“When is last time you used the word ‘sin’ in a conversation?” I recently began a sermon with that question. My assumption was that for many, myself included, it had been awhile. Why? In part, in a society in which tolerance is the supreme virtue, it is not appropriate to talk about sins. But why, even in some churches is the word avoided?
Perhaps it is in response to ways sin has been talked about–as if declaring war on pleasure. Or maybe because the ones using the term were self-righteous-finger-pointing-shamers. Or, perhaps because of the way the word “sin” was linked with an image of a judgmental God–“the big eye in the sky,” people left the term behind as they appropriately ran away from that concept of God.
These are understandable reasons for moving away from talking about sin. But, as I asked that Sunday morning, have we moved too far?
What led me to give a sermon exhorting the congregation to talk more about sin?
Two books had challenged me and came to mind as I read the biblical texts I was asked to preach on.
In Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling: An Integrative Paradigm Mark McMinn describes how he did not talk about sin much, thinking of himself as a grace-oriented counselor. But he began to wonder, can we fully understand or experience grace without a robust understanding of sin? “A true understanding of grace has also been lost, because it cannot exist without a language of sin. . . Too often we integrationists are minimizing both grace and sin because our psychological vocabulary does not allow for these notions”(19, 22).
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist does not identify as a Christian, but he appears to be exploring the way of Jesus--often quoting Christian writers. Yet, I did not expect him to talk about sin in his book, The Road to Character. But there it is, on page 54. Like McMinn, Brooks advocates for pulling sin language out of the dustbin and using it. “Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. . . No matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like ‘mistake’ or ‘error’ or ‘weakness,’ the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. . . To banish words like [‘sin,’] ‘virtue,’ ‘character’ . . . and ‘vice’ . . . means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life” (54).
Later in the book, he reflects on David Chappell’s analysis of the civil rights movement in A Stone of Hope. One stream of the movement had an optimistic view of human nature and believed that through education and appeal to reason people would gradually see that racism is wrong. The other stream, led by Martin Luther King Jr., emerged from the biblical prophetic tradition. King declared, “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency, man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism, but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice” (146). King's more serious consideration of the human propensity toward sin led him, and those with him, to be more realistic about others, more humble about themselves, more aggressive, and better able to deal with pain, suffering and setbacks.
These authors had me thinking that although bounded group religiosity often talks about sin in harmful ways, the fuzzy group’s alternative of banning the term also is problematic. A centered approach requires talk of sin. For reasons that McMinn and Brooks point to, and because a centered approach requires a sense of turning from something–turning from sin toward the center. Perhaps we can use a different word than “sin,” but we clearly need the concept.
So, propelled by these authors, I decided to preach on sin.
(If I was giving a three-hour class, rather than preaching a sermon or writing a blog, I would take the time to not just talk about “sins,” but also about what leads us to sin. Viewing the root problem as something in our DNA, passed on, according to Augustine, in male semen contributes to the toxic ways of talking about sin listed above–and more. Much better to go with the pre-Augustinian view of understanding the root problem as alienation, broken relationship with God and others. But rather than giving a “lecture” on that I will simply do what I did that Sunday, suggest you read John E. Toews's book, The Story of Original Sin or send me an e-mail and I will send you my lecture notes on these two contrasting views of sin.)
Knowing I would be encouraging listeners to think and talk more about sins I sought to practice what I was going to preach. I did not do very well. I would prayerful reflect over my days: how had I sinned? Not much came to mind. In part I think it is because “the list” view of sins is so deeply embedded in my being. In my youth I would occasionally slip up and then confess my infraction, but in general I steered clear of the sins on the list in my mind—things like lying, cheating, stealing, swearing, drinking, etc.
At a theoretical level I agreed with McMinn and Brooks, and I was working on a sermon advocating the same thing, but personal application was not going well.
