Going a little off course can have severe long-term repercussions. If an airline pilot is just one degree off course, she will miss her target by 92 feet for every mile she travels. That means that if she goes 60 miles, she’ll end up one mile off course. The slightest mistake can eventually send us far away from our destination.
The same applies to the church. Sometimes in trying to correct a problem, we end up overemphasizing a point until, hundreds of years later, we’re completely off course.
I’d suggest that’s where we are regarding sin.
Challenging the banana guy
Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron (yes, the guys who mistakenly uses a banana to silence atheists) are known for their street-corner evangelism.
Their method is to challenge a passerby with the Ten Commandments. If they’ve ever lied, they’ve broken God’s commandments, are not a “good person”, are in danger of hell, and need Jesus to forgive their sins.
Now, you might look at that and think, “Yeah? So what’s the problem?” I’d submit that this is the kind of emphasis that’s ultimately hurting the church.
Is sin only about what we do?
God’s Law in the Old Testament was extremely prescriptive. Rules dictated nearly every aspect of the Israelite’s lives.
If you kept the Law, you were right with God. Right?! Yes . . . except . . . you couldn’t keep the Law. It was rigid, demanding, and virtually impossible to keep. In order to protect themselves from breaking it, they needed to craft more and more rules and erect more and more barriers between the Law and themselves.
God’s call to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy demanded experts to create lists that spelled out what was and was not acceptable.
So keeping the Sabbath Law required not lighting a fire in your home (Ex. 35:3). To place boundaries around that Law so that they don’t accidentally break it, they place prohibitions on using any equipment that generated a spark.
I stayed in Israel for a while and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the elevator. I’d get in and it would stop at every single floor. I kept pushing the buttons and swearing to myself. Eventually, a kind woman got on and told me it was Shabbat and the elevator stopped at every floor. This prevented observant Jews from breaking the Sabbath by operating an electrical switch that created a spark.
I don’t say that to make light of Jewish tradition, but it’s typical of societies that live by the Law. Everything requires constant consideration, deliberation, and extrapolation.
Eventually, you’re creating hedges to ensure you never accidentally break the rules—and life gets more restrictive as liberty disappears.
Jesus on the Law
A lot of Christ’s teaching was about the impossibility of keeping the Law. When he tells the crowd that even looking at a woman lustfully is an act of adultery or that even calling someone a fool puts us in danger of judgment, he isn’t adding to the Law or creating a new Law.
He’s pointing out that there aren’t enough boundaries in the world that can truly stop you from being a lawbreaker. The Law was a mirror that illuminated our brokenness—but even when we think we’re keeping the Law, we’re not.
We’re not just disobedient children that needed the Law’s coercion to be good. We’re a lost race who have wandered off God’s intended course.
Misinterpreting the rich young ruler
Three out of the four gospels tell the story of the rich young ruler, a young man comes to Jesus and wants to know how to achieve eternal life.
Jesus tells him to follow the Law, and the man replies that he has followed the Law since he was a child.
Mark’s version says that Jesus looked at this man with love (Mk. 10:21). I always imagine he’s using the same smile you give your kid when they make you the worst breakfast in bed, which you’re going to have to pretend to love. And, on top of that, you know the kitchen’s destroyed. It’s the look that says, “I adore your intention and your mindfulness, but you don’t entirely get it.”
“And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words, he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”—Mark 10:20–22
So many discussions focus on whether God is encouraging socialism or if the rich young ruler just had a particular idolatry in his life. After all, the text does say he was sad about being asked to give away his possessions. But I think that discussion misses the point.
I think Jesus is saying, “You think you’re blameless because you’ve kept the Law, but you’re not. The Law has failed to transform you into the kind of person I intended you to be.”
When the young man first greets Jesus, he calls him “good teacher,” and Jesus says, “no one is good but God alone.” And you can consider that the key that unlocks this passage. The Law has neglected to make us good. For the rich young ruler, that’s apparent in his amassing of wealth while ignoring the struggling poor around him.
We need more than rules and prohibitions if we want to experience transformation.
Missing the point on sin
The reason I became a Christian in my twenties was that I felt that it addressed something I struggled with personally. I want to be a good person, but I suck at it. I’m impatient, easily angered, prideful, arrogant, suspicious, dishonest, and selfish.
To be quite honest, I usually know what the right response is, but I still don’t do it. If I can get away with phoning something in, I will. And most people I know have similar issues that manifest in various ways.
To focus on any one particular “sin” as the reason that someone needs Jesus is to entirely miss the point of the gospel (and to misunderstand what’s wrong with us).
If you’ve spent any time in an evangelical church, you’ve heard that the word sin (hamartia) means “missing the mark.” The implication is that if your behavior doesn’t hit God’s bullseye every moment, you have sinned and you need God’s forgiveness to avoid hell.
