Reclaiming sin for myself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post on Defeating the Dragons, in which I mentioned how as a teenager, “sin” had become synonymous with “sex”. Both three letter words beginning with “s”, but  I wasn’t just getting my spelling confused. To quote myself…

“my relationships with boys were the one area of my life that I was constantly confessing, repenting of, and feeling suitably guilty about… It was such a running theme for so long that even now, whenever I hear of sin, repentance, or “parts of our lives that we’re holding back from God,” I can’t think of anything but my sex life.”

'Sin Will Find You Out' photo (c) 2007, Heath Brandon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

You might have gathered, from previous posts, that I think evangelicalism hasn’t quite got our thinking straight on sex, especially when it comes to virginity and purity. There are all kinds of issues that can arise from idolising this understanding of sexual purity, like unhealthy shame complexes, guilt complexes, hatred of our bodies and fear of natural attraction.

That aside for another day, I’ve noticed that for myself, there’s another set of issues that come from it too. When sex is synonymous with sin in one way of thinking, changing how I think about sex has unsettled my understanding of sin. Because the two became so connected, such a change could be as simple as “sexual sin = sin. If sexual sin doesn’t exist, the whole concept of sin doesn’t exist.” I wouldn’t want to say that – I’m sure that sexual sin still exists as a thing. But I know that the more I’ve begun to think differently about sexual purity, the more I’ve begun to react against any concept of sin at all. Sermons, articles, or bits of the Bible that mention sin have become particularly grating, and I find myself dismissing or actively disagreeing with them.

My brain knows that this is a problem. I do think right and wrong exist. I do think that “Christ died for sins” is a true statement, one of the very truest I know, along with “God is love”. So before I can work out what the right relationship between sex and sin is, I need to disconnect the two.

I need to understand sin without reference to sexual purity rules.

So, where should I start? What would be a healthy, ‘Biblical’ way of thinking about sin? I don’t want to go down the route of the ethical theories we studied in A level philosophy and ethics (I think utilitarianism is the only sort I can remember anyway), because I want to start with something that gets to the heart of a distinctively Christian understanding of sin…

What about Jesus’ summary of the law and the prophets as love God and love neighbour? Perhaps sin is when I don’t do those things? When I’m selfish, when I don’t give to others, when I don’t fight for justice for the oppressed, when I don’t feed the hungry, when I put others down to elevate myself, when I use other people, when I treat them with less respect than they deserve, I’m not loving my neighbour. That’s straight forward enough to feel my way through. I know, somewhere in my gut, when I’m not loving my neighbour. But what about loving God? How do I know what is not loving God? My mind jumps straight back to John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commands” says Jesus. What are his commands? As I said before, “I can’t think of anything but my sex life.” 

So I’m still struggling to think of sin outside of sex, especially when it comes to sin that doesn’t seem to hurt other people but is about obedience or disobedience to God. How else can we go about thinking about that kind of sin? Is it to do with intentions, to do with wanting to put God first, or not trying? Or is it actually about rules after all, sex rules included? Is it just that I need to be clear on how to interpret those rules, and then stick to my best understanding of them?

All ideas welcome… where do we start with a healthy understanding of sin that isn’t based primarily on sexual guilt?

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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16 Responses to Reclaiming sin for myself.

  1. Lasseter says:

    Perhaps this flows from the view that human beings are innately so depraved that every one deserves hell. Purity rules that forbid even holding hands or kissing your sweetheart transform even the most innocent gesture of physical affection into a moral indictment. This has never been my understanding of sexual immorality (porneia), nor has it even been my understanding of sin (amartia). Perhaps one could start by bearing in mind that the latter means missing the mark. Even more bold, one might try not thinking that every human being innately deserves eternal punishment, which, it seems, invariably leads to regarding every act that is even just remotely related to an act or thought that may be sinful as full of sin itself and an invitation to hellfire.

