The Sin Question

I enjoy being stretched by conversations with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. So I often try to think of questions to put in my facebook status in the hopes that people will weigh in with their insights and contributions. Yesterday’s question was, “How would you define sin? Why”. I kicked off the comments by saying that this is a question that comes up in my work a lot – but when it comes right down to it people are often hesitant to actually define sin. Perhaps this is particularly true when the question comes up around a topic like homosexuality. I think this may be the case because many Christians don’t know what to do with the idea that people may disagree on what is sinful and what isn’t – people who still really love Jesus and still really care about what the Scriptures say. Though this is changing in many contexts, a lot of Christians have had the experience of going to church and connecting with other Christians who think a lot like they do.

But when you DO encounter Christians who think differently than you do …. How do you respond? Well, some folks just shut down and cut off engagement. Others try to convince the other person they’re wrong and need to see things their way – call them to repentance so-to-speak. For many, there are tremendous feelings of anxiety. And then sometimes, people will take a deep breath and look at their own beliefs and question whether or not they need to consider this different perspective they are being introduced to. I think the reason that this last option is so rare, is that we’ve been taught to not question – that questioning our beliefs or positions is evidence of a weak faith.

My daughter was reading about Job in her children’s bible last night during family devotions. And the moral of the story as interpreted by the author of this story bible was that we aren’t to question God. To which I, as a good parent said, “Actually, God really likes it when we ask questions, when we think about hard things from the bible, and when we have a conversation with God about those things. Can you tell me someone in the bible who asked God a lot of questions?” I shared with them that I’d just had the chance to hang out with a guy who wrote a book called, “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything” ….. and we had a good conversation as a family around the whole invitation to question.

I saw this quote in a post by my friend Nathan Colquhoun:

“The essential difference between orthodox Christianity and the various heretical systems is that orthodoxy is rooted in paradox. Heretics, as Irenaeus saw, reject paradox in favour of a false clarity and precision. But true faith can only grow and mature if it includes the elements of paradox and creative doubt. Hence the insistence of orthodoxy that God cannot be known by the mind, but is known in the obscurity of faith, in the way of ignorance, in the darkness. Such doubt is not the enemy of faith but an essential element within it. For faith in God does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes. Rather, it can be seen as a process of ‘unceasing interrogation.’ …The spirit enters into our lives and puts disturbing questions. Without such creative doubt, religion becomes hard and cruel, degenerating into the spurious security which breeds intolerance and persecution. Without doubt, there is loss of inner reality and of inspirational power to religious language. The whole of spiritual life must suffer from, and be seriously harmed by, the repression of doubt.” – Kenneth Leech

So back to the sin question …. people do have different ideas about what sin is.

Consider these comments from the facebook conversation:

“Sin is falling short. In the world of faith, it’s falling short of the Glory of God. Sin hurts us or hurts others.”
“Sin is anything that violates the Two Great Commandments — anything not based on love.”
“Sin is acting contrary to the character of God. It is being un-Godly.”
“I’m not sure.”
“I tend to view it as missing the target. The target being God’s will.”
“At its essence, simply a mistake. Theologically, a mistake against the creative intent, will or perfect design of a loving God.”
“God ultimately knows what is sinful and what is not .. but how He holds us accountable is the question.”
“I suppose I choose not to define sin, not because I do not believe it has definition but because I think it does. The stakes are kind of high, it is my life I am playing with. So I chose also to recognize God’s ultimate authority, ability and lean on the only staff I possess, the distinct possibility that He would chose to show me grace. Grace not deserved but simply the best call He could make concerning me and eternity.”
“Sin is that which causes us to cower in God’s presence – to attempt to hide from Him in shame.”

Neal Plantinga wrote a book about sin in 1995 and in the first few pages notes that if we talk about sin, we need to talk about shalom. If sin is “not the way it’s supposed to be” then shalom is “the way things are supposed to be …. They are supposed to include peace that adorns and completes justice, mutual respect, and deliberate and widespread attention to the public good.” (p. 8) He goes on to say that God hates sin because it breaks shalom and says, “Sin is culpable shalom-breaking” (p. 14)

If we think about this, we soon realize that people experience and expect the shape of shalom in different ways – and therefore understand shalom and its absence in different ways. For some, shalom may be the hope and experience that people image God in similar ways – including in the most intimate one flesh union of sexual intercourse. Their experience and expectation of the complementarity of male and female as mysteriously coming together to image God in the sexual union is their grid for understanding the shalom of God. For another, shalom is the outworking of God’s creation observation that it is not good for man to be alone. In response, their deepest sense of shalom is knowing and being known. Trump in this case is the experience of relational intimacy – not gender complementarity. One suggests that same-gender unions are an affront to the image of God – the other sees coerced aloneness as being an affront to a relational God. They see the breaking of shalom differently. And thus experience the sin question differently.

When we reduce these fundamental differences to caricatures and accusations, I would submit, we break the shalom of seeing one another’s hearts, listening for where the Spirit is at work, and seeking to understand, honour and serve one another. These are fundamentally different ways of looking at things – but in both understandings there can be the robust desire to make God and His Word central.

Does that mean sin is relative? That somehow this breaking of shalom can look differently for different people?

Plantinga comments on this when he references limited moral subjectivism: that some acts are genuinely (even if not objectively)* wrong for one person but not for another, and they are wrong on account of what the person thinks about them. He also points out that we need to remember the concept of limited moral absolutism: it is always wrong to act against one’s conscience. This reminds us of James 4: 17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”

So at the end of the day, each of us needs to wrestle with God – not just about how we would define sin – which is conveniently theoretical – but about what our conscience is saying to us about our thoughts, intentions and actions. And I would submit, we need to give one another some space to actually have that ongoing dialogue with God. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit doesn’t overwhelm us with conviction about everything at every moment …. For then who could stand? Who could respond? No, the Holy Spirit has impeccable, perfect timing ….. and embodies a deeper, gracious knowing than followers of Christ are able to extend to one another. So my money is with letting the Holy Spirit do his job in his way in his time.

There is no question, of course, that we have incredible capacity for self-deception and may well need the loving and bold intervention of fellow brothers and sisters (consider the prophet Nathan and his visit to David after the death of Uriah and affair with Bathsheba). But such correction ought to come with tears and sorrow – not with self-righteous judgment and accusation.

May God lavishly grant wisdom and discernment so that we will walk this road together in humility, depending on the Holy Spirit, and with self-giving love.

* I understand, of course, that many would argue that same-sex sexual behaviour is objectively dealt with in Scripture and therefore the concept of limited moral subjectivism does not apply. But some would see that it could apply particularly when they consider our current understanding of sexual orientation and the kind of covenantal mutual partnerships of some gay Christians.