The idea of sin is one that concerns Christians no matter what they believe. What is sin, how do I keep from sinning, what happens when I sin, etc; these are questions we all ask. All too often the answers we get are…, not good, not good at all.
They’re not good because they have the disconcerting tendency to “other” those we think have sinned. What is othering, you ask? In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stepped out in front of everyone and said “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.” The tax collector hung back in the shadows and prayed “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.” The Pharisee is othering. When it comes to sin, all too often, Christians sound more like the Pharisee than the tax collector.
We all do it, you know. The example that springs to everyone’s mind is the way conservative Christians deal with our LGBT brothers and sisters, calling them out for “living a sinful lifestyle” while living a life that isn’t exactly what you’d call sin-free themselves. But, what about more progressive Christians? Do we get a pass? Nope. For all our celebrated tolerance, we’re not all that tolerant of those more conservative than ourselves. I’ve heard this justified by saying “I love them, I just don’t love what they’re saying”. Understand this: just as LGBT people hear “Hate the sin, love the sinner” as “You disgust me”, conservatives hear “I love them, I just don’t love what they’re saying” as “You ignorant, redneck bigot”.
Okay, so we’ve established that we all sin. There are a lot of definitions for sin, but my own particular one is that sin is selfishness. When I become consumed with myself, I sin because I no longer direct love toward God and my neighbor, but toward myself. And, if I remember correctly, love God and love your neighbor is, like, the number one commandment.
Like a lot of things in life, sin isn’t a cut-and-dried proposition. With the exception of a few biggies, like murder, rape, theft, etc., sin is a matter of context. What I mean is that something might not be a sin in one context, while it would be in another. Take sex, for example. I think everyone will agree that, in the proper context, sex is a good thing. Out of that proper context, not so much. Similarly, taking care of yourself and your family, making sure you have a roof over your head, food on the table and other things isn’t a sin. Doing so in a manner that impacts others negatively (hoarding money, backing and/or enacting laws that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the needy, etc.) would be a sin.
So, the question is how do we stop sinning? The short answer is we don’t. We are broken people and the propensity for sin is hard-wired into us. Now, when I say “the propensity for sin is hardwired into us”, I don’t mean in that old Calvinist-we’re-all-miserable-bastards way, I’m talking about the survival instinct. In and of itself, this instinct is a good thing. It’s when it becomes the essence of our existence that it rises to the level of sin.
The longer answer is balance. Life in general is a balancing act and the Christian life even more so. Taking care of myself and my family must be balanced with taking care of my community. I find that balance through the Spirit. And, the Spirit is where I find God. Funny how that works.