That’s why Ray Comfort can tell someone, “You’ve lied? You’ve broken God’s Law, and you’re in danger of God’s wrath.”
Discovering our fatal flaw
But the truth is generally more complex than we present it. In Greek literature and tragedy, hamartia is the idea of a hero’s tragic flaw. It’s a defect that eventually causes their downfall. In Poetics, Aristotle uses hamartia to describe a noble person who’s adversity is due to an error in judgment.
In certain Greek tragedies, hamartia is a terrible deed that’s committed without the protagonist even realizing what they’ve done. When Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, his downfall is sealed. There are even tragic figures for whom hamartia arises out of an excessive virtue—they’re too honest, too moral, too focused on their own perfection.
If sin is missing the mark, it isn’t just that we miss the target in certain behaviors; it’s that we miss the mark in God’s intention for us. We’re tragically flawed in ways that are much deeper than can be remedied by fixing any particular behavior.
Distracted by deeds
Throughout the New Testament, Paul sets up a dichotomy between the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh (sarx) is a term that represents a purely material view of life, happiness, and pleasure. It’s purely physical and wants to be constantly satiated. But it’s a short-term satisfaction that is completely unconcerned with the consequence, temperance, or balance.
Living by the Spirit, on the other hand, changes one’s perspective on life, happiness, and pleasure. When we live by the Spirit, we want something more than short-term satisfaction; we want to please God and to serve others. We find satisfaction in decisions that may ultimately mortify our flesh.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us what kind of fruits to expect from both types of living. Those who are walking in the Spirit will display the following fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Those who are attempting to please their flesh will find themselves demonstrating behaviors like, “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, and carousing.”
But it’s important to note that these behaviors are the symptoms. As horrible as you might believe any of this conduct is, it’s a product of being strictly physical people who are simply a product of firing synapses and physical appetites.
To tell someone, “You exhibit jealousy; therefore you need Christ’s forgiveness,” is only half right. That’s like telling someone with a compound fracture that the doctor’s here to stop their bleeding.
We start getting off course when we’re hyper-focused on the symptoms instead of the disease.
Moving beyond behavior modification
I’ve struggled for a long time trying to figure out why I don’t see a lot of difference in the values, desires, and actions exhibited by Christians (myself included) and anyone else. And I think a lot of it stems from our singular focus on curbing sinful behavior.
When we mistake spiritual formation for stopping sinful behavior, we end up playing a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole. A negative behavior sticks its head up, and we club it back down only to see it manifest and resurface somewhere else.
After a while, we’re only training the flesh to pursue hidden or socially acceptable pleasures. We’ve eradicated all of the symptoms that would make someone unfit for “Christian community.” They’re not necessarily walking in the Spirit; they just have their flesh on a leash.
When we settle for sin management over spiritual transformation, we’re accepting a shallower version of Christianity that might be more dangerous than leaving people where they are.
We’re enabling them to mask the symptoms of their spiritual cancer while the disease continues to metastasize.
Getting worse before we get better
When someone meets Jesus and begins to walk the road toward spiritual recovery, they’re typically a mess. But as they focus on discovering and pursuing Jesus, important work is happening on the inside.
True Christian spirituality is happening as we’re “connected to the vine” (John 15). The outward manifestations of that work happen on an entirely individual timetable. Some people experience dramatic changes immediately while others go through a slow process of growth and change.
It’s critical to recognize that someone who doesn’t have their shit together might be further along spiritually than someone who has been trained to mask, subdue, or hide unacceptable sinful behaviors.
When we bring people into the Kingdom and start focusing on their external conduct, we’re preparing them to pour their energy into symptom management instead spiritual growth. We’re creating more people who have the “appearance of godliness but deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
Christ turns everything on its head
When we view spirituality as a series of prohibitions, we end up with the wrong-headed view that, apart from ceasing bad behaviors, God doesn’t care what we do. It’s a mindset that says, “I can spend my entire life watching television as long as I don’t see anything titillating.”
Nearly every single parable and teaching of Christ says the opposite. God expects us to be people of action who do good works, not simply avoid bad behavior. If you were in the crowd the day Jesus gave the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, you would have walked away with the idea that the only thing that matters to God is what you do or avoid doing.
We’re so proud of ourselves for cutting out the sins that our particular culture focuses on that we completely miss the fact we’re not becoming people who “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Mic. 6:8).
It would seem that the more we look for God in the good we do for others, the less room we have for contrary behaviors.
When the church focuses on particular sins, it’s a sign of imbalance. That idealized past when pastors screamed from the pulpit about certain behaviors wasn’t the church at her best. It was the church controlling others through censure and condemnation.
Instead of asking why we’re not calling out sin, I think we need to ask:
“Why isn’t the church creating disciples who prioritize walking in the presence of God and doing good work?”