Someone wrote me recently saying: “I love reading your blog. You talk about sin a lot. I think it would be helpful if you gave some in-depth explanation of what sin is. I have always been perplexed by that.”
Many people consider sin to be an outdated concept today, and others have gone so far as to deny its existence completely. Others, like mega-church Christian pastor Joel Osteen, just evade the topic altogether, admitting that they never use the word sin when speaking to their congregations.
Osteen’s explanation is that he likes to keep the focus on the positive and not saddle people with negativity. Apparently this works well for both growing a church and growing rich, as Osteen’s net worth is said to be over $40 million and his Houston-based Lakewood church—the largest congregation in America—attracts 50,000 worshipers weekly. However, Osteen’s message falls short of the fundamental premise in Christianity: we are sinners in need of a Savior.
Osteen’s approach may be extremely popular, but it begs an important question: Why is it so hard to talk about sin today? While I admit up front that I have space only to scratch the surface of this important topic, I’m going to give it a stab anyway.
The definition of “sin” given in the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed or omission contrary to the eternal law of God.
Notice that this definition presumes that there is such a thing as truth and an eternal law, created by God, which we called to follow. We discover the truth through both reason and Revelation, and must conform our lives and consciences to it if we are to be happy in this life and the next. To willfully act against truth or violate God’s law is to sin. And therein, as they say, lies the rub.
We live in a culture that no longer believes that “truth” or “eternal law” exist—a society that insists there is no higher “truth” than our own set of opinions. This is evident in our common vocabulary when we say things like: “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me,” “Don’t impose your truth on me,” or even “Do it if it feels right.”
If you don’t believe me, talk to an 18-year-old and ask them if there is anything that is true and right for all people, everywhere, at all times. You will hear all sorts of passionate arguments about why truth, right and wrong are merely relative to one’s culture and conditioning, and why we can’t tell others what is true for them. Taken to its logical conclusion, one can’t even say that what ISIS is doing is “wrong” because those terrorists believe that what they are doing is “right.” The problem with this thinking is that if nothing is objectively true, right or wrong, then anything goes. And an “anything goes” society always ends in anarchy. Just turn on the news tonight to see what I mean.
But back to sin. A non-negotiable tenet of the Christian revelation is that all human beings are born sinful and in need of salvation, due to the fact that we come into this world afflicted with original sin, and consequently, we commit actual sin. We believe that man and woman, whom the Bible calls Adam and Eve, were originally created by God in “paradise”—in a state of intimate love and friendship with God for the purpose of enjoying a love relationship with God and each other. Through God’s gift of grace, Adam and Eve were empowered to happily participate in God’s own inner life of love and holiness. Thus, they enjoyed harmony with God, with each other, within themselves and with all of creation.
Adam and Eve fell from grace by a willful act of disobedience, otherwise known as Original Sin. In so doing, they alienated themselves from intimacy and friendship with God, themselves, each other and all of creation. We are all born with that same spiritual alienation, inheriting a disordered, fallen nature that stands in need of the radical healing and remediation provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Under this paradigm, sin is not a dirty word through which we reject others or ourselves. It is instead the honest admission of a wound within our nature that requires healing through God’s intervention, love and grace.
Put in more in more current terms, sin is an attempt to create my own reality and identity outside of intimacy with the living God. Thus, instead of finding my true identity through a personal relationship with God that is anchored in truth and love, I experience myself as isolated from God, and then attempt to decide for myself what is true and false, right and wrong, loving and unloving. In the end, I play god, which leaves me imposing my inner disorder and isolation on the world around me, causing more sin and chaos.
While the above explanation is very limited, it tells us a few extremely important things. God created us out of love for love, and the call on our lives as human beings is to love with the same self-giving, life-giving love with which God loves us. What should become quickly obvious is that we need God’s healing, grace, and guidance to accomplish this.
How many of us can agree that we could use more love in the world? Then perhaps it’s a good time to resurrect the concept of sin, along with the good news that “God loved us and sent his son as expiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).