I get easily hung up on words; especially church words. I do love Anglican liturgy, which is filled with lovely language, as are Anglican hymnody and choral compositions. I like a well written book…Dickens, Wilder, Austen, et al…and enjoy to hear people speak who speak well. But then there are those religious words which pervade church atmosphere
Words. Odd sounding on their own. Potentially beautiful in context. Rich with meaning. Powerful in effect. Prosaic. Poetic. Personal. Persuasive.
Not so the word SIN.
I have written elsewhere about a series of talks by Paul Zahl on the language of the Christian faith. In these talks PZ identifies words which for various reasons have lost their meaning and power. Words which are heard in today’s culture in ways that are profoundly twisted from their original usage and context. Justification. Faith. Sanctification. Judgment. And, I’m pretty sure he talked about SIN.
Here is my current take on that word. In my world right now it is singularly unhelpful.
In its traditional sense sin refers to those things we do which are contrary to the divine will. Disobeying any one of the ten commandments is obvious sin. If there are 612 specific laws in the Old Testament, sin is the failure to keep any one of them. Most people will break sin into Big Sins (murder, etc.) and Little Sins (white lies). The hard core church person will tell you that sin is sin, and that God hates it.
The problem is that we also equate the word sin with any and every Wrong Doing, in any and every context. Here we get into the realm of the ridiculous, and deeply disturbing.
All of us (is this broad enough?) grow up with a certain rulebook, usually defined by, and adopted from, our parents, schools, families, cultures and churches. In theater terms these rules are the gels or filters which light up and color our lives. They are also the scrims and backdrops of our lives. We encounter these rules from the front and from the back. They come at us from every direction. These rules follow you through every day and every night, and into every moment of your life. They may be more or less insistent, more or less neurotic, more or less condemning, and they are usually very subtle and irrational.
Continuing the theater metaphor, I have noticed that these adopted rules shape the dialogues and scripts we play from, in youth, adolescence and adulthood.
These rulebooks are as varied as the families, cultures, parents, churches and schools which comprise the known world. There would be a perfect Babel of sounds were we all to utter in unison our top ten RULES.
I do happen to believe that we, all people everywhere, also have an internal guidance system, with which we are equipped by virtue of our humanity. Nature and Nurture both apply. We have an internal sense of things being right and things being wrong. It is in this realm that one finds those common moral denominators such as Do not Steal, or Do not Murder, or Do not Lie. Call it God or call it the Tao, this internal guidance template is hard wired in us. Hard wired by nature, and then insulated by the nurture defined rules we have grown up with.
When you hear the word SIN in church, for example, you feel yourself surrounded by judgment; behind you, in front of you, above you and beneath you…you feel the presence of the RULEBOOK, even though you may be an adult living miles away from your parents, elementary school or third grade teacher.
In fact, I think it is pretty impossible for your average person in the pew, or on the street, to sort out this cacophony of moral directives. There is too much at stake. Relationships with parents, pastors, colleagues, cousins and children seem terribly vulnerable in the face of this line of thinking.
In putting these few words to print I find myself deeply conflicted. It has to be wrong to get bent out of shape by the word SIN. What sort of Christian am I anyway?
Maybe it’s the long Winter. Maybe I have too much time on my hands. Maybe I am confused and conflicted by my retirement from active ministry. Maybe.
What I am looking for is a healthy, peaceful, perspective on good and bad; on right and wrong. The word SIN does not seem to bring that perspective. It is too loaded for me.
I am not advocating a valueless existence where there are no standards. I do care about morality. I think that I can reasonably well sort out these various rules, laws and morals in my own head….reasonably so, not completely.
I am thinking about the non-church person, and their understandably negative reaction to the word SIN. It is a word one expects to hear in church, and a word which sets up the needy seeker for unnecessary discouragement.
Tullian Tchividjian, in a recent conference at his church (Coral Ridge Presby.), expressed his hope that the ONE message, the THREE WORDS, he hoped non-church folk (and church folk) would hear from Christianity is, “It Is Finished”.
On a theological level there is “satisfaction for sin” implied in the statement. Start talking about SIN, however, and the visitor to your church will forget whatever it is that might be finished. It is human nature to fixate on right and wrong.
If one can stick with the message, “It Is Finished”, then right and wrong will sort themselves out in due course. Let the Grace be heard first. That’s where the hope and encouragement are for the weary and heavy laden.