What is Sin, Really?
Let's talk about sin.
I know, just mentioning that word can cause some of us to recoil and brace for the inevitable beating we believe we are about to receive. After all, there are a number of people who are quick to point out our failings and tell us how we are nothing more than unworthy, dirty rags before the Lord.
I also know there are those who find messages about sin invigorating. Not so much because they believe they are about to hear the truth of God's word -- though this can be the case for some -- but because they feel a certain sense of righteousness when identifying and calling out sin.
There are also those who are almost completely indifferent toward sin. They don't want to hear about it, talk about it, or think about it. Some even believe they can live however they please because God's grace has them covered.
Regardless of where you may fall on this spectrum, let me assure you, there are no beatings to come, neither are there any fervent displays of condemnation, nor are there any denials of sin or its consequences. What lies ahead is only a bit of perspective so that we might no longer live in bondage to sin, or the skewed perspectives of sin. So, let's get started.
You know, it's easy for us to become hyper-focused on one thing while losing sight of the broader picture. Take, for instance, the phenomenon called "inattentional blindness." Because of the way our brain works, we have the uncanny ability to focus on a few choice details of what is happening right in front of us while completely ignoring everything else. In fact, we are so good at this, we often don't even know that we are doing it. It's actually a pretty mind-blowing phenomenon to experience; I suggest looking up some videos on the subject.
Well, I think many of us in the Church have done much the same thing with sin. We have become hyper-focused on one particular aspect of sin, and allowed it to not only dominate our thoughts and reasoning, but also skew our perspective.
Granted, there are not a lot of aspects of sin to be aware of. Sin tends to be a rather simple concept without a lot of complexity involved. Yet, we still tend to focus on just one aspect of sin.
What aspect of sin do we tend to focus on the most? Oh, you know what it is. Say it with me now: sin... is... wrong. Yes, that's right, we all know that sin is wrong. We may describe sin in different words -- maybe something more precise, or more flowery, or even more harsh -- but what it comes down to is, we all know that sin is wrong.
Okay, now name some other aspects related to sin, other than it being wrong in some way.
*Jeopardy music plays in the background*
Can't think of any? If not, don't feel bad. As I said, it's this "sin is wrong" aspect that we as a Church have been hyper-focused on for quite some time. So much so, we have made sin into something more powerful, more encompassing, and in some cases, more important than it actually is.
To see what I mean, let's take a closer look at sin. And what better place to start than to answer the question... what is sin?
As most of us probably already know, sin is a violation of the statutes and directives God has established. Essentially, sin is disobeying God. If God tells us to do something, or not to do something, yet we do the opposite, then we commit a sinful act. There are some finer points we could delve into, but for the most part, this is the quintessential definition of sin.
But, have you ever wondered what sin really is? I mean, why is sin, sin? What is its substance? Sure, sin is going against what God says to do, but why did God set these boundaries to begin with?
Most of us view sin in negative terms, which is, of course, no surprise. And if we had to describe the substance of sin, most of us would probably say it's dirty, filthy, disgusting, or even evil. Some of us may describe sin as an abomination to God, or as a stench in His nostrils, or as something that offends Him. When viewed in this context, it makes perfect sense that God would have good reason for declaring these things off-limits.
However, even though these definitions aren't necessarily wrong, they really aren't God's main reason for setting boundaries. They are surely "reason adjacent," but they aren't quite hitting the nail on the head. You see, the real reason God has told us to stay away from certain things is because they are bad for us, and will ultimately cause us harm.
When God tells us not to participate in sexual immorality, it's not because sex is dirty, or because He doesn't want us to enjoy it. (Exodus 20:14) It's because He knows where sexual immorality can lead us, and the harm it can bring to multiple people; such as broken families, the spread of disease, emotional wounds, as well as spiritual implications, to name a few.
