In many areas of Western life, the idea of sin no longer exists. Certainly, we can find it in the more conservative corners of the church but as a real, live concept in the general population, sin is becoming increasingly rare. Some new religious groups even suggest that there is no sin anymore, except the sin of thinking that sin exists.
I am ambivalent about this movement away from sin. Having grown up as part of the conservative church, I heard all about sin–too much about sin. I realized at some point that the continual emphasis on sin wasn’t doing a whole lot that was positive.
I used to ask my Kenyan students about the preaching on sin they experienced, specifically in terms of anti-alcohol preaching, which is very popular there. I would ask how long the church has been preaching about the sin of drinking and be assured that it had been done from the very beginning of the church. I would then ask about the results in very specific terms: how many people stopped drinking, how many bars closed and so on. The reluctant consensus answer from the students was that few if any stopped drinking because of the preaching and there were more bars than ever.
So, we waste a lot of time and effort on sin. But at the same time, there are things that are wrong and unjust and painful and even evil. No amount of emphasis on human improvement and human potential can obscure the reality that genocide is a powerful 20th Century trend; that child abuse in all its forms robs millions of the fullness of life; that greed motivates great injustice; that some don’t mind others starving and suffering if it allows them to have a good life. I don’t know what we call these sort of things unless we call them sin.
An old definition of sin is “missing the mark”–and no matter what we human beings would like to think, we do miss the mark regularly and spectacularly. Doing away with the word doesn’t do away with the underlying problem. Unfortunately, as my Kenyan students reluctantly discovered, simply telling people not to sin doesn’t get rid of it either.
So maybe we need a new and revised theology of sin, one that takes it and its consequences seriously but which also gives us a better understanding of how to deal with it. And maybe, rather than have this new, revised theology point outward, we need it to be pointed inward. Maybe we need a theology of sin that enables each believer to confront his/her own sin; then encourages the church leadership to confront their own sin; and then causes the church as a whole to work at eliminating their sins.
Rather than point fingers outward and spend all our time and effort telling people outside the faith they are sinful, we need to begin by admitting and dealing with our own sin. After all, we are in the best place possible to do this. We already have the solution to the whole problem–the forgiveness that is ours in Christ Jesus. We can safely and freely admit our sins and deal with them because they have already been forgiven through our faith in Jesus.
And there is no point in pretending that we believers aren’t sinful. If we can’t see our sins, there is always someone around who is willing to point it out to us. Denial, while a frequently exercised option, isn’t particularly effective in the face of the reality of our sins. Confession, as difficult as it might be, it actually a much better way of dealing with the sins we know are there but want to pretend aren’t there.
I think the stakes are quite high here. All humanity deals with the issue of sin–and we all generally do it poorly. But if we can build on our forgiven status and discover a better way of dealing with sin than denial or attack, we not only help ourselves grow in faith, but we also then present those outside the faith with a better way. Sin exists, what we have been doing is helping much, deny it doesn’t make it go away–so maybe we need to get serious about finding a better way to deal with our own sin.
May the peace of God be with you.