I’ve struggled at various times with what ‘sin’ really means. I wrote about it a few years ago, in ‘Reclaiming sin for myself‘ and ‘Sexual guilt, and how to do it better‘. But in the last few months, everything has changed again.
Fondazione Cariplo – Molteni Giuseppe, ‘La confessione’
Head propped in my hands and elbows resting on my knees, I replay the worst moments of my week, searching hard for sins. Some weeks there’s an obvious choice: I just picture the face of that boy I shouldn’t have kissed. If I have a boyfriend at the time, it’s even easier: I remember with shame the times we were tempted to go too far, the times we might have ‘slipped up’. We’ve probably already repented solemnly together, but it can’t hurt to feel a good amount of guilt all over again.
But if the week has been free from amorous events, either because I’m going through a strong patch of self-control or, more likely, for lack of opportunity, then it’s much harder. I can’t remember, if I’m honest, much detail from my week – only major drama really sticks in my mind, which is otherwise occupied with family chaos, upcoming exams, university applications. None of those seem to be sinful, so I’m stumped.
The liturgy offers an alternative, reminding me I could also have sinned by things I’ve failed to do. But that’s even harder to bring to mind. Unless I’ve left a bleeding friend to die, left an abandoned baby on the street, or spitefully refused to give an old lady 10p to make enough for her bus fare, I haven’t been conscious of my sins of omission either. Sighing, I think back to the lustful thought I had last week and decide to repent of that all over again.
This pattern constituted my understanding of sin, from the age of 14 (when I discovered that I wasn’t perfect and also discovered boys) to the age of about 21. In that time, every confession time in church, every chat with a youth leader or mentor, every Bible study with my student group drew my mind to the same place. To confess my sin, I had to think up individual acts that I’d done, feel guilty about them, and then make the guilt go away by being conscious of Jesus being punished for them instead of me (an image guaranteed to make anyone feel more guilty rather than less). And almost every time, no matter what else was going on in my life, the only things that really came to mind were those related to sex and relationships.
When it came to sin, I thought I knew a God of justice – the God of Isaiah 53, who had to crush Jesus for each and every one of my iniquities.
At about 21, sometime in my second year of university, my understanding of sin started to shift. Perhaps it was because I started to become aware of the world around me – the homelessness prevalent in Oxford, the human trafficking prevalent around the world, the deep injustices ingrained in our society according to gender, race, class, sexuality, education, wealth. Or perhaps I just got bored of feeling guilty for the same things. Either way, while I started to read the Bible with fresh eyes and figure out my own sexual ethics, my understand of sin was turned upside down.
In the four years or so since, it’s been the plural pronouns in ‘forgive us our sins’ that have really stuck out to me – our corporate sins, and my personal part in them, have been impressed deeply on my conscience. Garment makers working for pennies in sweatshops, because I don’t want to shell out for my new jeans. Tea producers struggling to make ends meet, because I think the Fairtrade version doesn’t taste quite as good. Increasingly erratic rainfall in Kenya making it impossible for farmers to get a good harvest, more powerful storms in the Philippines, floods devastating family homes more often in Bangladesh… and I can’t be bothered to sort my recycling or write to my MP about our climate change targets.
I’ve come to know the God of justice – the God of James 5 who hears the cries of the unpaid workers and warns the fat-cats of their coming downfall.
I thought that was it, for my theology of sin. After all, I still haven’t sorted out all my recycling, short-haul flights, Fairtrade clothing or plastic-free eating. But in the last few months, I’ve noticed yet another shift. Instead of replacing one view of sin with another in my mind, God seems to be drawing them together in a new way. Here’s what it looks like:
I wrote a few weeks ago about how my time with the Community of St Anselm had given me a “new and growing nearness to him”, that life had been transformed by living “hour by hour, minute by minute in communion with God”. This sense of sharing daily life with God, not presenting him with my plans at the beginning of the day for him to bless and cause to succeed, but rather offering my day openly to him, asking “what next?” and listening to his prompting in every situation – for me, that’s what life is about now.
And that changes what I understand by sin. The point isn’t which particular actions I do or leave undone, which words I use or what thoughts I indulge in. The point isn’t how much of my time I dedicate to fighting global injustice and feeling guilty for every Chinese takeaway that could have paid for someone’s anti-retroviral drugs.
Instead, if the point of life is to live in close communion with God, sin is to step to away from that. It’s to go through my days without pausing, offering my thoughts, ideas and plans to God, and asking “what next?”. And when I do that, I’m less likely to resist temptation, less likely to be conscious of the impact of my actions on the poorest people in the world, less likely to take chances to be generous and kind. But that’s not the point – the point is not how good I can be. The point is walking step by step with God.
This is the God of Revelation 3:20, the God who knocks at my door, asking to come in for dinner. The God who speaks with me over a meal (and probably a glass of wine), the God who confides in me, listens to me, and invites me to share in his wisdom and his plans.
Of course that teenager, head in hands in youth group, couldn’t remember the good deeds I’d left undone in any given week. If I hadn’t been going about my day asking God to nudge me and inspire me, I wouldn’t have had my eyes wide open to the possibilities that he had in mind. Similarly, it makes sense of why I’ve struggled to feel guilty for actions that I’ve been told are wrong by churches or Christian books – because deep down, I’ve known that I have been listening to God, have been alert to his promptings, and still had a clear conscience as I did those things. That tells me they weren’t what God calls sin – perhaps they were human attempts to add extra boundaries and fences around the law to protect me, but instead they only served to bind up and damage.
So now, when I repent of sin, I remember the days that I forgot to check in – when I went into new situations, not listening for what God might have for me to do in them, when I encountered people without asking how God might ask me to embody his love for them, when I tuned out his nudging, when I ploughed headlong into my own ideas without offering them up to him first and listening for his voice.
The great part is, that there’s no hanging my head in shame involved. The moment I come back to God and recognise how I’ve left him out, how i’ve tried to travel alone – at that moment, I’m right back there with him, and there’s no time to dwell on the past. Hand in hand, we’re off again into a new day, and nothing can stop us together.
And that’s where I am now. I don’t think God calls me to abide by a cold list of ever-binding rules, checking my behaviour against them at the end of the week and nailing each disobedient act to the cross. I don’t think God makes me personally responsible for ending world poverty by living in it myself, or that he demands a gold-standard of activism and ethical living to count myself a worthy person.
What he asks is not a standard of behaviour at all. Instead, what he wants takes all of me, every moment of every day. What he asks for is my company, my attention, my trust.
Each day, I wake up knowing that all God asks is that I show up for life with him. He’ll let me know what to do from there, and it’s an unpredictable adventure every day. I need only to listen.