I'd like to read you a quote from an interview with someone named Brian Warner:
Initially I was drawn into the darker side of life. But it's really just human nature. I started to learn that everything that's considered a sin is what makes you a human being. All the seven deadly sins are man's true natureto be greedy, to be hateful, to have lust. Of course you have to control them; but if you're made to feel guilty for being human, then you're going to be trapped in a sin and repent cycle that you can't escape from, and you're going to be miserable. Ultimately you'll be living in your own hell. So there's no need to worry about going to hell, because hell will be on earth.
Now I don't agree with everything Brian Warner saysyou might know Brian Warner as Marilyn Mansonbut he says a couple of interesting things. He says there's a certain naturalness to sin. He says feeling guilty for being human can lead to misery. He talks about a cycle of sin and shame many of us know something about. He's right when he says you have to learn to control sin even though it feels so natural. I think he's wrong in what he says about having hell on earth, because there are a lot of ways to experience a hell on earth. One is to be plagued by guilt and shame for sin, to live in what he called a cycle of sin and shame, but the other is to fail to control sin, to let sin take over your life or take over our culture and our world.
You may think sin is a useless category. You may even feel sin is a psychologically damaging way to look at life. In fact, one of the reasons many people turn their backs on the Christian faith is because all the talk of sin seems depressing and and sick. And no doubt there are many religious people who have a pathological misunderstanding of sin. But I hope you'll understand how important it is to have a proper understanding of what sin is and what its ramifications are for our lives. I hope you'll realize it's as important to understand sin in living a full life as it is to understand speed limits and lanes and acceleration and braking in driving a car.
To understand what sin is, it's essential to frame it, so let me give you some ways to frame sin:
If life is a machine, then sin is a bad gear that makes the machine malfunction.
If life is a kingdom, then sin is a terrorist movement in the kingdom.
If life is a family, then sin is a feud between family members.
If life is a body, then sin is an untreated disease that poisons the whole system.
If life is a river, then sin is mercury or arsenic that pollutes it.
If life is a garden, then sin is the army of slugs that eat your tomatoes.
If life is a computer, then sin is a virus that destroys your hard drive.
We learn about sin from the Bible
It helps to understand the words used in the Bible to describe sin. Let me give you four of the main words in the New Testament. One is the Greek word hamartano, which means missing the mark, wandering from the path, or going astray. Another word is hustereo, which means falling short or not going far enough. If hamartano is going off the path, hustereo is stopping short on the path of your final destination. Another word, parabasis, is almost the opposite of that. It means going beyond your destination, or beyond where you should stop. One other word is akatharsia. The word catharsis means purification; akatharsia is pollution. It means being unpurified or being made dirty or polluted.
So here you have four different ways of understanding what sin is. It's straying from the path; it's falling short, not going as far as you should; it's going too far; or it's being polluted and dirty.
But in the Bible there's not a lot of definition of sin. Mostly we discover what sin is in the context of stories. Many stories in the Bible give us a feeling for what this thing called sin is and how it works.
For example, there's the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, which talks about this primal spiritual sin of distrusting God, of seeking to be as God and edging God out and refusing to accept limits. Then in the next chapter there's a story about Cain and Abel, which talks about personal and relational sin, where one brother sins against his brother and kills him after resenting and envying him. Then a little later there's a story of Noah and the flood, which describes a pervasive social sin where the human race as a whole becomes so vile that God almost eradicates it from creation. In chapter 11 of Genesis there's the story of the tower of Babel, where there's a political or systemic sin where the whole human race gets together to create a society independent of God.
We learn about sin from personal experience
So we see sin in many different dimensions already in the first chapters of the biblical story. But even though we read about sin in the Bible, in another sense we all know what sin is, because we experience this dark side of life. We all become aware of sin through the presence of at least three things.
One of them is conscience. The apostle Paul describes conscience in the letter to the Romans in the New Testament. He says:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
So Paul says: Look, we're given this psychological equipment called conscience. It's a software program, if you will, that helps us know when viruses are invading. When we violate it, alarms inside of us go off and we know, There's something wrong with what I'm doing.
Secondly, Paul mentions this thing called law, which works with our conscience. When our consciences may be defective the law comes in. Paul says, "Through the law we become conscious of sin." Law makes us aware: I'm breaking a law. I'm transgressing. I'm not going far enough. I'm going too far. I'm straying from the path. I have this pollution in me. Law is important.
There's a third reality, and when we experience this third reality we become intensely aware of this thing called sin. It is when we experience God. When we have an experience of God we become amazingly aware of sin.
For example, there's a story in the Old Testament about Isaiah that goes like this:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.
In other words, Isaiah is having a vision of God, and God's glory fills the temple.
Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
So he's having this glorious vision of the grandeur of God, with these bizarre creatures and the sound of their wings flapping. In that flapping sound of wings he hears the language of holiness and the glory of God. This is typical of a vision of God, because he sees the glow of God's glory, but he can't see the glory itself.
You would think his heart would be filled with joy in having a vision of the glory of God. But listen to his human response to this experience of God:
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."
In other words: When I see the glory and grandeur of God, the first thought that comes to my mind is, I'm dirty. In the presence of this glow and glory and purity, I suddenly feel dirty and polluted. I think how vile my words are, to lie and insult and cut down, and all the dirtiness that comes out of my mouth. And I think of all the people of my culture. We talk in dirty, vile ways. What a contrast that is to the glory I'm seeing in this vision.
