“The problem with people these days is that they don’t take sin seriously!” Does this statement annoy you? This may stir images an older preacher with a southern accent whose political stance is worn on his sleeve, and whose cultural awareness is lagging 20 years behind—the remembrance of which, is not favorable. You may be instantly annoyed by the very word “sin”—if anything because it seems Triassic, and it’s often wielded as a weapon with an agenda that smells more like conservative culture than Christianity. Or maybe you’re a Christian, and the word annoys you, not because of its meaning, but because of its lack of meaning or application in the culture that you live in. Perhaps it annoys you because people use it in a way that’s a bit too… middle earth?
Frankly, I think the grey-haired preacher is right: many people don’t take sin seriously. But that isn’t necessarily because people don’t think sin is serious–it’s because the word doesn’t make a connection with people both inside and outside the church. It’s either white noise, or it sounds like something from a fantasy world. There are a couple reasons why I believe the word has become gradually less potent.
1) References to sin sound like references to Harry Potter. From my personal observation, many people scoff at the notion of sin because it sounds like a reference to Voldemort. And sometimes I agree. The notion of sin is occasionally treated as that-which-should-not-be-spoken-of out of fear that the sin will manifest itself somehow and begin mercilessly dispatching members of the Bible study. Or sin is treated like a dark cloud or black ooze, against which we must protect our houses with force fields generated by the presence of Christian films, happy thoughts, and Chris Tomlin albums. When Christians speak about sin, we sometimes speak in a language that is so detached from the world outside the Christian bubble, that we’re speaking gibberish to everyone else. Or we speak in a language that is so sci-fi that it can’t be taken seriously.
2) Sin is a nebulous concept. “Sin is what’s wrong with the world.” “Sin is what separates us from God.” “It is a sin to do X, Y, and Z.” I heard this constantly growing up in the church. When I became functionally agnostic as a teenager and into my early years in college, I too would scoff when I heard these things. So what is sin anyway? How does it separate you from God? Why can’t I do X, Y, and Z? Too often these questions are met with non-answers, or simply treated as brute facts. This will not do. You cannot make such a large claim about this thing called “sin” and then expect to have people understand what in the world you’re talking about. The meaning is lost when the concept is not explained or clarified.
3) Sin is not an external force. I’ve heard numerous Christian speakers enthusiastically tell their audience to “look sin dead in the eye and telling it to go!” I cringe. And after I cringe, I wonder what in the world non-Christians in the building must be thinking. And then after I wonder what in the world non-Christians must be thinking, I wonder what in the world that statement really means, anyway. Yet again, images of Gandalf rebuking Balrog come streaming into my mind, and I’m wondering how this particular approach to the notion of sin is grounded in Scripture at all.
Sin is not necessarily an external force. And what I mean by that is: it isn’t like the black ooze I mentioned above. You can’t scare it off with a Bible and a git stick. You may say, “But sin is an external force. Look at what its doing to the world!” Let me explain what I mean.“Sin” is an external manifestation of an internal condition within persons. In other words, sin comes from you, and it comes from me. But it isn’t a being. It’s a way in which we conduct ourselves as the result of a condition. You can’t keep it out of your house using Bible verses or pictures of Jesus. You can’t scare it away by yelling at it, no matter how sincere you are. Many well-intended speakers and worship leaders try to energize the congregation to denounce sin by using statements like the one mentioned above. That’s fine. But let’s not turn sin into an arcane, mystical force. It’s part of the human condition, pre and post-salvation.
Whether you like it or not, American culture in particular is growing increasingly open to religious and non-religious alternatives to Christianity. Is this a bad thing? Well, it depends on how you look at it. It’s not a bad thing, in the sense that people question the beliefs that they grew up with. Seriously, if you grew up in a Christian or non-Christian household, I would hope that you care enough about truth to critically analyze why you believe what you believe. After all, if your beliefs are wrong, then at the very least you’re (presumably) wasting a lot of time and energy, and at worst you’re gambling with eternity. Assuming that eternity hangs in the balance, you don’t want to mindlessly inherit someone else’s convictions. When people begin to question their beliefs, we, as Christians, need to try to have a firm understanding of biblical concepts, and we need to be able to communicate them within a specific context that doesn’t already assume the knowledge that we’re communicating. I’m not saying that we need to scrap the word “sin”. What I am saying is that when the word becomes unhelpful because the meaning is nebulous or lost, we need to know how to go beyond the word itself, and into the concept so that it can be communicated and shown applicable to those who would typically scoff at the word or be puzzled by it.
I write this post as a reminder to myself. But I also write it to you, in the hope that we both would have higher standards of theological reflection.
(Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to share in the comment section or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)