    I’m rambling. This subject upsets me. There seems so little discourse in between the extremes of sexual libertinism and sexual condemnation. When one side thinks every sexual proscription in the Bible is antiquated and the other side compares a woman who has sinned sexually to a piece of chewing gum … ugh.

    How about I just tell a famous joke instead of any more of my babbling.

    Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?

    Because they’re afraid it could lead to dancing.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, really interesting – and always helpful to be sent back to the Greek! I’m with you on the problem of extremes, one of the best discoveries I’ve made from starting to read blogs is that there are people working really hard on finding the sensible middle ground. I feel a little boost every time I see someone else writing what you’ve just said – “isn’t there another option?”
      If sin is missing the mark, could it be better to start by considering what the bullseye is?

  2. Tash says:

    Really interesting blog Claire.

    I too struggle with separating the two. When I first started in church I was 12, and relationships (especially sexual ones) was not a large part of my life, so sin was anything which didnt show Christ through me. So swearing, breaking the law (under age drinking) being rude to my parents, lying, jealousy and other such things, were what I would repent for.

    However, as I got older and I struggled in relationships and maintaining a non-sexual relationship, I felt guilty for it and the lust I felt. Being honest, I don’t know if that guilt comes from feeling the pressures of people around me, from myself, or from the bible. When I left church it was because I had a relationship my church didn’t approve of, a relationship which turned sexual. Now when I think of my sins, my sexual habits leap to the forefront of my mind and put me off of returning back to church or to the lifestyle I once led as its not something which I plan to change.

    it’s difficult, do we look back at the old testament and define sin from exodus and the old books? Or is there more we could understand from the new testament?

    Very interesting!!

    • Claire says:

      Thanks so much for sharing that, Tash. What you say about the source of guilt is interesting, I’d agree that it’s hard to work out exactly where it comes from. I guess when our own thoughts are so bound up with church teaching and important individuals, and we read the Bible in a certain way because of those influences, it’s really hard to separate them out.

      Good point – maybe the differences between the Old and New Testaments could in themselves be helpful for us trying to understand sin now? Looking at what the enduring principles are, and how they get applied very differently in different contexts, and how sin relates to covenant relationship, might be a fruitful little project at some point…

  3. Pete C says:

    From my understanding of the Bible, sin is rebellion against God. Setting ourselves up as an authority and acting in a manner that shows we reject God’s way and choose our own. It isn’t about the rules, as Romans 8 makes clear that the rules lead to more sin, and were only there because their/our hearts were hard (context needed, I’m sure). Jesus said in Matthew 25:37-40 that it’s about loving God and loving others as you love yourself, as you said, but he makes it clear that doing these two things will involve following rules. The following rules is a result of grace, a result of loving God because he loved us, and so we recognise his way is best. And his love for us is not based on our past, our performance or our purity. It is based on our position. Are we “in Christ”? Good. We can live a life pleasing to God. We cannot please him by trying, but by allowing the Spirit to replace the flesh, or worldly nature.

    I have a feeling I digressed there a smidge. Apologies.

    • Claire says:

      So, you said both “it isn’t about the rules”, and “[they] will involve following rules” – I know you’re talking about motivation for rule following, but surely sin either is or is not to do with rules? I think you’re saying it is, because rebellion against God surely has to take some concrete form?
      Next question then would be how do we know what rules we’re meant to obey? Loving God as one of the rules is a bit circular – if loving God involves following the rules!

      • Pete C says:

        Hmm yes, I could have phrased that better. By rules, I mean the basic standards set out for us in the New Testatment, for instance “Rid yourself of all malice, slander etc”, and also the pure heart of the Sermon on the Mount, rather than laws governing what we can and can’t do. I think Jesus is clear on marriage and therefore the Bible is mostly clear on sex, but the point I attempted poorly to make was that we come to God unable to live a good life. His grace in our life has the effect that we want to live a good life.

        We don’t please God by trying to follow rules, but he does lay down boundaries. It’s not a grey area, but sometimes the line is hard to see. This is why it so often says in the Bible to avoid getting anywhere near it!

