Saturday, August 11, 2007

Let's Not Give Up on "Sin"

As a pastor, I’ve learned that one of the realities of my job is to receive unsolicited performance reviews after the Sunday service— sometimes from people I’ve barely met. Alternately, I find myself humbled, flattered, encouraged, insulted, and confused. It's a part of church work that I wouldn’t trade for anything. There is one visitor’s comment, however, that I’ve heard enough times that I’ve begun to take a little more notice. It’s usually phrased something like this: “I like it when you talked about God’s love, but did you have to keep talking about sin?”

The psychiatrist Karl Meninger wrote a book a few decades ago called Whatever Became of Sin? Meninger’s question is still worth asking. It seems that “sin,” as a serious word to describe the dark side of human motivation, has almost fallen out of use. It certainly has lost its broad appeal. When the word makes a rare appearance, it usually serves two very opposite purposes. Either it describes only the worst kind of atrocities, or it acts as comic relief—sort of a playful jab at the overly scrupulous (“Let us tempt you with our Sin-Sationally Rich Chocolate Sundae!”).

Why the recent twisting of such a long-used word? With embarrassment, Christians must admit to some (not all) of the blame. Certain periods of American Christianity have suggested that sin is coequal with drinking any amount of alcohol, playing cards, and dancing. The rest of the culture looks at the Church in such times and sighs, “Oh, brother.” I call this the silly-ification of sin, and it makes my job harder. What’s worse, when “sin” is trivialized in this way, the word loses much of its original power.

The New Testament has another view of sin altogether, one that makes the word worth keeping in our vocabulary. Sin was a deeply complex topic for Jesus and the apostles, yet one very simple term was often used to describe it: the Greek epithymia, which is best translated “over-desire.” Sin, therefore, is not simply the desire for the wrong things, but a disproportionate over-desire for anything, even good things. To appreciate a sleek car is not sin, but to over-desire it by believing that your life is somehow incomplete without it, is greed. Over-desire shows itself as the root of all kinds of sin. Having a good reputation is certainly desirable, but if you over-desire to protect your reputation, you will be tempted to lie or dodge criticism whenever you fear someone may discover your faults. The sin of bitterness has a similar cause. Because God made us, we have built-in dignity and worth. But, if we over-desire that others respect our dignity, we will succumb to bitterness or even hatred when someone doesn’t give us the respect that we demand. Have you ever surprised yourself by flaring-up at another driver who didn’t afford you the courtesy of his turn signal? The Bible says, “Don’t be so surprised,” for to be even slightly snubbed is a crisis for the one who is over-committed to getting the appreciation of others.

If we neutralize such thoughts and motivations by simply calling them “defense mechanisms” or even “personality flaws,” we underestimate their damaging effects. In fact, the greatest underlying human problem, which really defines all sin, is that we desire other things more than we desire God. We regularly seek our ultimate pleasure in things that were never designed to bear that responsibility—they just aren’t weighty enough. Ironically, even those who set out for a great career, a loving family, a good reputation, and then attain their goals, often report a nagging restlessness that something is still missing (and so we divorce, change careers, etc.).

Jesus taught that there is only one thing that can’t be over-desired, one thing that is substantial enough to be the anchor for our souls: himself. Jesus said that knowing and serving him actually brings about the satisfaction that we failingly (and sinfully) seek in so many other places. Blaise Pascal said it this way: “Inside every man’s heart is a God-shaped vacuum.” That is, though we try to fill ourselves with meaning by any number of people, possessions, and good causes, only God is shaped to fit. So, in the end, sins are not the arbitrary no-no’s of a Heavenly Kill-Joy, but the dangerous pursuits that prevent us from gaining the great Joy-Giver himself. Keeping a rough word like “sin” in our vocabulary reminds us that displacing God is not just a lifestyle choice, but is tragedy in the truest sense.