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Thoughts on SinNovember 15, 2013
Any time a person starts attending a new church, and especially if it’s from another denomination, they’ll pick up on differences. Some are obvious and immediate, while others take time to uncover. If new or unfamiliar language is used, it sticks out right away. But what about words that get dropped from the vocabulary?
Back in 2004, after attending St. Jacobs Mennonite Church for a while, I started to realize that I hadn’t been hearing the word “sin”. Apparently, this word had fallen out of vogue. In terms of frequency of use in the New Testament, “sin” (used 173 times) is used more than “kingdom” (162), “grace” (155), “life” (135), “love” (116), “truth” (109). And so when it almost disappears from the vocabulary of a church, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s noticeable.
So what is sin? And why has it fallen out of fashion as a word?
The simplest definition of the word that people of all ages can grasp is probably “doing something bad”. A slightly different take is “not doing what you’re told”. Disobedience.
One of the most striking Biblical images is perhaps Adam and Eve in the garden, succumbing to the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit. It is the notion that certain things have been declared off limits, and yet humans are tempted into crossing those lines. Speaking of fruit, sin is the fruit of a disobedient and rebellious spirit.
Perhaps the next Biblical story that comes to mind is that of the 10 commandments: Commandments from God. Rules which are not to be broken.
Because the old testament is set in the context of “the law”, sin can be seen within the OT largely as behaviours which break the law, or more broadly, a summarizing term that describes the state of humanity and its broken relationship with God.
In the new testament, which advocates most strongly for the importance of heart and spirit, sin takes on a slightly different flavor. It is less concerned about rigid rules and more concerned about our deep inner substance and motivations. Sin describes the state of the human heart before it has turned around to walk in the light of Christ. It describes our broken relationship with God before we have received the forgiveness and salvation offered by Jesus.
One perspective on sin is that there are absolutes -- that certain things, such as those identified by the ten commandments, are not to be done. It doesn’t matter who you are, murder is murder. But we often also think of sin in a relative sense. We might say that what’s sin for you might not be sin for me. Said differently, one might claim that “if you think you’re sinning, then you are”. This take on sin argues that it’s not just what you’re doing, but the spirit that you’re doing it in. If you sense that it’s not God’s will for you to do something, and you ignore that and do it, then this view says that you have dishonored God.
These two perspectives on sin -- the more absolute perspective, and the more relative perspective, seem to line up somewhat with the old and new testaments, respectively. As mentioned, absolute sin fits with the ten commandments and the law. Relative sin focuses more on the heart and the spirit that motivates our actions. But both perspectives seem important to understand the breadth of sin as a concept.
One of the most profound causes of sin is our self centeredness. It is in our nature to think of ourselves first, to elevate ourselves above others. It is our animalistic impulse. Survival of the fittest. Dog eat dog. The flesh. Every day we turn down opportunities to treat others the way we’d want to be treated if the roles were reversed. God makes it clear that this is contrary to His will.
There is a tug of war going on inside of us: We are not simple minded animals looking for our next meal. We also have a conscience which is hard at work deep inside of us, and we have the ability to focus on that voice just like we have the ability to suppress it. That voice can be trained, by our family system, by society, and by the Word of God.
This highlights three root causes of sin: The first is that we sometimes suppress our conscience. We stop listening. We become closed. And without listening to that voice, our self centeredness expands to fill the void. Our impulses control us. Another cause of sin is similar: It is when we do hear the voice, but we ignore it. We’re disobedient. The results are similar, but we’re often left with a byproduct in that case: Guilt and shame. Yet another cause of sin is ignorance -- when our conscience hasn’t been developed well enough to give us the hint that our behavior needs changing. All three causes are often at play within us.
Another perspective on sin also relates to self centeredness: Our unwillingness to put God ahead of everything. Even though the new testatment focuses on heart and spirit, I find it helpful to keep in mind the two greatest commandments: To love God with our whole being, and to love others as self. I think these commandments can give us a much clearer understanding of how sin functionally works in our lives, and what it tells us about the human heart.
Putting God above everything else. This, I think, is what the gospel faces head on: Unless we are radically changed to the core of our being, we will constantly fail to put God ahead of everything in our lives. For human beings to live in a way that makes God #1 takes a miracle. Something supernatural happens when we offer ourselves to Jesus.
And this starts to get at one of the key statements the new testament makes about sin: Sin leads to death. Said differently, we are dead in our sin. There are two prongs to this pronouncement: First, that death is an analogy for sin’s natural consequences here on earth. Greed has a way of biting back at us. Sexual immorality can kill. Dishonesty destroys trust, and with it, our relationships. The second prong to this pronouncement that sin leads to death is that people are spiritual beings with an eternal fate. The teaching of the Bible is that without the salvation offered by Jesus Christ, our sinfulness condemns us to separation from God. There is clearly a lot at stake here.
