In the wake of the World Vision controversy last week, I’ve had a number of conversations about homosexuality and how we should respond to it as Christians. Nothing gets Christian passions aroused like a good morality scandal. (Relax, I wrote that with my tongue in my cheek.)
This has got me thinking not just about homosexuality, but about sin in general, and specifically how we understand it and talk about it.
We could argue about whether or not homosexual practice is sinful, but that’s not where I want to go today. What I’m concerned about is how, as Christians, we talk about sin, both intra muros and, in particular, in the public sphere.
I’ll state my case up front: I contend that the word “sin” is becoming less useful and even problematic, particularly when used in a public forum (including social media).
Now, before you write me off as a moral relativist, you need to know what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that sin doesn’t exist, or that it’s somehow less of a problem today than it used to be, or that we should stop talking about it. What I am saying is that I think we need to give serious consideration to how we talk about sin, because talking about sin tout court might not be helping anyone.
Let me try to explain.
More than ever before, we live in an unchurched society full of people who have little or no first-hand experience of religious language and discourse. At the same time, the mainstream media overwhelmingly paint Christians as judgemental busybodies (that’s my perception in the UK at least). This is a big problem because, for many people, the mainstream media are by far the loudest voice telling them what to think about Christians and religion. This means that any Christian wanting to engage unchurched people on matters pertaining to faith is very often faced with an audience that is sceptical if not antagonistic.
In particular, many non-Christians perceive Christians as being judgemental about sin. This perception may or may not be true in any given individual case, but be that as it may, it’s how many people see Christians. This is a big barrier to any conversation about faith, particularly when it comes to talking about sin. Mention sin to a non-Christian, and you’ll likely be faced with two immediate hurdles:
1. Talking about sin to someone who thinks Christians are judgemental is a bit like pouring vinegar into an open wound. Without great caution and sensitivity, there’s a real danger that existing preconceptions will simply be reinforced. (And great caution and sensitivity are not easy to exercise, particularly in the context of conversations mediated through social media.)
2. Many non-Christians are likely to have an understanding of sin that is at least misinformed, if not downright skewed. That being the case, even if you manage to put the subject on the table without blowing up the conversation, there’s a risk that you’ll actually be talking about a false notion of sin.
So what’s the answer? Should we just avoid talking about sin altogether? Well, call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that an understanding of sin is central to the gospel inasmuch as Jesus came to destroy the power of sin and death. Thus, any gospel that shies away from dealing with sin is a watered down gospel. What I’m suggesting instead is that we need to instead find alternative ways of talking about sin.
Even among Christians, I think we often have a notion in the back of our minds that sin is simply doing Bad Things. For me, this deeply held notion has been tied to the subconscious belief that God is an angry God who is always on the lookout for sin (I wrote about this yesterday). And of course, if you believe that sin is doing Bad Things, you will probably also believe that a sinner is a Bad Person. And this is the message that a great many non-believers have received, whether or not it was intended: Christians are Good People, and non-Christians are Bad People.
So I’d like to propose three alternative ways to think about sin. None of these are new; you’ve probably heard them all before. But what I’m suggesting is that we really think about these alternatives and consider embracing them as useful metaphors for talking about sin without some of the baggage that comes with the word sin itself.
1. Sin as brokenness. Of course, the word brokenness is a little ambiguous. You can be broken as a result of going through tough circumstances, but that’s not the kind of brokenness I’m referring to here. I’m talking about being broken in the sense of being damaged or flawed. To use the prophet Jeremiah’s illustration of human beings as earthenware jars created by a master potter, sinfulness means we are cracked and chipped, and thus unable to properly fulfil the purpose for which we were created.
One potential problem with understanding sin as a kind of brokenness is that it can easily lead to victim thinking. It’s not my fault if I’m broken! However, while I would agree that ownership of our sin is essential to repentance, is there not also a very real sense in which we are victims of sin as well as being complicit in it? You would probably agree that people who have been emotionally hurt in some way (and who hasn’t?) tend to unintentionally hurt others. Perhaps another way of saying this is that, at least in part, we sin because we are sinned against.
Note that I’m not suggesting that we’re not responsible for our sin. What I am saying is that not all of our sin is wilful.
2. Sin as sickness. In some senses, sin is like a sickness that we’re all born with. We’re so completely used to it that we aren’t even aware of its debilitating effects. Like the paralytic who lay by the pool for thirty-eight years, our sickness in some ways becomes a familiar and comfortable part of our identity. Then Jesus shows up and offers to heal us. We need an outside agency to impart that healing touch, but just as the paralytic had to take up his bed and walk, so we also need to agree to shake off our identify as a diseased person and learn to live as emotionally and spiritually healthy children.
Again, you can take the metaphor too far and make sin into something that is inflicted on us and for which we have no responsibility. But just because a metaphor can be stretched beyond its intended limits doesn’t diminish its usefulness.
3. Sin as addiction. For me, this is perhaps the most powerful of these three metaphors. The addict is compelled to keep using his drug of choice, even though he probably knows it is objectively wrong and is well aware that his continued use is bringing down dire consequences upon himself and others. The only way he is going to be freed is through outside intervention, which can usually only take place when he reaches “rock bottom” and admits his own powerlessness to save himself. To put this in religious language, you might call it repentance.
There’s much debate about whether addiction exists as an objective reality, or whether it’s simply a label that people apply to themselves to avoid taking responsibility for destructive behaviours in which they willingly engage. Either way, the key for me is that addiction is very real to the addict. It is also very complex, involving both a willing desire to engage in damaging behaviour and a compulsion that feels to the addict very much like he is being forced to do something he hates. Kind of like sin, wouldn’t you say?
So, what do you think? Do we need to change the way we understand and talk about sin? If so, which of the three metaphors I’ve suggested do you like best, and why? Can you think of any others? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
[ Image: Thomas Hawk ]