The opposite of the word glory is the word shame. So when we are confronted with a vision of the glory of God, we feel our shame and dirtiness. That's the common response to an experience of God.
An equally strange story is described in the Gospel of Luke:
When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
After this great catch of fish, if it were me, I would have thought, There's a lot of fish there. I'm rich! I would have felt great about that. But Peter doesn't feel great:
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.
At first reading of this I think, This is weird. He catches all these fish, and he goes up to Jesus and falls down and says, "Lord, get away from me." Why does he do it?
Peter is like a lot of us. He's arrogant. He's proud. He's impulsive. He's somewhat full of himself. Peter is aware of how much he's in control of life and how powerful a man he is. He's probably a big, strong, burly fisherman. In those days fishing was hauling in nets. It was big biceps. It was tough stuff. So Peter was this big guy, aware of his power. And when he sees the power of Jesus, he thinks, You are so powerful, and I am so arrogant about my puny, little power. What an idiot I am. So in the presence of this greater power of God, he feels shame about his own pride.
In the presence of conscience and law we feel some awareness of sin, but when we start to experience God we feel real shame about it. This experience is universal. I think of the great philosopher in the Old Testament who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. He said, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." Paul echoes this in the New Testament. He says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
But there's another dimension to sin, and our culture makes it hard for us to understand this. Our culture puts blinders on us so we only think in terms of individuals. But the Bible speaks of the shared sin of the people, of their family or tribe or culture. They had an awareness of corporate sin or family sin or group sin.
For example, one of the prophets describes sin like this: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." There was a whole city of people who shared this characteristic of apathy toward the poor and needy, of arrogance and rather than concern for others.
So a whole city can share a group sin. That's a dimension maybe you've never thought of with sin. There are ways we are part of corporate sin, not only individual sins.
We must not trivialize sin because it leads to death
When we start to reflect on how sin is at work in us, we can't make sense of it. If we try to see the logic of sin, we get to a point where we say, Sin makes no sense. Sin cannot be rationalized. Sin is absurd and stupid and ignorant and irrational.
The apostle Paul said this as he reflected on sin. He had had powerful experiences with God and had become aware, as Isaiah and Peter had become in the presence of God, of this thing about him that was out of whack, the gears inside of him that were all gummed up. This is how he described it:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to dothis I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Does this feel confusing? Because that's exactly the point. It's as if he's looking at his computer, and it's not working right. There's some virus in this thing. It's crazy. It's as if there's a mental illness, a split personality or schizophrenia, where all the parts have stopped integrating the way they should. He's saying: It's like I've got this craziness inside of me and I'm separated from myself and I'm all in pieces. He goes on:
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to Godthrough Jesus Christ our Lord!
As he plumbs the depths of this craziness inside of him called sin, he says: I can't save myself from this. If God doesn't save me, there is no hope for me at all.
James also writes about this psychological awareness of the craziness of sin:
Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is fullgrown, gives birth to death.
It's as if we have this love affair that goes sour, because when we conceive and give birth, our child is death. It's this sick reproduction of death rather than life.
In Scripture sin isn't a matter of silly scruples; it's a profound reproductive disaster, this virus that injects insanity into the human race and causes all kinds of problems. Sin is a spiritually suicidal move. It's a genocidal, planetary terrorism, and if it runs rampant it destroys goodness and beauty and hope and freedom and life itself. When we see how terrible it is and we want to blame somebody else for it, we look at ourselves and say, But it's inside of me too.
It's hamartano, which gets us off the path, where we miss our true purpose. It's estareho, which makes us fall short and not go far enough and not do what we ought to do. It's parabasis, which makes us see a limit and go beyond the limit. It's akatharsia, which pollutes us and makes us feel dirty and stagnant and foul and toxic. It's something that can't be described in a cold and clinical way; it has to be described with passion.
Sin not only ravages individuals, but it also creates sick social systems. It creates sick companies, sick families, sick cultures full of oppression and distrust and dysfunction and dishonesty and ugliness.
If God is about creation, sin is about uncreation.
If God is about saving, sin is about destroying.
If God is about freedom, sin is about bondage.
If God is about hope, sin is about despair.
Sin is a matter of life and death for individuals, families, communities, companies, cultures, nations, and the planet. Many religious people misunderstand the idea of sin. They trivialize it. They cover it over. They turn it into hypocrisy. But the alternative to misuse is not disuse; it's proper use. Although many people misunderstand sin, the best thing for us to do is try to understand it properly.
The story we find ourselves in is the story of God making the world beautiful and good and wonderful and pure, and then sin unmaking the world into something ugly and evil. But then God, through Jesus Christ, remaking the world. And that presents a choice for every human being: Have we signed on wholeheartedly to be part of God's remaking of this damaged world, beginning with ourselves but never stopping with ourselves?
Jesus called this project of God remaking the unmade world the "kingdom of God," the reign of God in human experience. By understanding sin we want to gain a greater understanding of God's work of transforming this world.
I hope you agree this exploration of what sin is is worthy of your time and attention and deepest concern. I hope you realize your heart has been gummed up and you need dialysis, you need treatment, you need help, so the world that was made good and has been made bad by sin can be remade by the grace and truth and power and love of God.
Brian McLaren is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the BWashington region. His most recent book is The Story We Find Ourselves In (JBass, 2003).