        Hope this is a little clearer…

  4. Benjamin Manley says:

    Sexual ethics is one of those issues about which I (and seemingly most people) find it hard to agree on exactly what counts as sinful and what doesn’t. As far as I understand it, the most important feature of sin is that it involves putting ourselves before God, which if true might mean that our attitudes and motives are the most important consideration when regarding our own sin. That is, if we truly believe that a sexual action or thought is sinful (having prayed about it, read any relevant Bible passages, talked to other Christians about it) then to go ahead with it anyway is clearly sinful, regardless of the objective morality of that act or thought. If acts are either right or wrong, then some of us will be correct in our understanding of what constitutes sin sexually, and some of us won’t, because our moral prescriptions are mutually exclusive. But if we’ve tried our best to understand whether something is sinful, even if we’ve actually misunderstood, I believe that God will be more concerned about how we act in respect to our conscience. It’d be good to know what you think about that.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Benjamin 🙂 I think I’d be inclined to agree that motivation and conscience is important, perhaps most important of all.
      I’m struggling to remember exactly, but I feel like Richard Swinburne had a thing about objective and subjective sin. So, if action A is objectively good and action B is objectively bad, and you have to choose between them, you could sin in two different ways. Either you could sin by picking action B, even though you genuinely thought it was the right thing to do, and so were following your conscience – it would still be objective sin, despite your motivation. Or you could sin by picking action A, if your conscience told you that B was the right thing to do. Even though objectively you’d done the right thing, you’d be sinning subjectively because you were acting against conscience. I think that throws up all sorts of new questions – like how reliable is conscience? Can our consciences become dulled to the point of being ineffective? Can we really say that motivation and intent trumps objective good and bad, if such a thing exists? Or can right motivation actually make an action good when it wasn’t before?

      Answers on a postcard…

  5. Ian says:

    Sin is something I’ve been thinking about a bit, albeit in sporadic, half-formed-thought sorts of ways. So this response will be similarly scattered. Also, for you to know where I’m coming from: my background is in philosophy and (American) law.

    Note: I’m not especially well read in theology, but didn’t Augustine think sin was “transmitted” via coitus and reproduction? We westerners seem to have a long, strange history of unease with sexual sin. But before we can even get to sexual sin, I think we need to work on sin, simpliciter.

    I think sin is a major source of confusion for secular minds and this confusion is exacerbated by both(great, well intentioned) ethical systems and our prevalent, atomistic view of individual responsibility. Personally, I struggle with anything resembling a coherent metaphic of sin and end up eschewing it for a more existential conviction; I don’t need to be convinced of the reality of sin because I experience it, internally, on a daily basis.

    What I mean by a coherent metaphysic of sin is something that adaquately accounts for both “sinful nature” and actual agency. How was I present with Adam? How did I partake in the fall? Our legal systems don’t judge descendents on the basis of their parents’ actions–they don’t even judge us on the basis of our character, but for particular, charged acts. It could be that I’m struggling across a paradigm difference and we simply think about guilt differently than the biblical authors did. Or am I missing something? Has this work already been done, what does the theological community have to say about how odd sin can seem?

    • Claire says:

      Hi Ian – great to have the perspective of a philosophical and legal mind, thanks!

      Interesting that you bring up Augustine, having taken an exam on him a few weeks ago, I should definitely know more than I do. His views on sex and sin are really interesting, because although he seems to be very anti-sex and blame most things on it, it’s actually lust that he’s raging against. Lust is what he contrasts with will, in that all other organs of the body can be controlled by the will, but he understands lust as a force which takes over the sexual organs and makes the will ineffective, which is shameful. This is why sex is shameful even within marriage. I was interested to find though that Augustine thought there would have been sex, and sexual reproduction, even without the fall – whereas other theologians at his time said sex itself only came after the fall as a result. For Augustine, it would have been sex controlled by the will rather than by lust.

