For a long time now I tend to groan every time the word "sin" pops up in writing or conversation. In my
own Episcopal congregation, when we cite the Confession, I'm reminded of Dr. Marcus Borg (also an Episcopal and Professor
of Religion at Oregon State Univ.) who expressed this thought about the Confession in the Episcopal liturgy:
"Goodness, it's only 9:00 A.M. and I've already sinned."
Sin has been incorrectly defined and then institutionalized for the most part as a wicked act, something
that is an affront to God who cannot "tolerate sin with any degree of allowance."
Whoever started that notion so long ago has wreaked a permanent havoc within a believing Christian society.
It suggests that the God of Compassion is obsessed with morality as the foundation of defining Goodness – and also suggests
that therefore we too should obsess on sin.
Sin originally meant "missing the mark," as in, to "try and not succeed". If the "sin" has negative consequences
on someone else then one is guilty of missing the mark with a wider and more serious consequence. In any regard, sin meant
a choice based on poor or faulty judgment.
A changed meaning and image of sin as something immoral which is then married to the image of a judgmental
and punitive God creates in our lives a sense that sin is something connected with the more powerful word, "evil". It becomes
easy to accept the idea that the monarchical God is offended because when we "sin"; because we commit evil acts.
One might conclude that when the phrase “we are all sinners” is expressed, the horrific “we
are all evil” is just around the bend. Sinfulness in that regard relegates humanity to living in a state of criminal
activity as viewed by God. That seems to be the desired state needful to those who equate morality to theology.
Once we can conceive of God being offended, we cause Him to no longer be God, because he has become judgmental
to a fault. God seeing things only in either/or or black/white terms is something wanting in wisdom and gives lie to any pronouncement
of mercy. Jesus understood this and used the Prodigal Son to demonstrate it.
From the labels of sin and evil, the next logical step with sin is a concept of exclusion or discriminatory
thinking in which the "sinner" somehow has failed while the rest of us are still acceptable to God.
The sinner now has a handicap that leaves him/her "less-than" until the other FORMula (as in form over substance)
ingredient of repentance is accomplished.
Exclusionary thinking awakens discrimination at this point when we decide that since the "sinner" is now
"less-than" who or what we consider ourselves to be and since we feel "uncomfortable" in the presence of sin and/or sinners,
we exclude by condemnation, social
avoidance, shunning, excommunication or something worse.
Such is a false and non-scriptural path and reflects the thinking of the Prodigal Son's older brother.
There is nothing Biblical or revealed from the mind of God that invites us down that path in the first place.
The doctrine around sin is part of our inheritance from the politically victorious founders of Catholic Christianity who magnified
the concept of sin through fear, shame and guilt - using those tools to gain control over politics and human lives. The arrogance
of that act is reflected in Roman Catholic calls to Crusades and more horribly in the Inquisition.
When we casually equate the word "sin" with "evil" we are never very far from looking like and participating
in the evil acts of Inquisition accusers who self-righteously assumed that they had a God-approved right to judge and punish.
With no access to scripture except as expounded and lied about by the Catholic rulers and priests, the Protestant
Reformation was a reforming against a corrupted Catholic priesthood. But it was not a reforming of how the Bible was read
The reformers only put a Protestant spin on the traditional concepts of "sin" which came out of Catholic
dogma - concepts that remain reflected and camouflaged within the Bible today. They thrive on the strength of those who view
the Bible as inerrant and absolute and carry an image of a punitive monarchical God.
It was not Catholics who executed so-called heretics and witches in New England in the 1600's. It was Protestants.
We members of a Christian society who casually evoke this altered meaning in our use of the word "sin" have
habitualized a tendency to judge.
We don't have to be bigots to suffer from the illness of self-righteousness. All we have to be is of a mind
that one of our spiritual "shoulds" is to discern not "sin" but whoever has "sinned". We allow ourselves to condemn the action
and feel to thank God that we have not done what the "sinner" has done. However we tend not to stop there and many of us behave
in a way that suggests that we personally feel in fact more holy and worthy than the sinner - and even more righteous.
“We don’t hate the sinner. We hate the sin, but we love the sinner.”
There is a smugness and condescension in that statement that is almost impossible to hide. It is a judgmental
statement and when preached to the choir, might receive applause. But as a public statement of attitude, it is something detrimental
to an image of Christian compassion and understanding. It is not the thinking of the Father of the Prodigal Son.
