By The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
I had the privilege of speaking to The Way last week about sin and salvation. I always feel when I get to speak about these huge ideas that we’ve only just scratched the surface, and I am leaving the hearers with more questions than answers. Such is the case with sin. It is a subject that sits at the heart of the Christian faith, for without a serious recognition of sin, there is really no need for a savior. Without sin, there is no need for Jesus, who is our liberator from sin and death. So, if we eliminate sin from our theology, or diminish its reality and significance, we will eventually find that we’ve detached from our relationship with Christ, or diminished him to such a point that he’s simply an admirable person and moral teacher.
In my short talk, I touched on just a few points, and here is a brief overview of them.
First, there is nothing “original” about sin. The “original” condition in which we were made was goodness. Reread Genesis 1 to remember that God created all things “very good” in the beginning, and that is the most fundamental truth about us. We were made “very good” by God, and while sin obstructs and degrades that goodness, it can never replace it. I am a fan of local writer and pastor Danielle Shroyer, who has written a book called Original Blessing that gets at the heart of this. Sin is not the most important or deepest thing in your core. God’s blessing and declaration of your goodness is. Which is why God went to such great lengths to rescue you and bring you back from the grasp of sin. God considered you and your implicit goodness to be so important that it was worth the sacrifice of his only Son.
Second, according to The Book of Common Prayer, sin is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (BCP, 848). In Hebrew, the word that we translate as sin essentially means “missing the mark,” which is another great definition. But I may prefer St. Augustine’s definition of sin most of all, which he describes as “the great confusion.” God gave us people to love and things to use, Augustine says, and sin is when we confuse that relationship, instead using people and loving things. Recently, I read an excerpt from New Seeds of Contemplation by the monk and mystic Thomas Merton that gets at the heart of this “great confusion.” He writes,
“Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God,’ as if God were another ‘thing’ and as if his creatures were his rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see. There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of his become an obstacle to our union with him. The obstacle is in our ‘self,’ that is to say, in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false ‘self’ that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God. It is then the false self that is our god, and we love everything for the sake of this self. We use all things, so to speak, for the worship of this idol which is our imaginary self. In so doing, we pervert and corrupt things, or rather we turn our relationship to them into a corrupt and sinful relationship. We do not thereby make them evil, but we use them to increase our attachment to our illusory self.
Those who try to escape this situation by treating the good things of God as if they were evils are only confirming themselves in a terrible illusion. They are like Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent in Eden.
The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls. In his love we possess all things and enjoy the fruition of them, finding God in them all. And thus as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and of heaven.”
(Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation; quotation from Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year; Morehouse Publishing, 2001, p 430.)
Third, there is a certain tradition within Christian mystics and writers that expresses gratitude (if that’s the right word) for sin. Again, quoting St. Augustine (who did a lot of pondering of sin, let me tell you), “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” This phrase is put into poetry in a verse of the Exultet (one that doesn’t appear in the Great Vigil in the BCP, but is common in Roman Catholicism): “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” One of my favorite contemporary Christian musicians, Audrey Assad, has set this line to music in her album “Fortunate Fall.” As she sings the phrase “fortunate fall” over and over, it’s like a mantra, a meditation on the strange and beautiful truth that sin, be it the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, or simply the sin that we participate in as human beings, brought us our redemption and salvation. True, sin is terrible, but God turns all things to good, and so even sin is transformed by God into an instrument of bringing us into relationship and love with him. This is the heart of grace, that in a redemptive twist sin is the instrument that leads us to know the perfect and divine love Christ.
Fourth, there’s a difference between “sin” and “sins.” “Sin” is the force that opposes God’s will and has infected God’s good Creation. Sin is big, as in bigger than us as individuals. It is something we essentially “inherit” as human beings, no matter what, which is pretty much what the doctrine of “original sin” is all about. Original sin is the Church’s teaching that somehow all human beings are incapable of resisting this force, and it acts upon us no matter how hard we may try to resist it. Just look at children, who despite their beauty and apparent innocence quickly become capable of greed, stealing, and violence. They are still good (see the first point above) and they are not psychologically culpable for their deeds, yet sin has a foothold in their life that affects the way they live and behave. That is “original sin,” something that is tied up with fallen human nature.
“Sins” (lower case “s”), on the other hand, are the specific actions we do that oppose the will of God. The difference is important, because it helps us understand that even as we struggle against temptation to sin (e.g. greed, or lust, or violence, or whatever the specific thing may be), we are also resisting a much broader force that pervades our world and is intent on drawing us away from God. We confess our “sins,” which we do because we are affected by “Sin.” Make sense?
It also has to do with the idea of “corporate” or “systemic” sin, which is the idea that there is a web of sin that connects us to each other around the world, and in which we participate even when we aren’t aware. An example of corporate sin is racism. Some people commit specific sins of racism, such as actively and consciously oppressing or denigrating another person on the basis of race. Yet even those who would never consciously say or do something hurtful against another because of the color of their skin may still participate in racism by benefiting from racial injustice. For example, “white flight” in the 1950s and 60s is what led to the creation of the extremely highly regarded public schools in Richardson ISD, which is why many of us chose to live where we do. In much of our society, “good schools” is residual racist code for “white schools,” whether we’re aware of it or not. So, whether we commit individual sins of racism that we are aware of, we all participate in the sin of racism and are affected by its insidious tentacles of injustice and cruelty.
Lastly, sin is something from which we must repent. We should confess our sins to God, or as the traditional words of Confession beautifully put it, “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins” (BCP, 331). While they may be the cause that leads to the Incarnation and our encounter with God’s Son (see point three above), they are nevertheless the cause of a division between us and our Lord. I think Episcopalians generally have too low an estimation of the impact of sin on our lives, and how it affects our ability to really and truly love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We like to think that we’re good people, for the most part, and any sins we commit are “minor” or “not all that big a deal.” Which means that for most Episcopalians looking deeply into our lives for where sin has a firm hold is an uncommon occurrence, if it happens at all. We may admit our foibles and minor mistakes, but the real effect of sin on our lives goes unexamined and un-repented.
Yet, as 1 John 1 reminds us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Just ask anyone in a 12-step recovery program, they’ll agree: we are lying to ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that which is wrong in our lives. Confession is fundamentally important and a sacred tool of spiritual growth with God, because “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I am a big fan of The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, which contains a wonderful instrument for preparation to make a true confession – to do more than just say the words of the Confession in the context of the Sunday Eucharist, but really drill down deeply on where and how sin is a part of our life. I commend it very highly, as it uses the infamous “Seven Deadly Sins” as a launching place for a serious and comprehensive self-examination. This is commonly performed during Lent, but I find that there are several other times of the year when I feel a need to seriously look within myself with a spirit of honesty and contrition. Jesus invites us to follow him and enjoy his abundant and merciful life, but he also commands us to “go and sin no more.” That is, he wants us to grow closer to that “original goodness” in which we were created, where sin has no place and causes us no more suffering.
So don’t be afraid to speak of sin. It is real, and it is something Christ came into the world to heal us from. His forgiveness is the instrument of sin’s destruction, and his death is the way God overcame sin once and for all. If you are struggling with sin, please speak to a member of the clergy. Come in for confession, and we’ll work with you to explore a path of penance and healing. And remember, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:3-7).
 The doctrine of “Original Sin” is named for the “original” act of sinful disobedience enacted by Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, which was then understood to be passed down to their descendants like genes. Even those who believe Adam and Eve are Biblical-metaphorical, rather than Biblical-historical, figures can still adopt a theology derived from “original sin,” or the admission that all human beings seem to possess, or have inherited, this sinful nature.