It's like those Christians have a different word for everything! 2) Sin
Hespeler, 10 January, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Romans 7:7-25, Psalm 14, Luke 7:36-47
ello, my name is Scott and I am a sinner." Of all the lessons that the Christian church could learn from the world around us, I suspect that the greatest one would be to borrow that phrase from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and adapt them to the challenges that we face living as Christians in the world.
Think for a moment about how that phrase functions within an AA meeting. The most important part of any meeting is when the various members stand up and share from their own experience – stories about their personal struggles with addiction and the problems that have come out of that struggle for themselv
es and the people that they love.
But before they get into any of that, every single one of them introduces himself or herself as an alcoholic or an addict. They all say it and that includes both the person who has not had a single drink in fifteen years and the person who was out binge drinking a few nights ago. It is a question, not p
But that isn’t going to be so easy. One of the big problems we have is our whole language about sin. In fact, I would suggest that our understanding of this word that is an essential part of our Christian faith is sorely lacking.
What is sin? Sin is a part of the vocabulary of the world around us. Think about the last time you heard someone use the word outside of the context of the church. They probably said something like, “This cake is sinful,” or “Chocolate is my favourite sin.” And, when it is used like that, what does the word mean? It is usually a way of speaking about something that is extremely desirable, that you probably should not have or do, but that you fully intend to indulge in anyway. If you want to sell a product, sinful is actually a very good way to describe that product.
So that is how the world around us uses the word. I’m sure that you all understand that such a meaning is pretty far from what the Bible means when it uses the world. But, I would argue, when we use the word in the church, we don’t do all that much better.
In the church, we mostly talk about sin in the plural, and refer to all of the little things that we do wrong. (Though, of course, we are usually much happier to talk about the little things that other people do wrong.) For many Christians, that is all that a concern for sin is about: counting up all the little things (or sometimes big things) that mostly other people do wrong.
The problem with that is not that such things don’t matter; they do. We all regularly get things wrong and we all have to deal with the fallout from that: the people we hurt, the damage we do to ourselves and to the world around us. But that, as far as the Bible is concerned, is only the smallest part of our problem with sin.
The Apostle Paul explains what the real problem with sin is in his letter to the Romans: “I do not do the good I want,” Paul starts, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He is simply saying that he has problems with the bad things that he does and his failure to do good things. So, at this point, he is taking about what we usually talk about when we discuss sin.
But note where he goes from there: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” He just took this whole concept in a very different direction. Though he has acknowledged that there are problems with his actions, he is actually saying that his actions are not really where the problem lies. There is something else – something within him – that is the real source of his misery and failure. And Paul wants us to focus, not on those individual actions, but on the internal thing that is causing them.
That is what the Bible is actually talking about when it talks about sin: an attitude, something that we carry around within us that gets in the way of us being who we want to be and that stops us from doing what we really want to do. The basic attitude that causes us so much trouble is sometimes called pride, but that is not necessarily the best word to use. Pride, after all, can be a good thing. There is nothing wrong with having pride in your worthwhile achievements or in being proud of your friends and the people you love.
No, the attitude that gets us in trouble is more than just your everyday pride. It is what the Greeks called hubris, an attitude that puts yourself and your own needs and desires ahead of everything else – both what is human and what is divine. It is an attitude, above all, where you try and build yourself up by taking others down.
In our relationship with God, hubris means that we try to put ourselves in the place of God because we think we know best. That is the sin that is described in the garden at the beginning of the Bible. Adam and Eve’s sin was not that they disobeyed an order and ate the fruit anyways, it was that they sought to take the place of God by becoming masters of good and evil.
But it is in our relationships with other people that we see the destructive power of hubris most often. This comes out of a basic human assumption (a false assumption by the way) that honour and self-worth are a zero sum game.
That might take a bit of explaining. A zero sum game is a system that is closed with no additional value coming into it. A good example of a zero sum game is the actual game of Poker. There is only so much money in a poker game – all of the money that all of the players combined bring to the table. That means that the only way that you can win at poker is by taking other people’s money. In other words, you can only win if other people lose. That’s all a zero sum game is.
