Note: I use we throughout this post a lot referring to other Christians. If you are not a Christian and are reading this (or even if you are a Christian), please don’t take my “we” to mean I think you need to adopt my mindset. You do you, booboo.
Several questions created a spiritual storm that I lived in for many years: how to think about other religions, what to do with sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality. The storm began to pass after I shifted my perspective on sin.
Until then, sin equaled fear and unworthiness. It was me doing wrong and being wrong. Sin was not being right with God.
I was afraid if I believed there could be truth found in other religions that I was being unfaithful to God. And afraid that changing my mind about sex and sexuality meant turning away from the Bible and that God would no longer support me or fully love me.
When I first questioned sin, I relied mostly on my gut, and I’m pretty sure my gut and God are in cahoots. Everything changed one night that I’ve written about before and which I’ll come back to again and again. Sadly, I remember no exactly details — I think I was in bed? — all I remember is the thought, the one special thought that cleared the storm. God cares more about me pursuing truth than They do sin.
I say it was mostly intuition, but about six months before I had that thought, I used a concordance and looked up every verse in the New Testament that uses the word love. And what I found is that love is paired with freedom, and freedom is paired with the responsibility to serve others.
It struck me six months later that we must have true freedom to truly love. We must have a real choice in how we love and who we love. It can’t be based on fear, and it can’t be strongly regulated. And that’s what my concept of sin had been doing: restricting love.
In college, while my Christian classmates and I were deeply contemplating ethics, we ran into a problem, but I don’t think we realized it. We did not want to be legalistic like the Pharisees, but neither did we believe right and wrong could be relative. If morality was relative, then how could we know that we were right? How could we know we were in the True Faith?
So we chose some ways of abandoning legalism and not others. It wasn’t necessarily a sin to work on the Sabbath. But we debated about whether it was ok to get divorced in the case of domestic abuse (THIS STILL BOTHERS ME THAT THIS WAS/IS DEBATABLE).
There are so few absolute truths. Do not murder? There’s a time when that’s the right thing to do. Same with lying, inflicting pain, and so on. When we rest in the fact that what is right and wrong is situational, we can ask ourselves what is the most loving response. And love becomes the rule instead of the rules dictating love.
This relative view of right in wrong is it’s hard to apply. How can we know if we’re in the right? How can we hold each other accountable? Where do we start? If truth is relative, what is sin? For starters, anything that restricts or goes against love.
We know what love looks like. And when we’re trying to figure out the right thing to do, particularly when we’re trying to convince others of it, instead of attempting to use perfect logic and be perfectly supported by Bible verses, we ought to try finding common ground on what is loving. And if there’s no perfect agreement, then maybe that’s a situation where there’s not a right answer.
Shortly after my realization, I read The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg which has a wonderful chapter on sin. Much of my understanding of sin is now based on that chapter, and I’d like to present some of what is there.
The key to Borg’s understanding of sin rests on a quote from theologian Frederich Buechner:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.
Christianity rests on the idea that we need God, that we are in some way or another lost without Them. Borg questions whether sin is the best way to describe why we are lost.
When sin becomes the one-size-fits-all designator of the human condition, then forgiveness becomes the one-size-fits-all remedy. And this is the problem. If the issue is blindness, what we need is not forgiveness, but sight. If the issue is bondage, what we need is not forgiveness, but liberation, and so forth … I have sometimes remarked that if Moses had gone into Egypt and said to the Hebrew slaves, ‘My children, your sins are forgiven,’ they would have said, ‘Well, that’s nice, but you see, our problem is bondage.’
I get lost in doubt, insecurities, sadness, and indecision, and the role that God plays in my life isn’t always the one of forgiver, but also parent, mentor, giver of love and comfort. This means that the things that are “wrong” in our lives aren’t necessarily a problem of me being wrong. And this leads us to the concept of salvation. Because we’ve been taught that Jesus died for our sins and, therefore, our sins are a state of wrongness that only Jesus could correct.
That’s the biggest component of Christianity that I grew up with that didn’t sit right with me — that I needed salvation through Jesus because I was born into sin and that it’s only through Jesus that I am accepted by God. Jesus’s death was something I never really understood.
Well, to be honest, I bought into it for a while. In middle school, I was addicted to this one particular music video (by Michael W. Smith I think?) that showed a gruesome depiction of Jesus’s death because it stirred intense feelings of guilt at being the cause of his death. And these feelings of guilt made me feel closer to God. I thought the more I repented, the more I’d be in God’s favor. But this is not a loving or healthy attitude. This is like fighting just for the make-up sex. This is a relationship fueled by drama.
I believed for a while that Jesus died a gruesome death because I was capable of lying to my parents and saying mean things to my classmates and spent many nights imagining doing dirty things with the vampire Lestat. I was wrong. And even if I did the worst things imaginable, I’d still be wrong.
Back to Borg:
It wasn’t individual sins that caused Jesus’ death. He wasn’t killed because of the impure thoughts of adolescents or our everyday deceptions or our selfishness. The point is not that these don’t matter. The point, rather, is that these were not what caused Jesus’ death. Rather, Jesus was killed because of what might be called “social sin,” namely, the domination system of his day. The common individualistic understanding of sin typically domesticates the political passion of the Bible and Jesus.
All of a sudden, Christianity isn’t based on a set of regulations. It doesn’t prioritize the personal beliefs of one person, but rather a political message of justice. And this is justice based on the idea of the worthiness and equality of all people. This is God’s message of love presented in the personhood of Jesus. This guy who loved the untouchables and fought against political corruption. Jesus looked at what was loving. Perfect justice is love.
This concept of social sin is what Borg calls a “singular” version of sin. He makes the distinction of singular and plural versions. Plural sins are individual acts we categorize as sinful. Singular sin is “a ‘state’ or ‘condition’ that produces the more specific behaviors that we commonly call sins.”
He then looks at two theologians’ views of the “root of sin,” meaning the state which allows for sin.
For Reinhold Niebuhr … the “root sin” is “pride,” hubris, to use the Greek term. Hubris is self-centeredness. It names the primal self-concern that flows inevitably out of our nature as finite creatures who are also aware of our finitude and vulnerability. The result is we become anxious, very early in life, and in this state of primal anxiety become self-centered. The more specific behaviors that we typically label as sins flow out of this primal self-centeredness.
Tillich’s term for this state is “estrangement,” very deliberately chosen to suggest being separated from that to which we belong. Our lives are estranged from God. We live in exile, east of Eden. And our sense of separation leads to centering in the self or the world (or both) rather than in God and the more specific behaviors we commonly call sins. Tillich emphasizes the importance of this “root sin” by suggesting that “sin” be used in the singular only, never in the plural.
See, this is the radical thought that changed how I viewed my faith: what if my actions in and of themselves are not a big deal? What if God is not waiting for me to do something wrong so that They can judge me? Instead, what matters is how my personal integrity, like a wave in a pond, impacts the greater community. And what matters is if I’m allowing myself to be centered in the love of God.
I don’t need God because I’m a sinner but because through accepting Their wisdom I can have a better life; by being loved by God, I can accept that I’m lovable; and because I want to be an ally in fulfilling Their perfect justice.