When God tells us not to steal, it's not because He's trying to withhold good things from us, or because it's an abomination to Him. (Exodus 20:15) It's because He can see the far-reaching implications of this action. He can see how people are harmed by stealing, including the one who stole, and He wants to keep people from being harmed.
When God tells us not to murder, it's because He can see the great harm it will bring to many people. (Exodus 20:13) The victims, the families, the friends, and the murderer themselves -- they all pay a price for the destructive actions of one person.
Be it harm to us personally, people we are in a relationship with, or society as a whole, when we commit sin, people get hurt, starting with ourselves. This is what God is trying to prevent. It's not about Him being "offended" by us, or about the grossness of our actions. God isn't on a power trip trying to control us. He doesn't derive some kind of sadistic pleasure from bossing us around. Neither is He trying to keep us away from the enjoyable things in life. He is, first and foremost, trying to keep us safe.
This principle -- this reason God has declared these boundaries -- is epitomized in Galatians 6:7-8.
Galatians 6:7-8 (NRSV) ...you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
We often associate this passage with the furthest extremes -- such as going to heaven or going to hell -- but it is far more nuanced than that. This is a passage for living, and encompasses every aspect of our life. It's telling us, if we do bad things, if we sin, then we will reap the consequences. But, if we do good things, if we choose to live according to God's word, then we will reap the rewards. In other words, stay away from the bad things because they will bring us harm, just as God has been telling us for ages.
We can deny sin, we can make excuses for it, we can turn a blind eye to it, but regardless of what we think or do, the fact remains, if we sin, then we are going to bear the consequences for it. We may be hurt a little, or we may be hurt a lot. The consequences may be obvious and easily connected to our actions, or they may not be. Nevertheless, it is an immutable fact of existence that we will bear the consequences of our actions. (Joshua 1:7-8, Psalm 1:1-3, Genesis 2:17)
This is why God has set these boundaries. This is why God strongly encourages us to not engage in sinful acts. And this is ultimately what abstaining from sin is really about. It's not about keeping all the rules, or being a perfect Christian, or about how "filthy" a sin might be... it's about keeping us safe.
Now, let's take a look at a few things that sin isn't.
# Sin isn't something that makes a person unacceptable to God.
With the amount of focus the Church puts on sin, and with all the rhetoric that has gone forth about sin, and with all the far-reaching efforts to get people to turn away from sin, many of us have been pushed into a belief that sin makes us unacceptable to God. But as it says in 1 John 1:8...
1 John 1:8 (NIV) If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
All of us have sin of some kind dwelling within us; so how can anyone reasonably claim that those who sin are unacceptable to God? Are we all unacceptable to God? No, not at all. The truth is, this belief is not only wrong, but makes no sense. All we have to do is understand a little more of God's word to see that. But when we become hyper-focused on a single aspect of sin -- such as, it being wrong -- we lose sight of the broader picture. And when this happens, skewed thoughts and ideas abound.
The fact is, God reached out to all of us while we were at our most sinful. (Ephesians 2:8-9) He wasn't put off by our sinfulness, as man can be. No, He had compassion on us, and saved us while we were at our worst. To claim that God will then change His mind and turn from His children when they sin is not only false, but defamatory of this amazing God we serve.
# Sin was never intended to be a way to measure who is a "true Christian" and who is not.
This is probably one of the most prolific and widely accepted ideas within the Church, yet it is totally and completely false. The idea that we can judge a person's salvation based on their performance, or their appearance as we see it, is, at best, unwise. And at worst, it's a whole lot of other very strongly worded things I'll refrain from mentioning.
A "true Christian" is someone who accepts Christ as their one and only savior -- that's it. This is the only criteria for salvation. All other criteria is manufactured by men with skewed perspectives, not God. For example, out of the mouth of Jesus Himself, in the most widely quoted passage of all time...
