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.
Other 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.