Given its centrality to the teachings of the gospel, why has the use of the word sin declined so much? There are many possible reasons. Here are a few that come to mind:
|1.||The concept of sin is associated with the Bible’s teaching of eternity. Fire and brimstone teaching from past decades that preyed on people’s fears turned people off of this area of Biblical teaching, and with it, talk of sin.|
|2.||Sin is associated with guilt and shame, which are two extremely uncomfortable human emotions. With the move away from fear-based teaching, guilt and shame were two other likely candidates to distance ourselves from.|
|3.||The concepts of sin and salvation are easiest to understand in the context of dramatic conversion stories. They are more subtle in the lives of relatively good and honest folks who have grown up in the church and who have never wandered very far. If a church is oriented towards witnessing to non-believers, the concept of sin becomes an obvious concept. But if a church draws from people who are already of the faith, or if witnessing to non-believers isn’t at the forefront, the concept loses some of its urgency.|
|4.||Of the following major words of faith, it is the most “old fashioned” and culturally obscure: Faith, Love, Joy, Truth, Hope, Forgiveness, Heaven, Hell, Sin. As Christians have become more centered within their culture, ideas foreign to the larger culture become less natural to understand and use.|
I will circle around to the most important command that Jesus gives us in our personal walk: To love God with our whole being, and love others as self. For me, this leads me towards yet another perspective on sin to consider. What is striking about this commandment is that it sets the bar very high -- just about as high as it can be placed. Try as we will, we will probably never be fully successful at loving God with our whole selves, nor this ideal of loving others as self. That suggests that no matter what, we are falling short by various degrees. This has a different feel than simply keeping a list of rules.
While this is challenging, and possibly even depressing for some, there is an element of excitement there for me: Obviously we must rely on God’s grace and forgiveness. But within that, we will always be challenged and encouraged to a fuller and more radiant expression of love within our lives. We are beckoned to open ourselves and to allow God’s Spirit to live within us, and to expect that what God will do within us and through us will be nothing short of miraculous. For in Christ, sin is not death, but dead.Steeped in PrayerOctober 29, 2013
I wrote the following article this evening for our church's Life Together newsletter. It is for the "Christian Formation" section.
Growing up, it was not uncommon for people in my church to pray together in small groups. These prayers weren’t pre-written, they were simply people coming together and talking with God. Sometimes there was a sense of urgency and criticality to these prayers. Likewise, when the pastor prayed from the front of the church, it had a spontaneous feel to it. To contrast this, when I first started attending SJMC, I noticed that often when people prayed at the front of the church, it sounded like they were reading a poetic pre-written prayer. There’s a different feel there, and I was curious at the difference. I also noticed that prayer in small groups was more rare, and when it happened, it was a focusing prayer said by a leader before a meeting rather than a prayer involving everyone. Over the years I have sometimes thought about this, and wondered about these differences -- both their causes and effects.
Part of this reflection is that for me personally, listening and participating in spontaneous prayer was an effective form of faith formation. It helped develop the language of faith, which is an important part of one’s faith development. Our human minds are wired with language, and without the ability to both listen and speak in that language, we are missing important pieces.
Spontaneous prayer also models for children how we can relate to God. In any relationship, communication is key. We want to learn how to listen and discern how God is speaking to us, but we also want to learn how to express ourselves and our faith back to God. Any relationship which is unidirectional is missing a whole dimension. As I have read, faith is more often “caught” than “taught”. Inviting children, youth, and young adults to be part of spontaneous prayer is consistent with this principle of faith being “caught”. I delighted in hearing from Derek and Rebecca how prayer is experienced so much differently in Benin. Strikingly, children are often invited and even expected to pray spontaneously in front of the group. Is that scary or what? But it’s also fascinating, exciting, inspiring.
There are significant barriers to spontaneous prayer. It’s a cultural thing, and if it’s not a church’s culture, then it’s going to be difficult. If it misses a generation, how do we get it back? If we as parents aren’t comfortable praying with each other, how will it ever be natural for our children? Chatting with a middle aged person from our congregation, they feel that it wasn’t always so rare. What have been the forces at work changing this part of church culture?
I was recently reminded how challenging it can be when it’s not part of the culture. I was home for Christmas last November and felt led to ask my parents to pray with me about our Christmas traditions and seek God’s guidance on how we could reform our ways and try to make our Christmas time together more centered on Jesus and less about buying each other things we don’t need. But I don’t pray with my parents. It’s just not something we do. So asking them felt incredibly strange. I’m glad I did, and I hope some day it won’t be strange. I’ll bet for many of us, praying with our parents, or our teenage kids, or even our spouse, isn’t part of your culture. Where it is, I think we should be so thankful, and where it is not, we should ponder: Are we missing out on a part of faith formation that carries tremendous potential?
When I’m putting Eli to bed, it’s not often that I’m excited or motivated to pray with him. Usually by that time of the day I’m tired and wanting to get the kids in bed, which lowers my stress level. But as I sit there some nights reading him his story, asking myself whether I can summon enough energy to pray with him, I wonder whether those 5 minutes of prayer might be among the most important and critical things I do all day. Just maybe.Popping the StackOctober 25, 2013
Computer code is made up of many "functions" that software developers write. As the computer processes each line of code in a function, other functions can be "called", which causes the current function to pause and the new function to start being executed line by line. When that new function finishes, the program "pops the stack" and resumes running the line of code in the original function directly below where the function call was made. It is not rare for a computer program to be many functions deep in its execution.
An analogy for life is that you might be cleaning your house when you notice you're hungry. You pause cleaning your house to attend to your hunger. While making your sandwich, a phone call comes in. You pause your sandwich making to answer the phone. While on the phone someone knocks at the door. You pause your phone conversation briefly to answer the door. Each of these things represents a new context for your mind. When you're done each thing, you return to your previous activity.
The realization today is that one analogy for our journey through our life and through our day is that we can be many levels deep in terms of what we're working on, how we're progressing through our day, our life, etc, and this compounded stack of context can make us feel very burdened and drained. But we can parachute out of this stack back to the ground level, where it's just us and God. We can set our context down and walk back at ground level, where God is our God, and we are God's child. A kind of communion between just us and God, where the many details of life have faded away.
What are our rythms? How often during our week and during our day do we mentally and spiritually pop the stack and return our minds and souls to the most profound context of all?older >>