We all understand zero sum games because they are simple and straightforward. I win, you lose is a pretty simple concept. That’s why we often assume that everything in life works like a zero sum game, even though it is clearly not true. For example, we assume that things like budgets (government budgets, family budgets and church budgets) work like that. We assume that there is only a fixed amount of money coming in and so we make cuts and assume that that is what will balance the budget.
It usually doesn’t work because there are some things that you cut and it means that you have less money coming in. (For example, a church might say that it would be cheaper to have services every other week without realizing that such a move would probably also reduce givings in half or even more.) And then, of course, there are also things that, if you spend more on them, it may actually increase revenues and you actually end up ahead of the game. Budgeting is so hard precisely because it is not a zero sum game.
Neither is self-worth. There is no limit to the value of a human being because we are all loved by God and God’s love has no limit. So it is quite possible to enhance your self worth without taking any from anyone else. Indeed, the very idea of the church is that when we come together we can build each other up and all gain in value together.
But still we seem to behave all the time as if it is a zero sum game. In social interactions what that means is that we behave all the time as if the only way for me to gain self worth is by devaluing someone else. So that is how hubris works in our relationships – it leads us to unnecessarily tear other people down in a vain attempt at building ourselves up.
That is why the attitude behind our sinfulness is so much more of a problem than the collection of particular things that we do wrong or fail to do right. In fact, it is because of hubris that we actually prefer to think of sin in terms of all the various things that we do wrong. That makes the business of morality seem more like a zero sum game. It makes it seem like all I have to do is count up all of the faults and errors of other people and compare them to my own. If I have fewer faults than other people (and, of course, we are always far more likely to see other people’s faults than we are to see our own) then it seems like I win and other people lose.
But morality is not a zero sum game. As far as I can see, the God that we worship – the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ – is not interested in our games of who wins and who loses and will never be impressed if you manage to make yourself look better by putting somebody else down. That is why our focus on sins – on mistakes and errors and missteps will never get us to the place where God wants us to be.
That brings me back to where I started – with the phrase, “Hello, my name is Scott and I am a sinner.” I really do think that that is where we ought to start in our worship as the community of the church together. But you need to understand what I don’t mean by that. I don’t mean that I have messed up in my life, that I have made mistakes and have regrets. I mean, yes, have done all of that, but that is not what I mean when I call myself a sinner.
What I mean is that I struggle with my own sense of self-worth. I am afraid that I am not good enough – not good enough for God and not good enough for other people. I am afraid of being rejected. And so I try to cover up all of that and create worth for myself and sometimes try and do that by putting down other people or exploiting things or people. And that struggle is my problem. It is a problem I should not have because I am valuable and so are you. We are valuable and important (if for no other reason) because God made us and God loves us. But we seem to have a hard time believing that and so we think we have to build our self-worth in other ways.
That is our problem and that is what leads us to do things like put down other people in an effort to feel better about ourselves. That is what leads to things like greed when we think that we will have more value when we have more stuff. It really is the root of all our other problems.
Paul tells of his own struggle with this insidious force in his life. It leads him, he says, to do the very things that he doesn’t want to do because the pull is that strong. Even laws and rules don’t help. In fact, they make it all worse because when we inevitably break them or see other people break them they just give us another excuse to think worse of ourselves or look down on somebody else.
And so the cycle continues and we feel like we will never be able to break out of it and so Paul cries out in despair, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” But there is hope because Paul goes on from there to say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
And so, yes, we need to talk about sin in the life of the church. We need desperately to come to terms with this force in our lives that leads us so far away from the path that we need to follow. But we really need to come to terms with what we actually mean when we talk about sin.
Jesus does set you free from the power of sin. Not simply by offering you forgiveness for all of your regrets and failures and mistakes (though he does offer you that when that is what you need). More important though, Jesus sets you free from the power of sin by letting you know just how much you really matter.
I’m going to close with a very explicit application of all of this. Here is what I want you to do with it. Stop putting down other people to feel better about yourself. Stop holding someone else back because you think it gets you farther ahead. Don’t tell me that you don’t do that because we all do. See the part in the Bible where it says we are all sinners. It’s just that some of us are more subtle about it than others. Examine yourself this week and, when you catch yourself doing it, tell yourself that you don’t need to. You are beloved by God.