When you share your opinions publicly, you’re going to get some disapproval—and not all of it is going to be reasonable. In response to my post Worshiping A Great Big Vulnerable God, one guy was frustrated that I talked about Adam and Eve’s “choice” instead of using the word “sin.” It kind of made me laugh. In context, I was talking about their disobedience and the unbelievable consequences that resulted from their decision—all things that are true about sin. He was just concerned about using his preferred nomenclature.
The criticism that the church doesn’t talk about “sin” enough is a mainstay in conservative circles. But the main reason I shy away from the term “sin” is because a lot of the true awfulness and savagery of the word has been lost in the way we use it.
Evangelicalism, sin, and consequence
One of my biggest problems with American evangelicalism lies in the way it represents our relationship with God—and with each other. While we all come to Jesus as individuals, our experiences and life are inexplicably tied. Sin isn’t just something that I do that upsets God and affects those in my immediate vicinity, it’s a disease with tendrils that pollute everything.
If I intentionally avoid the word “sin,” it’s not because I’m trying to avoid the concept like conservatives think. It’s because the way its used actually reduces it. Yes, sin is an affront to God, but not just because of his hatred for certain behaviors. Our individual sin echoes through creation in ways that we’re not even aware of, and even if we receive individual forgiveness for sinful acts, the consequences reverberate in profound and unspeakable ways.
Sin is real and we can find forgiveness, but to reduce sin to a simple act that’s between Jesus and me has tragic consequences:
- It diminishes our understanding of sin’s gravity
- It encourages a continual cycle of sin/forgiveness
- It blinds us to the real harm our sin does to the kingdom of God
The cancer in God’s ecosystem
When God created the world, he created an ecosystem—a complex network of interactive elements and organisms that existed in harmony. Humans weren’t distinct and separate members of that ecosystem; they were powerful, sentient cogs within it. As we’ve talked about previously, God’s creation was specifically ordered, and humans were given a single, solitary prohibition—a risk woven into the world.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, a cancer was introduced into that ecosystem. This cancer affected everything . . . and what made it more disastrous was that the behavior of Adam and Eve’s race would help spread and solidify its impact. Within one generation of being tossed from Eden, Adam’s son, Cain, kills his brother and introduces the world to murder. Cain’s response to God’s punishment isn’t remorse, it’s fear that he is going to suffer the same fate as his brother. He already knows that this new manifestation of sin is now part of the universal tapestry.
By the six chapter of Genesis, the cancer had metastasized to the point that God was willing to do something incredibly drastic to stop its spread. But even after destroying most of his creation, the disease refuses to relinquish its hold.
God institutes the law, which is basically a bunch of rules intended to stem humanity’s infection. It’s the metaphoric equivalent of a hospital’s rules for keeping an outbreak in check. Not a perfect plan by any means (that’s coming), but it helps to give some definition around things that are contributing to the problem. It’s as if all religious life is centered around management of this dreadful disease—but like chemo, the law is almost as dangerous as what it was combating.
The redemption of all things
Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—as well as Pentecost—was the beginning of everything being made right. It’s not just that we can receive forgiveness for this cancer’s manifestations; it’s that we can begin to be cleansed from the cancer itself. We’re no longer instituting a complex system of behaviors that will combat this illness; we’re allowing it to be rooted out.
In the past, the people who aligned themselves with God fought against other infected parties by relying on an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. In fact, it almost seems like God used some people (the Israelites) stricken with humanity’s cancer to fight and eradicate other virulent cells. Now that we can be filled with the spirit of God, we can stand in the midst of the infected and offer the world another choice. And even though it looks like the kingdom of God is constantly in danger of being consumed by this violent malignancy, we trusts in God and our new-found purity to be a beacon in the darkness.
I love how Paul puts it:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”—Romans 8:18–25
All of creation has been groaning and suffering under the weight of sin, and its disastrous effects. It’s been waiting for the sons of God to be revealed. Why? Spirit-filled, redeemed humanity is the only hope for creation. And even though we wait patiently for the revealing of a new heaven and new earth, we’re spreading Christ’s antibodies throughout this earth and helping God to “reconcile all things to himself.”
The real problem with sin
We need to understand the real nature of sin on God’s ecosystem. Adam and Eve’s sin sent catastrophic shock waves throughout creation because everything is much more profoundly connected than we understand. The introduction of this cancer into the garden didn’t just affect humanity, it poisoned everything. That’s the way sin is.
I think we see this throughout the Old Testament. When God says he will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations (Ex. 20:5, 34:7, Num. 14:18, Deut. 5:9),” it’s a promise woven into his ecosystem. It’s as if he’s telling us, “The effects of your cancer will continue to spread throughout your family in ways that you can’t begin to understand. The only real hope you have is to turn to me and my intended order to start making things right.” It’s a curse that’s manifested in creation’s wiring.
Our “sin” isn’t just a problem affecting our relationship with God. It’s a contribution to the world’s brokenness.
Imagine creation as a still pond. Every sin is a stone that’s picked up and thrown into that pond creating ripples across the surface of that still water. What happens to the surface of that pond when all of humanity is throwing in their rocks? It’s chaos. It’s constant disturbance and violence. And it’s impossible to see where one person’s ripples begin and another’s end.
And while I can offer the owner of that pond an apology for the rocks I’ve throw in, I can’t take back the ripples. And that’s my problem with how we address sin in the church.
Do we take our behavior seriously?
When we simply see sin as something that damages our relationship with God that can be fixed with an apology, and not something that’s greatly contributing to all that’s wrong in the world, we are doing the Gospel (and the world) a disservice. When you’re a Christian with that point of view, your sins aren’t just contributing to the word’s brokenness, they’re inoculating people against Christ.
We might not be perfect, but our continued spiritual formation should be removing the sickness from our system. And we need to start understanding that there are repercussions for our choices. While I don’t subscribe to the “all sins are the same in the eyes of God” point of view, I strongly believe that gossip and murder both contribute to further breakdown in God’s creation beyond the initial infraction. We have no way to really understand the ways our sins spread and continue their damage long after we’ve committed them.
Sin is now so ingrained in the fabric of the world, and my behavior can contribute to sinful systems without my knowledge. If I buy a cheap shirt, am I sinning? No, not necessarily, but there’s a strong chance that my choice is contributing to an institutionalized evil that contributes to the degradation and working conditions of someone in the third world.
While we’re not perfect, those who are filled with the Spirit are to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The “kingdom of God” is one where Christ reigns. To be part of that kingdom includes a willful decision to make room for the Spirit to release us more and more from sin’s grasp. We need to take sin more seriously than even my conservative brethren believe. We need to mourn its effects, and we need to understand that it can’t be stopped with overwhelming and contrary sinfulness. We cannot overcome evil with evil.
The only way to stop sin is by submitting ourselves to the spirit and example of Christ. And even though this sometimes seems to make us vulnerable to evil, we still carry a cross and not a sword into the world. But it starts by taking seriously the new nature we have been given (2 Cor. 5:17), and out continues freedom from the poisonous affect of sin (Rom. 6:18).
The “I’m not perfect just forgiven” mindset is a trap that makes sin just about me and my behavior, and diminishes God’s cure for sin.