We are also asking God to reveal areas of sin in our lives. Sin is not an acceptable idea anymore for many people. It’s been passe for a long time now and carries associations with guilt and shame and all those bad things about religion that should just go away if we’d stop talking about them.
On the opposite end, I’ve seen Christians so consumed with their concern about sin that I have a hard time identifying what their relationship with God is apart from it. And, much like the Pharisees in Jesus day, there are Christians we all know (or know of) who use other people’s sins to stake out their own superiority.
I have a different view of sin. I think it’s real, I think we still deal with it, I don’t believe ignoring it will make it go away. I do believe God cares about it, but I believe that is because he primarily cares about us.
These are some things I’ve learned about sin, as a pastor…and as a sinner.
1) Sin makes us think wrong. I take this from Romans 1, among other Scriptures, where people’s disobedience to God led to this: “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”
I think this is the most important thing we need to know about sin, because we often have a terrible time recognizing and acknowledging when sin has gotten hold of us. Of course we do. Sin makes us think wrong.
As my students pointed out in our class, sin makes you think that people who are trying to help you are seeking to hurt you, that the good guys and gals are actually bad, including God. Proverbs describes this perfectly: “One’s own folly leads to ruin, yet the heart rages against the Lord.”
This means we may need other people’s help to recognize our own sin–and then we may not want that help. Part of maturity (and developing trust in our friends) is a willingness to hear what we don’t want to accept about ourselves, and a suspension of judgment until we can see more clearly again. In other words, I may think you’re full of it when you tell me bad things about myself, but I’m going to hold off on that because it might be my vision, not yours, that is skewed.
2) Sin damages us. This isn’t hard to prove, either scripturally or experientially. Other things that aren’t sin might hurt us, but sin always damages us. Therefore, we can never “get away with it.” Sin isn’t like cheating in basketball, where if I commit fouls or grab your jersey to slow you down but the ref doesn’t catch me, I haven’t done anything wrong. Sin is not merely when we’re caught; sin is self-damage.
3) God hates sin because sin hurts us.
God loves people. The character of God revealed in Jesus shows us a God who loves. The father in the “Prodigal Son” story of Luke 15 loves his lost children–both of them–and shows not anger or rage or wrath at them, but compassion. God hates sin because sin hurts us. Yes, there are other reasons, but they don’t conflict with this one, and this reason displays God’s character. Any theology, about sin or anything else, that skews God’s character to retain its internal logic or consistency, is wrong. That means they started in the wrong place; their presuppositions are off.
4) We are not punished for our sins but by our sins.
God is not arbitrary. He doesn’t randomly like some things and hate others. He doesn’t randomly love some people and hate others. God doesn’t love the color blue and hate the color red and thus reward those who wear blue and punish folks in red. Sometimes we act as if God’s view of sin is whimsical and arbitrary and we just need to learn the code and go along with it.
If, as we said, sin damages us, then the punishment we get from sinning is the consequence of sin itself, the way it breaks us down. God designed us. He knows what works for us to do and what doesn’t. His instructions are for us to do the things that make us more alive, that fill us with joy, that set us free. We must forgive because not forgiving kills us. We must love because love enlarges us (like the Grinch’s heart) and makes us fully who are are, while refusing to love shrinks and hardens and rots us from the inside. You know you’ve seen this in people.
Again, this points both to the absurdity of trying to “get away” with sins and the foundational truth that God abhors sin because God loves us and hates seeing us hurt. I hate seeing my children hurt; how much more does God love us?
I know someone is reading this and feeling offended because the Bible teaches that sin offends God’s glory and God has wrath against sin. All this love talk makes them uncomfortable because it is drawing away the focus from God’s glory.
God’s love is his glory. God has wrath against sin because God loves us. Jesus said he was glorified in his passion, through his self-sacrifice to atone for our sins. The Prodigal’s father is not outraged at the boy’s sins, and this son has offended a good Jewish father in every way possible–Jesus tells the story like that on purpose. The father won’t even listen to the whole apology/self-demotion that the boy tries to produce. There isn’t time. They have to get the boy dressed and restored to his identity as son and get the party started, because this son of mine was lost but is found, he was dead but is alive again!
I am convinced this is the central picture of who God is and how God sees us. God is not permissive–again, that’s absurdity, as if God is telling the son that he wasn’t almost starving to death and would be fine if he just thought about it differently. The point is that the son’s sin and disobedience almost killed him, but he came to himself, he remembered who he truly was. And even then, he needed the father to teach him that he would never be taken back as a slave, where the father could lord it over him and remind him of his shame but still feed him.
I do not see a conflict between God having wrath against sin and God loving people who sin–Jesus died for us while we were still his enemies. Scripture is very clear on this point. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, not his rage. Jesus feels compassion for the lost, not vindictive anger. In fact, the physician comes for the sick, not the healthy. It’s only when we get ourselves into trouble by refusing to see that we are sick (sin makes us think wrong) that we put ourselves into a position where we can’t receive God’s grace. But if we begin with wrath and raise that above love, then we push God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to the margins. We end up with that horrible theology that leads people to carry signs celebrating how certain people are burning in hell. The Gospels teach us Jesus is the full revelation of God. God’s character as revealed in Jesus must always remain the center of our understanding of God
This is straight up borrowed from a pastor* who taught it to me twenty-five years ago:
5) Sin is an illegitimate means of meeting a legitimate need.
Sin is what damages us, but our desires that we are trying to meet through sin are legitimate. We have a legitimate need for love, which we will never satisfy through lust or pornography or manipulation. Those will all damage us and others. But God made us with certain needs and learning how to meet them in healthy ways is a central aspect of maturity, a crucial part of being human.
Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst. Frederick Buechner
Thirst is a legitimate need. We must meet it. Salt will never get us there. But sin makes us think wrong and causes us to believe that, even though it’s never worked before, perhaps this time salt really will do the trick.
6)Sin is like playing in traffic.
It’s a lie to say there is no pleasure to be experienced in sin. The truth is that sin can’t meet our needs and will certainly kill us. But there is a rush, a fleeting (or not so fleeting) thrill in our pursuit of sin. We may not recognize what sin is doing to us, and because sin makes us think wrong, often we will keep on.
In this sense, sin is like playing in traffic. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a thrill, we’re getting away with it–POW! Now we’re lying in the hospital in traction with two punctured lungs and a shattered pelvis. The fun is gone. The thrill is a memory and that memory is that we got conned.
Yet somehow, after the rehab and the learning to walk again, we wonder if maybe next time we’ll get away with it…
That’s my understanding of sin. There’s more, of course, and I’m not getting into what is and isn’t sin in your life. I just know this is how it works and what it does to us.
God has compassion on us and knows our needs. He loves us far beyond what my words and feeble imagination can grasp. God desires to free us from our sins, for our good and for God’s glory. These–our true good and God’s glory–never conflict. God, in his love for us, designed us this way.
*Fr. Mike Flynn