The Problem of Sin
Sin is essentially a relational problem. Sin is alienation from God, the source of life, love, righteousness and justice. Sin is life turned in upon itself. It is willful self-centeredness resulting in thinking and acting in ways that serve only the desires of the self. The self is the all and end of life. All relationships are seen in terms of utility for advancing the wellbeing and pleasure of the self and not the wellbeing and pleasure of the other. Sin distorts the image of God, which is self-giving love, and turns it into self-serving and self-centered desire.
We seldom hear much about sin in the church today. I suspect this is so because so much of the world that celebrates and encourages all I’ve described above, is present in popular church culture. You can see examples of this in the way some congregations market themselves. The message of a typical campaign is “your life will be better if you come to First Jesus Church.” The dominant message is that church is all about you; we’re here to serve you; we’re here to help you with your problems; it’s all about you. And it’s all about the institution of the church which presents itself as a distribution point for religious goods and services. The church becomes one more place for people to go to get what they want, and when they don’t find what they want, they go somewhere else. When the focus of the church is on dispensing religious goods and services, rather than participating in God’s mission for the world, it becomes little more than a religious version of Wal-Mart. It no longer understands the problem of sin or believes that there is a problem in the first place.
This is because sin has been trivialized by much of the north American church. It is seen as “old fashioned”, irrelevant, and passé. In fact, when I tell people that “we are all sinners” in workshops I often hear the response “you know, we don’t believe in Original Sin.” My response to this is, “If there is no original sin, then why did God waste all that blood and suffering on the cross? If there is no Sin then what on earth was Jesus doing?”
I suspect many Christians no longer believe in Original Sin because they have been taught that because humans are created by God, they are necessarily “good.” This is, of course, true. John Wesley, believed that human beings were created good and for good. However, this neglects that fact that human beings must live in this world that is unfortunately damaged and distorted by sin. It convinces people that they are special and that they don’t need God and God’s righteousness in their lives. They are perfectly capable of living their own lives, their own way. This results in lives turned in upon themselves; self-centered, self-defined, self-defeating. When Christians deny this reality, they deceive themselves and the world.
Another reason many in the north American church no longer take sin seriously is that the culture, particularly church culture, has reduced sin to a moralism. In short, we have equated anything that gives us pleasure and enjoyment with sin. How silly. In the process sin has become trivialized and individualized. The more we individualize sin the more it becomes a trivial concern. The more it is seen as trivial the less the world, and people of faith, take seriously the problem of sin. This sets sin free to reign. Pleasure and enjoyment are not sin or even sinful. God created us to take pleasure in and to enjoy God and God’s good creation.
What happens when the church trivializes sin? It is distracted from and often seduced into participating in the reality of systemic sin. When the church blesses violence and ignores the suffering of the poor, it participates in systemic sin. When the church cares for its own members who are sick and ignores the millions who do not have access to health care, it participates in systemic sin. When the church is silent in the face of global climate change and systematic destruction of God’s good creation in the name of profit, it participates in systemic sin. When the church seeks its own institutional survival at the expense of the gospel of the coming reign of God, it participates in systemic sin. When the church puts its own interests ahead of God’s mission for the world, it participates in and contributes to systemic sin.
Sin is essentially a relational problem. Sin is real. It has power to control the lives of individuals and institutions, including the church. However, its power is limited by the level of human complicity and cooperation. Sin thrives when its reality and power are denied and trivialized. As long as good people are willing to live in denial of sin’s presence and power in their lives and in their world, they will live under its dominion in ignorance and self-deception. However, sin’s power to control and limit life is destroyed when the power of grace breaks through the self-deception and awakens people to their condition. As soon as they turn away from the darkness of sin and turn toward to light of God sin’s power is vanquished. When persons and congregations turn toward the loving arms of God and begin to participate in God’s mission for the world, sin will cease to control them. Self-centeredness and life turned in upon itself, will be transformed by grace into a life lived in self-giving love for God and those whom God loves.