Sin is no longer trendy. If you tell people who don’t go to church, namely, the majority of Americans, that they are sinners, they will likely laugh and note your backwardness. Sin may have been part of their grandparents’ world, but that was long ago.
Most of these nice people will admit they are not perfect. But they fail to see any theological implications to this. They will assert they are doing the best they can, and believe that is pretty good. End of discussion, except to mention they can’t stand intolerant church people who judge them with some very fallible standards and are hypocritical besides.
Sin has not diminished, of course. But a new generation is unaware of what it is about. Indeed, in a different way, the old generation was unaware, too. This relates to what many churches taught and still teach about sin. Sin as discussed in American churches has generally been specific, referring primarily to sexual issues, including abortion and homosexuality, but with drinking added by some. Gambling and missing church used to be prominent, but have faded. Trendy churches have adjusted, and rarely mention sin at all. Non-trendy churches often retreat, and try to live as if it were still the 1950’s, content to limit themselves to reaching the mostly elderly folks who can still relate to the old generation’s stereotypes of sin.
In church, many would define the Ten Commandments as the best statement of what constitutes good Christian behavior and conversely what is sinful. Few suggest keeping the entire Law, or have even read it, although some use it selectively to bolster moral imperatives to which they are committed.
The problem is that the Ten Commandments are open to more than one interpretation. Jesus, who is not frequently consulted on this, has a radical view which scandalized many of his contemporaries and might startle many of ours. The view goes in two directions:
1) No one can keep the Law, or even the Ten Commandments. Those who claim they can, do so only by defining it so their behavior can fit. But for Jesus, it is very all-encompassing. To be angry breaks the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” To have lustful thoughts is to commit adultery. Loving your neighbor includes loving your enemy. The list goes on, our failure is clear (see Matthew 5:17-48).
2) Two Commandments are basic, defining the others; you shall love God and you shall love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). When questioned about the latter, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that everybody is your neighbor. “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Love God and neighbor perfectly, and you have kept the Law. Fail to love God and neighbor, you have kept the other laws in vain.
If you want to take Jesus seriously, understand that sin is defined as failing to achieve perfect love. The New Testament word translated as “sin” literally means “missing the mark (hamartia),” as in shooting an arrow and not hitting the bull’s eye. The bull’s eye is perfect love and you have failed to achieve it. Therefore, only the forgiving love and grace of God can heal and absolve you.
My impression is that few, in or out of church, live by that. The views I hear are mostly along the lines of trying to do your best, hoping to achieving a greater number of good deeds than bad ones, so that on balance, God will approve of you (if you are convinced of that, Buddhism is for you, not Christianity). “She/he was a good person,” to summarize a hundred funeral sermons I have heard.
But it isn’t true. The earth was created by the Lord entirely out of love. Goodness is entirely in achieving perfect love, since it is still the basic operating principal of the earth. And none of us achieve perfect love in a broken world. The harmony of earth’s perfection has been broken by the rejection of love, nothing else. But nothing else matters if there is no love. Only the sacrificial loving act of the only one who can achieve it can fix us, which is why it is called grace.
Where do we begin, then, to help people to recognize the unique purpose of love motivating the creation of earth, and of us? How do we convey that it is God’s nature? How do we show that the Cross is there because we cannot fix this ourselves, that we are totally, helplessly, radically dependent on the grace that flows from it?
We probably need to start with a moratorium on the word “sin” until it washes out of the popular consciousness that it isn’t about sex or taboos or drinking or judgmental hypocritical Puritans who condemn others while ignoring their own failings. Using the New Testament concept of “missing the mark” would do. Modern man does understand that. It should include the Matthew 25 understanding that not helping those in need, that having avarice, greed, usury, and coldheartedness, is missing the mark, as is ethnic prejudice, violence, arrogance, self-righteousness and indifference. To be a poor steward of the Lord’s earth is also a prominent failing seen by the modern environmental movement, as well as by Jesus.
The irony here is that the children of this world often have a better handle on what is wrong with it, and better priorities on what needs fixing than the children of the Church. For instance, the environmental movement, despite some of its fringe crazies, cares about the Lord’s earth, even if some haven’t recognized who created and owns it. Surely Christians should be in the forefront of protecting God’s creation, and proclaiming the ultimate purpose, in God’s love, of the stewardship to nurture it.
We are coming soon to the watershed summit between Epiphany, the conclusion of the Nativity cycle, and the three (neglected) “gesimas” which begin the preparatory flow through Lent to Easter. There is no better moment to reflect on the human condition. The circumstances of mankind’s failure rise anew every morning in a profusion of dysfunctional behaviors. The term for them is unimportant. Accurately recognizing the reality and enormity of them is very important. Fallen man, and the global and personal consequences thereof, is as real as the evening news. To gloss over the immensity of the failure is to live in dangerous denial. To realize the failure of both mankind and self is the beginning of the journey, through the Cross, to the Resurrection joy of Easter, the solution prepared in love for us.