John 3:16 (NIV) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Go read the chapter for yourself -- there are no qualifiers there. There is no mention of sin, much less refraining from sin after being saved for the sake of retaining salvation. If this were a requirement for salvation, then I think Jesus would have mentioned this rather important detail, but He didn't -- ever!
There is only one criteria for salvation -- receiving Christ. I know there are those who believe there are scriptures that establish litmus tests for determining who is a Christian and who is not, but there are no such tests. Either their perspective is off, or they don't have a full enough understanding of what is being taught.
# Sin doesn't make us unusable or worthless to God.
Some of us seem to believe that sin somehow makes us unusable or worthless to God. However, Moses, Rahab, David, Solomon, Jonah, Peter, Paul, and many more would all likely disagree. All of these people were used in great and significant ways by God, yet each one of them had some rather significant flaws. They all committed sins that many would not look upon so kindly if committed by Christians today, yet God used them.
I could go on, but for the sake of length I won't. Nevertheless, I hope you can begin to see that abstaining from sin is about keeping us safe. It's not about keeping all the rules, or being a perfect Christian, or about being "dirty," it's about keeping us safe. I know some may see this as splitting hairs, but it isn't; it's important for us to recognize this distinction.
If our focus for abstaining from sin is to keep people safe, not only are we in line with God's true intentions, but our attitude is going to reflect this perspective. Meaning, we will be far more apt to offer the truth with love and compassion, without condemnation, just as God has done.
However, if our focus for abstaining from sin is because it's filthy, it's evil, it's an abomination to God, then our attitude is going to reflect this as well. For one, it becomes less likely that we will reflect the heart of the Father to others. But also, it becomes much easier to look down on others, and be critical of them, as we can feel justified in doing so.
Not understanding God's true intent concerning sin, and not knowing His heart towards His children, in and of itself, can be damaging to us and to others.
I recognize this can be a difficult concept to grasp when someone has been told their entire life that sin is bad, that people who sin are bad, and that they need to get right with God or else. It's especially difficult when someone cites a glaring Biblical passage about God's judgment, or a passage that has some "tough talk" about sin. However, just as we shouldn't be hyper-focused on one aspect of sin, we shouldn't be hyper-focused on a handful of passages. So for balance sake, let's look at a couple passages that allow us to see a fuller picture of who God is.
In the book of John, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus. They had caught her in the act of adultery and decided to use her as bait to try to ensnare Jesus. This group demanded that Jesus decide her fate, but Jesus responded with only a single sentence, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7 NIV) After that reality check, her accusers withdrew. And then...
John 8:10-11 (NIV) Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
Did you see that? Jesus forgave her. As guilty as she was, He forgave her.
Can you see the love and compassion Jesus had for her? She had most definitely sinned, and in fact, it seems as though Jesus knew she had committed this sin on a regular basis. Yet, Jesus didn't condemn her. He didn't punish her. He didn't sentence her to death as was Jewish law at the time. He didn't proclaim she was going to burn in hell for what she had done. He didn't even heap shame or guilt upon her. No, He had compassion for her. He simply forgave her with the simple admonition, "stop sinning." Why stop? Because it was bad for her, and for others.
It is no different for us today; God is still the same loving, compassionate, forgiving God now as He was then. Still, some will take issue with this passage since it's from the New Testament, believing the Old Testament carries more weight. Well, I have an example of God's love, compassion, and grace in the Old Testament as well.
In Genesis 4, two brothers, Cain and Abel, had been hard at work. Cain grew crops while Abel raised animals. When the time came, each of them prepared an offering to give to God. When they did, God accepted Abel's offering, but He rejected Cain's. This made Cain angry. Knowing this, God spoke to him...
Genesis 4:6-7 (NIV) Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it."
Can you see the love and compassion God had as He spoke? Can you see how God was trying to spare Cain, and others, from the harm he was about to inflict? Cain was headed down a bad road and God knew it. Still, God didn't threaten him. He didn't lecture Cain on how sin was filthy or an abomination. He didn't shame Cain by telling him he wasn't living up to His standards. Instead, He warned Cain -- as a loving, compassionate, and caring father would do -- telling him that he needed to do what was right, or else sin was going to bring him great harm. Does this sound like a God full of vengeance and wrath?
