of sin itself, not how we determine whether or not someone is culpable for their sin. And I should say that not all of those biblical texts are the most helpful for your point… For example, on the first item with Romans 4:15, Paul is speaking there about the Law of Moses, and he’s pretty precise with his language: without law there can be no “transgression,” no “overstepping of bounds,” no “crossing the line” of the law. Sin cannot be called “transgression” if there has been no “law” to transgress. However, as Paul goes on to say in Rom 5, there was in fact “sin” before the Law of Moses – e.g. 5:13, “sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” Paul’s statements in Romans are part of a much larger argument regarding justification and (especially) the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God, so they need to be read in that larger context.

    “I could add that this kind of approach to “sin” is in fact one I am concerned about – tying “sin” to a list of specific divine commands and then leaving it there. But we need to make a distinction between “sin” and “culpability” or “guilt.” Focusing on our culpability for sin, as if that is itself what sin is, can make us obsessed with “guilt” (both avoiding it ourselves and assigning it to others) and make us blind to the wider harm our sin can cause and blind to the full and flourishing life God wants for us (which is not simply a “guilt-free life”!). Many Christians live as if Jesus only came to deal with the guilt of our sin, when in fact he came to deal with sin itself.”

  5. Great discussion, Michael. I really like what you say. My reading of Romans 5 is similar to yours. Thank you!

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