One of the challenges of any theology is to get a good handle on what constitutes “sin”. We know that the way this question is often answered has to do with what scriptures say is a sin explicitly, or at least the kinds of things that the scripture cites as examples of sin. The bigger theological problem of sin, however, is when is the behavior that is called sinful not really sinful, when are things that are not mentioned still sinful, and what makes something more or less sinful. Additionally, those of us who seek answers that transcend one or two scriptural sources and speak to the very nature of what Sin is. The discussion today will meander through some thoughts and observations, dipping into possible answers from various traditions and teachings, and a lot of speculation. I don’t expect any absolute answers, but I have some ideas and I would like to hear other ideas.
Examples of things often considered sins include: casual sex, erotic sex, theft, lying, misleading, hurting or killing someone other than out of immediate preservation of oneself or another, thoughts looking upon these things in a positive light, etc. We can readily see why anything that treats another unfairly would be on a list of things you should not do. Other things, however, are seen as corrupting your innocence or character, taking away something pure or clean and replacing it with something unhealthy. It is generally acknowledged in Western religions that we all are sinful in some way. Sinlessness is one of those goals that is generally not attainable for most, although almost everybody could be less sinful than they are, no matter what you would define as sin. I must acknowledge that there are a lot of people who do not believe in sin as anything other than a construct of man to limit freedom. I do believe that our guidelines for what is sinful behavior have been developed by man, but I would not go so far as to think that it is a plot. Rather, I believe that these things are attempts to identify things that can and do interfere with attaining the best outcomes possible for the family, the community, or the world. People are people, however, so they don’t always get it right, and sometimes tradition outweighs truth when it comes to what people will stick to in their belief.
But what makes a sin a sin? Is it doing right or wrong? Certainly there are things that don’t seem to do any harm that wind up on the lists. These days many feel that casual sex, as long as you are careful and considerate, does not do any harm and thus does not belong on the list, but here is a newsflash: we did not just invent it. It has always been around, and there is something about it that made it seem sinful. Also, things that we consider natural or normal for all creatures from humans down, show up as being sinful. That may seem to be flat out wrong, and give credence to the conspiracy-to-limit-freedom notion, but a little observation will show that since we have the capacity to choose, there could be room for being more thoughtful about what we do than lesser creatures may need to be. Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch. Many theologians have spent time on this idea and left clues for us. Those who are not strict believers will need to bear with me if I dip into Western religion for these examples. I hope to help translate the ideas into a more ecumenical area of thought where it is needed for clarity.
A common catch-all idea for the nature of sin, is that it is “turning away from God”. Most commonly, this is used to say that when you do something that you know would probably not fit the moral code as scripture has laid it out, you are probably sinning by doing so. But there is a whole construct around this idea. For example, in which Heaven and Hell are states of being in which the Sinless are brought close to God and the sinful are sent far from God, and in a sense, this is just a continuation of the path you were walking all along, toward great rewards, or toward suffering. Eastern Religions similarly have you moving up or down in your state of being by the path you follow, but “sin” does not translate between East and West well enough for me to head off that way just yet. Instead, let’s look at more of the symbolism that explains sin in the scriptures more of us are exposed to in the West. Temptation, embodied as a fallen Angel, is said to tell lies but is never depicted actually telling lies. Instead, the Tempter in this tradition, tells people things that are true in one sense, but make you imagine something different. He offers Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil, and in fact, when they accept it, they become responsible for that knowledge, they are no longer just natural, they are sinful. He offers Jesus power over the Earthly Kingdoms, which Jesus rejects as not being what brings you to God. The literature of the West dabbles in this idea, as well. The Devil offers wealth or fame, but these things have a cost. Not only is the soul to be surrendered, but the actual rewards of the wealth and fame are not what was expected. This look at sin, the realm of empty promises, is the one that fascinates me today.
I have heard it said that this is the very nature of sin: Like a mirage in the desert, it promises a reward that is always just a little farther, never actually in your grasp, or perhaps more accurately, gives you a taste of something wonderful, but the taste is always short of what it promises to be, like an addiction. Drink a few and feel great, next time you drink a few and it does not seem the same, so you drink more, or drink harder, sometimes finding that almost high, then falling back, chasing, chasing as everything else is lost. Not all sin is so obvious, but there is still a pattern. You tell a lie and things are better. You lie some more and it does not work out so well, but still better than facing the truth, and another lie costs you credibility, but you tell defensive lies… You try some new erotic idea, and it is thrilling, but when you try it again the thrill is diminished, and you seek that thrill until you lose sight of what it means to make love. Even the “deadly sins” follow similar patterns. You reach for more than you need and it becomes a need in your eyes, costing ever more. Some may be able to burden others with these costs. Aristotle is credited with saying that the essence of a moral life is moderation. Don’t deprive yourself, but limit yourself voluntarily, keep it moderate. Yes, more may seem like it will be better, but enough is enough. This may be the essence of how to be a sinner by nature without being consumed by sin.
I have to step back now, from the individual to the many. There are sins that do not seem to directly corrupt the soul. I think that willful ignorance, particularly for the purpose of insulating oneself from feeling the corruption of their sin, is a sin in the community. If I sincerely deny that I think mercury is a bad thing to dump in the drinking water, I may be able to sleep at night, but I am still sinful. If I convince myself that it is normal and expected to lie when selling a car, I may not feel that let-down of empty promises that a personal sin causes, but my community feels it, my customers feel that pain. As a society, if we accept and tolerate dishonesty in order to avoid conflict or scrutiny of our own honesty, we are choosing a path away from what is good. As a society, we begin to die. The danger, however, to trying to be a less sinful society is in this idea of how we try to determine what sin is, and how we choose to discourage it. If we attempt to end sin through enforcement and punishment, we feed the proverbial Tempter’s ability to seduce those who want power over others. It is better to befriend virtue than to fight evil when it comes to personal behavior. It is sinful to take away another’s choices. It is good to enforce protection. Jail those that harm others, defraud others, make people pay restitution for acting in thoughtless ways that do harm, but do not try to determine what personal morals are for individuals, because rules and morals are not the same. If I am untrue to my values, I may be sinning, but you are sinning when you are untrue to yours.
Are these all good, true and perfect answers? Of course not. These are ideas for discussion. What do you think?