Why Talk about Sin?

L0029215 Adam and Eve under the Tree of life, woodcut 1547

So, what are your views on “sin”?  Much of how you might answer that question depends on your background–how you raised, and whether you were raised as a Christian (or Jew or Muslim), and what kind.

I have written about sin before, but I was prompted to do so again by this article in The New York Times:  Raising Children without the Concept of Sin.  The author of the article was raised in a fundamentalist tradition, and in her words, ” sin was the inflexible yardstick by which I was measured.”  Her world was very small, very rigid, and very scary:  everything was a possible temptation, every thought and act had to be scrutinized for fear of judgment and punishment.  No wonder that by the time she had children of her own, her faith was in tatters.  She chose to raise her children “without the concept of sin,” at least as it is traditionally taught in the Christian church, and to believe that social activism is the most important moral orientation for one’s life.

It is interesting, though, that the author does actually have a concept of sin; she says, “the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world.”  That is her moral code, and the one she is passing on to her daughters.  I wonder what the word means to her, or if it is just a synonym for a failing, a mistake.  I wonder if judging others by any standard of behavior–even if it is “better” behavior than what she was judged for as a child (reading Glamour magazine, for example)–is a helpful corrective.

As always, I come back to my Lutheran foundation here and argue that even though the concept of sin can be so horribly distorted and terribly damaging when it is used as a threat and a stick, it also articulates a truth about human nature that no other word can fully express.  “Sin” reminds me that the goal of a Christian life isn’t to prove anything to anyone, or earn anything before God–simply because that is impossible.  “Sin” reminds me that my faith is not first and foremost about what I do, but about what God has done.  And, finally, “sin” reminds me that I am not more worthy of love if I participate in 100 marches or food drives or blood donations or anything else; I am worthy of love because God made me and loves me–regardless of what I do or do not do.  Period.

Of course, there is more after this:  the state of being sinful always fully coincides with the state of being forgiven; and the joyful response to that can and should take the form of love for the neighbor.  But no matter how much love is in my heart, and in my hands, it doesn’t make “sin” go away.  And neither does not talking about it, or replacing the word with something else.

I certainly can understand why someone who has been so deeply scarred by the church would repudiate its categories and reject its way of seeing the world; the church has lots to repent of in the way it has too often linked being a “good” Christian with being a virgin, a tee-totaler, a mother/father (heterosexual, of course), etc., etc.  But that is not the whole story: law never is, not by itself.

Sin can also pave the way for the proclamation of a joyous word of grace:  the word that we are free from self-justification, free from having to earn love and respect–and free for lives of loving, bold, radical service–not because we have to, but because we get to.  Love is a gift not a demand; in its best articulation, sin reinforces that message, rather than compromising it.

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