It is a thinking that lies at the heart of an attitude which accelerates from hating the sin to advocating
punitive action against the sinner. It is not “Go, and sin no more.”
Again, Jesus understood this. He made no attempt to modify the stoning of the woman caught in adultery into
something less capital but still punitive. He simply said, “Go and sin no more. Try to stop missing the mark and you
will stop harming yourself and others.”
We as a society have systems in place to apply punitive sanctions against those whose behavior crosses the
line into criminal activity. Unless we honestly believe that "sin=crime", we have no business in the judgment-and-punish business
when it comes to most things we normally consider to be "sin".
It is true that we have every right to make choices around who will be the friends with whom we can safely
interact – and common sense dictates that we should do so. But if we truly think we can love the sinner while abhorring
the sin, let us put to the test the idea of loving neighbors as we love self –even if we can only do so from afar.
If you who preach can get those who judge to stop doing so, you will do a great work in the social context
of your congregations.
Part of the Episcopal Liturgy during the confession of sin goes something like this: “If we say we
have not sinned then the truth is not in us. Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
I’ve always wondered just exactly what this phrasing is supposed to do. I see nothing like this in
the Bible nor in the words of Jesus. It seems more like a device intended to keep one in some sort of guilty or self-conscious
subjective relationship with God or the Church.
The liturgy continues: “Most merciful God” (And we are so grateful that mercy is one of your
attributes since our sinful lives border on evil. Would it not make more sense to say “Most compassionate God”?)
“We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed and by what we have done and
by what we have left undone.” (That pretty well covers it. We’re just sinners in every respect and if that doesn’t
border on our being thoroughly and inherently evil I don’t know what does).
“We have not loved you with our whole hearts” (And yet somehow you, God, or your orthodox servants
have failed badly in communicating what loving you with our whole hearts would look like orthodoxically. Is it manifest mainly
in praise and worship?
Does that demonstrate whole-hearted loving or merely offer an opportunity for lip service?
Does not whole-hearted loving of God really mean whole-hearted loving of one’s neighbors- refraining
“We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” (This is an exceedingly difficult task that is
best accomplished out of a genuine desire to do so rather than attempting it motivated by fear, shame and guilt.
Would we, could we come to love our neighbors as we love ourselves if the sole motivation was to be able
to leave this line out of our confession every Sunday?)
“We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” (Although the idea of a weekly reinforcement of a
sinful state bordering on evil is not my idea of positive reinforcement in the direction of genuine change, I actually appreciate
this line because it puts me in mind of the Prodigal Son when he returned home. I like what the Prodigal Son said to his Father
because of its honesty.
However, it remains hard for me to picture the Father raising his Son by requiring a daily confession of
human frailty and imperfection as a vehicle for building self-esteem and, more importantly, confidence sufficient to activating
an aggressive and productive faith.
Had the Father raised his Son that way, the Son's return to express sorrow and penitence would have very
much looked like crawling back in permanent shame.)
If the gospel of Jesus was orthodoxically comprehensive and consistent with teachings and philosophies that
insist that humans are sinners and therefore dangerously close to being evil, then why did not Jesus require that kind of
confession from all those with whom he interacted as portrayed in the New Testament?
Why do we not read of Jesus requiring a confession of sin and admission of being morally weak, dangerously
tempted and flawed before being willing Himself to give of his own strength and wisdom and bless those who petition?
Sin originally meant missing the mark. Is it not easier to deal with mark-missers as opposed to trying to
encourage souls who are convinced of their inherent sinful and undeserving state of being – bordering on evil?
I know that I am more encouraged to good works – even repentance – as a mark-misser than as
a sinful and undeserving human being.
I also know that in my profession, were I to attempt success with individuals and families by first emphasizing
their inherently sinful and therefore almost evil state, I wouldn’t get very far with very many people.
If I can know this from my own human experience, what is there that would suggest it a normal thing for
me to assume that God doesn’t know the same thing?
It is not God who insists that we label ourselves and convince ourselves that we are sinners, sinful and
essentially evil-natured. It is merely other human beings, equally flawed and imperfect as we are who insist that it must
be God’s will that we all walk around labeling ourselves as sinners, as sinful and therefore bordering on evil as our
natural mortal state.
Our own human experience has taught us the value of positive reinforcement and its impact on encouraging
change that is self-motivated and therefore more likely to come to pass. We already know this.
So does our God, our Father, who does not consider his creation as something evil.
The Twelve-Steppers have it down pat: “God don’t make trash.”