Midway through sermon prep a shift happened when I began crafting my comments on the gospel text for the day—Mark 1:1-8. The word “sins” is in the text. John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The more significant word, the one that stood out to me, was “repentance.” That day, riding my bike home from the seminary, instead of asking “how have I sinned today?” I found myself asking repentance questions: "What are ways I am heading in the wrong direction? Ways I got off track today?"
I asked those questions and as I passed by the county fairgrounds what came to mind was: interruption. I had interrupted others a couple times in the seminary faculty meeting. Interrupting someone was not on my sin list. It would never have come up as an answer to the question: “how have I sinned today?” And, on the other hand it was not a new revelation. I have been working on interrupting less. But in this space of repentance and prayerful openness something new happened. A question came to mind, perhaps by God’s Spirit: “What are you communicating when you interrupt?” I responded, “I communicate that what I have to say is more important than what the other person is saying.” I had an immediate and powerful response. “I do not want to be that kind of person. I repent. I want to change.” What a different experience simply by changing words from "sin" to "repent."
I invite you to let John the Baptist call you to repent just as he called people like us to repent in first century Palestine. But John offers us something more than just some alternative vocabulary for asking the sin question. He prepares the way for someone greater; he points us to Jesus Christ. Someone who also will invite people to repent and offer forgiveness for sins. In fact just a few verses later Jesus proclaims “repent and believe the good news” (v. 15).
What happens when we think about “sins” and “repentance” through the lens of this one John points us to? Jesus is God incarnate and in Jesus we see the character of the God of nurturing love. Think back to reasons I listed that some of us have moved away from using sin language—scolding, shaming, punitive, lists. Is that Jesus?
It makes a difference who is talking about sins and repentance: a nurturing caring God, or the big-eye-in- the-sky-God? A nurturing God, like a loving mother or father, still disciplines, still calls for repentance, but it feels significantly different than a shaming, scolding call to turn from sin.
Jesus calls for repentance, challenges us to turn from sin, but it is a call for repentance draped in love.
Let us not simply do what David Brooks does and call for a return to using the language of sin, rather let us use the language of repentance and sin more often, but always bind it to Jesus, wrap it in the nurturing love of God. My experience also points to the importance of working to re-frame the word “sin,” and to use other words to talk about sin.
I was just talking about these contrasting experiences with a student–the sin list vs. a loving God calling me to repent. I realized the first leads me to treat sin like laws and view God like judge or police officer. In my daily life I seek to not break the law. As long as I obey the list of laws the police, the district attorney, and the judge leave me alone. Although in some sense the criminal justice system contributes to my well-being by encouraging me to obey the law, I do not view them as helping me to thrive. I do not expect the police to stop by and give me counsel on how to improve my relationship with my wife or co-workers. I have a very different view of my parents, mentors, pastor, or therapist. Who do you imagine calling you to repent, God as police officer with a list of laws, or God like a mentor, pastor, or therapist? With the sin list mentality the objective is to get God, the police officer, to leave me alone. In contrast, I invite the loving God into my life with hopeful expectation that the call to repent will contribute to a more abundant life.
I will end as I ended the sermon, by suggesting a daily practice you might take up.
1. Focus your mind on an image of God’s nurturing love: perhaps Jesus’ loving gaze, God giving you a maternal hug, a caring shepherd; use an image that works for you.
2. Then, in the security of that love, ask God: what are you calling me to repent from today? Reflect, listen, think back over your day.
3. Confess, repent—make a commitment to change direction.
4. Rest in God’s loving forgiveness.
An important note: Some of you need no exhortation to think daily about your sins and shortcomings. You may need an exhortation to do it less. If that is your situation then the first step is of utmost importance and value.
What might happen if we take up this practice? What might God be lovingly calling you to repent from? What are ways God might be calling you to turn around, change direction?
God loves you, and because God loves you, God calls you to repent, calls you to leave behind attitudes, practices, habits, thoughts, and turn to new ways that will be better for you, for others, for creation.