What does it mean to sin? This is a great question, and one that fits nicely as we move from our series on “Justice” to the series “Understanding our Faith.” Over the next few weeks, we will go deeper into the relationship of sin to our lives, but for right now, it is helpful to revisit the definition of sin. “Theologically, sin is the human condition of separation from God that arises from opposition to God’s purposes ” (McKim 2014, 294)*. This is an excellent definition, but it is also a difficult one, since we are left questioning, “What are things that oppose God’s purpose?”
Many people have offered numerous interpretations over the centuries. Some have been helpful; others, not so much. Contrary to some interpretations, the direction the Bible gives is not very clear. It is not clear because concepts and our understanding of them have changed. Nothing demonstrates this more than when you sit down and translate the Bible from the original languages. More often than not, as we explore highly controversial texts, we recognize that the words which have been chosen often reflect a particular political or social stance more than the concept that they are meant to explain.
One of the great things about the writings of Paul is the fact that he seemed to know this would happen. Granted, he was watching a lot of manipulations of the message of Christ in the early church. Almost all of his letters are in response to a conflict or a particular set of issues facing the communities. So Paul gives some simple rubrics for understanding if an interpretation is lifting up the message of God or if it is tearing it down.
This week our lectionary texts give one of the more interesting ones, and one that mirrors our definition of sin: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” You can easily see where this is going. If sin is the separation from God, the way we think plays a big role in that. Think of it this way: if our minds and hearts are bound to the things of this world, then logically, we are bound to this world. Conversely, when we guide our lives by seeking the heavenly realm, then we are ordering our life in that way. This can be a bit tricky though, because the argument arises that we are forced to live in this world and cannot separate ourselves from it.
This is true, but at the same time, we can examine ourselves by asking the deep questions of how we choose to live. This has a lot to do with justice. If we are living--or trying to live--a just life, then we are choosing to live counterculturally, because we are not living for our own self-preservation. It also means that we must stay away from many of the temptations we encounter, like fornication, impurity, evil desire, and greed, a form of idolatry. Paul even adds passion to the list, which I found interesting until I thought a bit more about passionate people I know, and recognized how often passion turns inward and becomes more about the individual than God.
But more than how we live our lives, the ways in which we verbally interact with one another really show where we are living. When we live in rumors or derogation, we place ourselves in a very human place. Any kid can tell you that the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me” sucks! Whoever made that up must not have been on the receiving end of the verbal abuse that is all too common in this world. Think about what happens when we speak out of anger, wrath, malice, or slander, or use abusive language: who are we lifting up? It is not our neighbor to whom we are speaking, nor can it be God, which leaves it pointing right back to us. When someone speaks that way, it really does say more about them than it does anything about the person they attack.
What is really interesting is that we have a choice in how we live, and whether we live for the comfort of this world, or for the hope of the eternal even though we are in this world. The problem is that it is difficult! It is difficult not to get swept up into this world’s temptations. It is REALLY difficult not to get pulled into derogatory speech, and when you are, to gracefully exit. But this is our struggle, as well as our promise: when we live in the glory of God through a just life, we can break the cycle of sin and grow in our relationship with God.
*McKim, Donald. "Sin." The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox, 2014.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen