Some Christians seem to talk about little other than sin. In reaction, others try to ignore it. But we can’t understand Jesus’ plan to redeem the whole universe without understanding sin.
The best antidote for bad theology isn’t no theology. It’s good theology.
So, how should we understand sin?
We can be separated from God, life, and love in two ways. One is by our doing hurtful things, and the other is by getting hurt ourselves.
When the Bible speaks of “sin” (in the singular), it’s a bigger concept than individual “sins” (note the plural). Biblically, sin equals all that can separate us from God, including the damage done to us.
Often this larger aspect of sin is overlooked, and we focus solely on the hurtful things we do. But people do hurtful things because we’ve been hurt.
That’s the spiral of sin.
An obvious example of this is how retribution leads to more retribution, the violence ever escalating. We see this in the Old Testament story of Lamech who declares, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” After he is injured, Lamech kills.
“If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).
We hear the same sentiment expressed by political leaders today who speak of retaliatory violence in terms of “justice.” Payback “justice” responds to an attack with something bigger. “Shock and awe, ” perhaps.
This is why the sin of violence is the most deadly of all sins. It some cases, violence immediately results in death. In others, such as physical abuse, the trauma caused can leave lifelong scars that do far more damage than the physical wounds alone.
But that is not all. The sin of violence can also masquerades as goodness. When people beat children, they do it “for their own good.” When a nation retaliates against another, they do so in the name of “justice.” Often we say that this state violence (whether it is war, capital punishment, or torture) is enacting the will of God.
Consider that in churches that speak of “the problem of sin” the focus is almost always on individual sins, and virtually never on the sins of those in authority–let alone the sins of the religious system itself. The focus is exclusively on sins of “missing the mark” (like marital unfaithfulness), not sins like beating children, which are seen by those doing them as a virtue.
In the United States, while it is illegal in most states to beat children in public schools, it is legal to beat children in private schools, and the vast majority of those schools who practice this are conservative evangelical ones. So while we are aware as a society how profoundly damaging it is to beat children, the people who are advocating this abuse are the ones who preach every Sunday against “sin.” It is defended as a “Christian” value to uphold against the stream of culture. To call this a blind-spot in our understanding of sin would be an understatement.
When Jesus condemns and rebukes, his focus is always on the sins of those in religious authority. He is constantly confronting the Pharisees and religious leaders for how their following of the Law is leading to people being hurt, excluded, shut out from the grace and healing that they need. The response that Jesus gives to sin is not punishment, but healing and forgiveness that restore people. How is it that we evangelicals have managed to have the opposite emphasis?
Our focus is almost entirely on individual missteps (usually focusing on sex), and we are silent about the sins of those in authority that are far more damaging than individual sin, both because they affect more people, and because they claim to be done in the name of God.
Consider the story of Paul: We read in 1 Timothy that Paul came to regard himself as “the greatest of all sinners” (1:15). When Paul writes of his struggle with sin in Romans 7, we are likely to imagine a struggle with women or booze, but this was not what Paul’s struggle with sin looked like.
Paul tells us that his background was that of a Pharisee, and that he was, as far as keeping the Law was concerned, “blameless” (Phil 3:6). We often attribute to Paul the idea that no one can keep the Law. But Paul tells us that he was able to keep it. Yet, at the same time, he describes himself as the “greatest of sinners.”
So what did Paul see as his sin?
Paul tells us, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Paul’s great sin, as he saw it, was the sin of violence committed in the name of God. Paul as a Pharisee had seen the Jesus Movement as heretical and had attempted to use violence to stop them, thinking he was doing this for God. His conversion therefore was not a conversion from one religion to another (Paul continued to see himself as a Jew), nor was it a conversion of a prodigal returning to religion.
No, Paul’s conversion was a conversion from violence in name of religion. It was a conversion away from thinking that the way to bring about justice was through violence.
The greatest sin, according to the New Testament, is the sin of violence, and in particular violence that calls itself good.
Looking at the headlines over these last several months, we’ve been inundated with story after story of violence–both abroad and at home. It’s overwhelming, and the pull for us to want to respond ourselves with more violence is powerful. But Paul councils us “do not be overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelm evil with good.”
I pray that we could begin to see what Paul did in regards to the seduction of violence, so that we could be agents of peace in this broken world of ours.