Some people think we don’t have a sufficiently strong sense of sin in our culture today. I’d say we don’t have a strong enough sense of the presence of God.
It’s our awareness of God’s presence in our lives that makes it possible for us to live in joy and love rather than sin. Yes, we are flawed and broken beings. We make bad choices, deliberately or by accident. We sin by choice, and we sin unknowingly, out of ignorance or lack of understanding. Even when we try with all our strength to do what we know is right, we make mistakes. We are flawed and incomplete, and we stumble and fall. So yes, we are all sinners. We all need repentance, and we all need forgiveness.
We are also creatures who belong to God, made in the image of God, made the way we are. God chose to give us free will. Even though we can use our free will to make bad choices, we can also use it to choose God, choose love. So we are more than sinners. We are lovers, dreamers, beings who hope. There’s more to our relationship with God than sin and forgiveness.
There are several problems with our contemporary Christian views of sin. First of all, we’ve focused our notion of sin too narrowly. We’ve made sin personal and too often ignored our corporate failings. And then we’ve narrowed our idea of sin almost entirely to issues of sexuality. We act as if we think the most important thing about our humanity is our sexual behavior. Do we really think God’s primary concern about us is our sexuality? Is God really like that?
Our sexuality probably pleases God when it is an expression of love, commitment, and joyful celebration. I believe God mourns our sexual activity when it debases or abuses others, or when it is based on self-gratification rather than love. But I also believe that there are other aspects of our daily behavior that cause God as much or more pain, aspects that we too often don’t even think of as sin.
Isn’t it sin to strive so hard to improve the “bottom line” that we force people out of work or require them to work for wages that make life anxious and miserable? Isn’t it sin to confine food animals so that they live in their own excrement, unable to move, until they’re slaughtered for our dinner tables? Isn’t it sin to hate others who are different from ourselves? Isn’t it sin to exaggerate differences and demonize other people? Isn’t it sin to allow fear to so control our lives that we cannot behave generously, kindly, lovingly toward others? We’ve defined morality far too narrowly.
Here are some things I think are important moral issues that deserve our concern.
- Justice for everyone – equal and impartial justice.
- Recognition that individuals and groups of people are oppressed, and that oppression is wrong.
- Willingness to speak out against injustice and oppression.
- Kindness toward those in need and those who are suffering.
- Humility in the presence of God, and in the presence of other human beings.
- Responsibility for those who cannot provide for themselves, for whatever reason.
- Responsibility for the earth and everything on it.
- Concern for the safety and health of all.
- Acceptance and understanding of those who do not agree with us.
- Respect for those who think and believe differently.
- Readiness to cherish every individual life with which we are in contact.
- Willingness to pay a price for all these things.
I think these things matter to God, too.
There’s yet another problem with our notions of sin. When we focus on sin as the most important element in our relationship with God, we can become lost in our own imperfection. We can get caught in a vicious circle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Once caught, it can be hard to get out of a devastating awareness of our own imperfections and begin to grow in our relationship with God. We focus on ourselves, instead of God. If I’m focused on my own sin, I can come to believe that God’s main function in my life is to take note of my sins, acknowledge my repentance, and forgive me – until I sin again, which I surely will, since I’m a flawed mortal being. I forget that there’s a whole lot more for God to do in my life.
I believe that, for some amazing reason known only to Godself, God is more interested in growing us than in judging us. The key to that growth is relationship. God made us to be in relationship – with God, with one another, with everything in creation. When my relationship with God is growing and strengthening, my decisions are less destructive, less self-centered. When I’m aware of God’s presence in me and in everything around me, I sin less and love more.
It’s not though avoidance of sin that we enter into life with God – what some call the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s through a relationship with God. We can never completely avoid our own brokenness, but we can live out of our relationship with God rather than that brokenness. When we allow our relationship with God to grow, we are living life eternal, here and now. And in that life, our tendency to sin is diminished and even healed.
God made us to be joyful, to celebrate the goodness and beauty of existence. We all suffer and sin. But we all can also love, and out of that love comes celebration. When we focus on our sin, we forget the importance of love and celebration. Sin is important, but love trumps sin every time. Jesus showed us that.