      Anyway, I know that’s not really the point! The whole idea of original sin is a weird one, I totally agree. Weirder still with our more updated understanding of biology and so on than some of our ancestral theologians! For me, it comes down to whatever we mean by human nature, whatever it is that we all share. Again from a biological point of view, I’m way out of my depth, but I wonder if there’s a more theological/spiritual way to look at what it means to be human. It could link to sin in terms of a vulnerability, a tendency that makes sin an inevitability, rather than guilt and sin being passed down genetically… I think it’s also important that where Paul talks about us sharing in Adam, in Romans 5, it’s in the context of us now sharing in Christ, the two are balanced – and I don’t think anyone thinks of sharing in Christ’s righteousness as a hereditary sharing. Perhaps the fall and sharing guilt makes more sense in the context of thinking about redemption and sharing in that?

      • Ian says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by making sense of the fall and guilt in the context of redemption. What I understand you to be saying is that we ought take Romans 5:12-20 as Paul’s description of the significance of and, to a lesser extent, the method of salvation–with comments concerning original sin serving only as steps in or illustrations for the description. Are you saying that the Romans 5 passage isn’t “about” sin insofar as Paul’s purpose is to describe life through Christ? Do you think we can formulate a meaningful doctrine of sin from the Romans 5 passage or similar passages?

        I’m not sure how to engage that conversation. I’m not familiar with scholarship on Paul’s writing conventions. I’d appreciate it if you could parse out what you think Paul is doing in that passage. I think part of my problem, in general, is that I get too far “off text.”

        I defintely agree that the concept of original sin is weird, but I think that original sin needs to explored more fully before we can make sense of sin as act (even if the two may loop back around on each other like the Ouroboros). I feel our position after the fall requires us to consider our status prior to our acts. And while we could refer to sinful nature/original sin/total depravity as simply “human nature” and be completely accurate in an existential sense (e.g., “according to my exeprience my human condition is to fall short, to disobey, to rebel, etc.”), I’m not satisfied with that. I want to understand what sin is metaphysically.

        As an aside about people not thinking of sharing in Christ’s righteousness as a hereditary sharing, aren’t there numerous references in the NT to “households” being saved? Or do most people take that to mean that after the patriarch of a household was saved that his family followed as individuals? And if they take it to mean the latter, are they guilty of individualistic eisigesis?

        • Ian says:

          Also, on sin and rules-following: this line of thinking might stray into philosophical ethics, a topic I’m a little more comfortable with. One observation I’ve arrived at numerous times when reading articles attempting to outline a “Christian Ethic” (the most recent of which was John Piper) is that a “Christian Ethic” may have more to do with intent than with merely following rules. Piper’s article in particular struck me as a sloppy rehashing of Kant. I don’t know whether or how much you’ve studied Kant’s ethics, but I think his emphasis on intent and a good will can be found in echoes throughout scripture.

  6. writtenbyafloridian says:

    Well, in my mind, idolatrous, sinful love is the love of self or of another finite being or thing contrary to or without reference to the universal good of God, which is identical with the good of the total society of creatures. God loves every creature perfectly by loving herself perfectly, while the creature loves God perfectly by loving every creature perfectly. To love another is to will the good of another. To love perfectly is to will the perfect good, which is agape. God’s natural love of herself(divine eros) is the moral Will toward the perfect Good (divine agape) which includes the perfect good of every creature. Man’s love of another being is the active willing of the good and the enjoyment of the being of another creature. To love another being perfectly is to love that being within the context of the perfect good which is the fulfillment of God. This was summed up perfectly by Jesus: Love God with all your being and love your neighbour as yourself. The first commandment is the second commandment and the second commandment is the first. In other words, to love God perfectly is to love all of Her creatures perfectly. The commandments are mutually inclusive, in my opinion.

    Cheers

  7. liddyloo says:

    You’re awesome. Just, thankyou. From a feminist, Christian, 28 year old girl in London as equally unsure as you are. X

  8. Pingback: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned… | The Art of Uncertainty

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