What’s Up With Sin?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 20, 2017

The last few times I’ve stood here and given a message, I’ve talked about things I didn’t know. I’ve shared my ignorance with you. Just a year ago “I’m With Stupid” was the title of my message. Back in June, I asked “What Are We Doing Here?” I wasn’t at all sure I knew the answer to that question.

Today I’m back at sharing my ignorance with you. I want to talk about Sin: what it is, why it matters, how we avoid it. I certainly can’t stand here and tell you I’m completely ignorant of sin. I have seven full decades of personal experience of sin. But I’m still not sure I know how best to think about it. So today I’m sharing my wonderings and confusions because I want to invite you into thinking about these questions, too.

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First, a story. An old New Englander named Norm, a man of few words, came home from Church one Sunday and there in the yard next door was his friend, Alvin. Alvin asked Norm, what did the preacher talk about today? “Sin” said Norm. What did he say about it, asked Alvin. “He’s agin it,” said Norm. And went into the house.

“He’s agin it.” So are we all, against sin, aren’t we? Every last one of us, aren’t we? But do we know what it is? How do we know it when we see it? What’s the core essence of sinfulness? I don’t know. I’ll say that right off. It’s tempting to say we just know what it is when we see it. But if we all know what it is, and we’re all agin it, why do we ever do it? This is where my confusion begins, where I realize just how little I know about important things.

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What Is Sin, Really? I’ve read a fair amount of theology about sin. It’s a whole field of study in seminaries. Hamartiology. That’s the four-bit word for it. I wish I could tell you I’d benefitted greatly from reading such theology, but that wouldn’t be an honest statement.

Mostly I’ve learned that sin is “transgressing God’s rules” OR that sin is “missing the mark.” Fair enough. But not really helpful. What are the rules I should follow? What is the mark I’m aiming at? What does it look like when I hit the mark? What does it look like when I miss? I don’t want a treatise on the philosophy of sin. I want a drivers manual for my soul.

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So What Are the Rules? So consider sin as “Transgressing God’s rules.” What are the rules, anyway?

There are simply loads of rules in the Bible. Especially in the book of Leviticus. 613 by one famous count from the 3d century. Is sin a matter of breaking one of those rules? Few of us think that’s the case today.

Then there’s that famous list of ten in the book of Exodus: the Ten Commandments. Are these they key rules, the key list of sins? Maybe.

But – and I’m just speaking for myself — I don’t worry too much about violating the Ten Commandments. Perhaps I should but I don’t. I don’t wrestle with whether I’m going to commit murder or theft or worship graven images. It’s other things.

In public discussions, here’s what the world talks about with regard to sin. How about Gambling? Drug use? Use of Alcohol? Extramarital sex? Same-sex sexual attraction? Abortion? Divorce?

Does sin have any bearing on who I should vote for to represent me in Congress or to be Governor? Does sin enter into what I think about healthcare or immigration or taxes? I don’t think there are any bright lines about these things

Here, in contrast, are the things I worry about. Is it a sin if I maneuver my grocery cart in front of yours at the supermarket checkout? Is it a sin if I walk in late to Meeting? Is it a sin if I mentally roll my eyes at something you just said? Is it a sin if I don’t listen to you as carefully as I could? The Ten Commandments don’t seem to help with these.

Authoritative lists of sin always seem arbitrary and self-serving to me. They often seem laced with old, human prejudice. I don’t hear God in those lists. Perhaps you don’t either.

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Are We Really Concerned About Sin? Maybe we just aren’t too concerned about sin. I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things we speak about during Joys and Concerns. As I think over the concerns we speak about with one another, they’re mostly concerns about bad things that happen to one of us. Or bad things that happen to family members, or to friends. Bad things like cancer or broken bones or despair.

We don’t say much if anything about bad things we’ve done or bad things we are tempted to do to others. The bad things we do: that’s sin, isn’t it? And yet we don’t seem to talk about things like that.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” Jesus taught us to pray, but we seem to live in places where that isn’t a concern we have. Have we gotten beyond sin? Do we no longer believe in the idea of sin? It’s not a term we use very much – if at all.

One reason I come to Meeting, maybe the most important reason, is that I know I am capable of bad things: irritability, certainly. Selfishness. Narrow-mindedness. Greed. Pettiness. I know I need help with these things, from you, my friends, and from God. Do these words mean the same thing as sin?

When Ellen and I married, I promised to be “unto [her], with divine assistance, a loving and faithful husband as long as we both shall live.” With divine assistance: isn’t that a recognition that I need help with sin? Isn’t that a prayer to “lead me not into temptation?” As the tax collector says in Luke 18:13, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

So I’m concerned about sin and maybe you are, too.

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Why, Then, Don’t We Use the Word Much Any More? The frequency with which the word “sin” was used in English hit a peak around 1800 and has been in decline ever since. I imagine this decline has been at least as steep among Quakers as among others. Why is that?

“Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.” Those words from the hymn we sang this morning are a hundred years old. (Great is Thy Faithfulness) Perhaps we’ve just grown uncomfortable with the word “sin.” Perhaps we want to talk about the same idea but using different words. What words? What’s our new lingo about sin?

Misbehavior. Wrongdoing. Crimes. Misdemeanors. High crimes and misdemeanors. Prejudice. We talk of people being mean or naughty, petty or annoying. We use these terms, don’t we? Do they mean the same thing as sin?

Just as often we talk as if we really don’t believe in sin – or even in bad behavior. “Don’t be judgmental,” we say. “Everything happens for a reason.” “Do your own thing.” “Be yourself,” we’re encouraged. But if “I’m myself,” isn’t that just giving in to sin? Don’t I want to be better than I often am? Isn’t that the mark I’m aiming at?

Aren’t there some behaviors that should be condemned and avoided? If so, how do we know what they are? What is sin, anyway?

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Can We Get Beyond Lists? Here’s one reason I don’t find lists of sins helpful. I ask myself, Are the items on the list sins because God says so? (And if so, how do I know God says so?) Is sinfulness a matter of God playing ‘Simon Says’ with humans? God says go! God says stop eating shellfish. Or are items on the list for some deeper reason that I should really be trying to understand?

Is there logic to what God asks us to do and not to do? If so, what is that deeper reason? What is the sinfulness of sin? What is the common thread?

When I was eight or nine, one bitter cold winter afternoon towards dinnertime I opened all the mailboxes on our street. Probably I was just bored. Maybe I thought I was helping the mailman: tomorrow he won’t have to open the boxes to put in the mail. After I came in, my parents made me go out and close them again. I felt aggrieved. Why didn’t you tell me that wasn’t OK? Why don’t you just tell me all the rules? That’s silly isn’t it?

Jesus himself skewers the list approach to sins when he’s asked by the Pharisees “which is the greatest commandment?” It’s a trap, of course.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37)

So Jesus puts love first as the greatest commandment: loving God and loving others. If sin is the opposite of that, then isn’t sin a matter of loving oneself more than loving God or loving oneself more than one’s neighbors?

We all have that tendency, don’t we: excessive love of self. Our perceptions are slanted to favor what we want. They are biased in our favor. Anyone who goes to a sports contest knows that. When the referee makes an important call, half the audience is outraged and half thinks the call is simple justice. It takes divine assistance to get beyond that, doesn’t it?

I’m sure that’s too simple: sin as selfishness. Selfishness – in all its clever, self-serving disguises – certainly is sinful. But I’m sure that’s too simple, isn’t it?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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