One passage later, sin got the best of Cain and he killed his brother. But if you read on, even though Cain bore the consequences of his sin, God still had compassion on him -- and so He does with us. Love and compassion for His creation has always been God's attitude, and He is the same from the beginning until now, and forever. Yet, some of us have become so hyper-focused on certain ideas and certain passages that we have failed to see the full picture. Not only that, but we have forgotten the two most important commandments of all.
Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV) ..."'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
What is right hangs on these two commandments. This is where God resides, despite what others may have told You. God doesn't live in a place of anger and wrath -- if He did, none of us would be here. His admonition to refrain from sin comes out of love and compassion for His creation, not out of revulsion or "offense" over sin. When He tells us to refrain from sin, it's like He's saying...
"Listen to me, I know it seems fun right now. I know it seems like this is the right way to go, but you can't see what I can see. I know where this road takes you. I know the heartache and the hardships that will come if you choose to go this way. Stay away from it! For your own sake, stay away!"
This is very different than yelling at people, "You're going to hell! You're sinful, and deplorable in the eyes of God! Repent or you're going to hell!" This is very different than looking down on others, and condemning those who struggle with sin. And it is very different than condemning those who are ensnared in the hot-button morality issues of our time.
This is the balance we need to strike.
Yes, strive to refrain from sinning, because it is bad for us. If we ignore it, or deny it, and choose to participate in it anyway, then we will bear the consequences of our actions.
However, when we sin -- and we will -- don't feel condemned. We aren't suddenly worthless, dirty, or evil. God isn't angry with us or disappointed by us. God knows every time we will ever fail in our lifetime, and He knew it all before He called us to be His child... but He still called us! Receive His forgiveness, then do better next time.
But by the same token, don't let the grace of God make you complacent, or lazy, no longer desiring to be better. Don't allow the grace He has lavished upon us to become an excuse to sin. Know that God's grace is there when you make a mistake, but determine to do your best anyway. Not out of condemnation or guilt, but because it's the right thing to do.
And finally, remember to extend God's grace to all, just as He has done for us. Paul told us to spur one another on towards love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24 NIV) But remember, we don't do that by condemning one another, but through love and encouragement. It's love that covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) Our goal should be to speak the truth without condemnation, and without pride, while genuinely caring for another's wellbeing. Don't get caught up in the fervor of pseudo-righteousness.
What it all comes down to is this: be pure of heart and intent. Be humble, be gracious, and do the best you can. There are only a few things we have to keep in perspective. Don't allow yourself to be pushed to one of these three corners. Find the balance -- this is where Christ and Christlikeness resides.
I was inspired to write this message because I have seen those who have been in bondage to sin and the rules of man. I have seen those who live day in, and day out, believing they are somehow worthless, unrighteous, unusable, and dirty before the Lord. They live feeling condemned, like God doesn't accept them and there is no way He ever would -- but this simply isn't true.
God loves you. If you have received Christ, then He forgives you. And if you haven't received Christ, He loves you and has compassion on you too. He accepts you just as you are, but you need to receive Christ. Yes, for your sake, but also for His, and for ours as well, as our family is incomplete without you.
God isn't a man that He would lie, or change His mind. (Numbers 23:19) He called you to be His child -- He hasn't changed His mind about that. (John 10:29) He hasn't turned away from you no matter what sin you may have committed, or what man-made rule you may have broken. There is no need to live feeling condemned, because you aren't. The Lord didn't condemn the woman who was caught committing adultery, and neither does He condemn you. (Romans 8:1)
The Lord went to great lengths to save us, but He doesn't go to great lengths to cut us off from His salvation. Don't ever believe that He would, not even for a second.
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