The title I initially wanted to give this post was “How to Talk About Sin Without Sounding Totally Self-Deprecating”–but I thought that was a little too long! Either way, this is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. It all started several months ago when my husband and I were sitting in a Starbucks reading. Ike had just started a book called Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart (which he recommends, by the way!) when he noticed that the man sitting directly across from us was reading a book call The Atheist Bible. We eventually struck up a conversation and spent the next 2 hours dialoging about religion and atheism.
One of the points of disconnect between us and our conversation partner was our language about sin. As I tried to articulate my broken humanity and my subsequent need for grace, it came off as a mix between excessive self-belittling and false humility. As a law abiding citizen who has spent a lot of my life helping others, the average person might look at my life and stand unconvinced of my “wretched state.” It seems like absurd modesty at best, and sadism at worst.
With that in mind, I’ve been rethinking the way Christians typically explain sin to non-Christians. So often we revert into these formula questions: “Have you ever lied? Have you ever cheated? Well if you commit one sin, even just one, then you’re a sinner!” (So much for any attempt at bridging the gap between Christian lingo and the rest of the world!) When we start there, we are clearly starting in the wrong place.
Inaccessible Christian jargon aside, sin is so much bigger than whether you lied to your parents when you were a teenager or cheated on a test. It’s even bigger than the “big” sins like murder. At the heart of sin is not what we do, but what we are unable to do. Paul summarized this predicament best in Romans 7:15–“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Sin is about the inability of the will to do what is good, true, holy and pure. Even when we want to do good, even on our best days, our souls are so twisted that we end up doing what we hate.
For instance, as a wife there is nothing I love more than making my husband happy and loving him the way he deserves to be loved. Why is it, then, that I hurt him? Why do I disappoint him or deliberately withhold tenderness and care from him at times? If I love to love him, why do I do the very thing I hate? Why can’t I promise to NEVER hurt him again? Because I can’t. My soul is unable to do so because it is in bondage to a foreign power that I can’t get rid of–sin.
Here’s another way to think about it: Today we tend to think of free will as the ability to choose between right and wrong. However the great theologian St. Augustine defined free will quite differently. He said that free will is the freedom of the will from sin. Without God’s grace, our will is not free, but is instead in bondage. As long as our wills are imprisoned by the power of sin, we will not have the actual capacity to do what we want.
That is the heart of sin–it is a will in bondage. We cannot do what we want to do. Even when we desire to good, we find ways to short-circuit ourselves along the way. So while I cannot expect that this explanation will make sense to every person who hears it–after all, Scripture reminds us that God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:18)–I find this to be a better approach than the usual tabulating of sins. This method comes off sounding legalistic and it doesn’t really get to the root of the matter, which is that your will is fundamentally turned away from God. Even if you did all the good deeds in the world, without God’s grace you would still reject Him. THAT, not staying up past curfew or fudging your taxes, is the real problem.