I’ve been thinking a lot about the fundamentalist/Evangelical understanding of sin. I remember spending a lot of time and energy trying to figure out whether something was or was not “a sin.” It was never about the consequences or impact of a behavior, it was about its category. It was about lists of “sins” and “not sins” in the bible.
Was drinking a sin? What about underage drinking? What about getting tipsy? What about getting drunk? Was thinking about sex “a sin”? Getting an erection while thinking about sex? How about masturbation? Could one masturbate without “sinning” if it was a purely physical act not accompanied by “sinful” thoughts?
I saw someone on Twitter today talking about whether or not it was “a sin” to vote for Trump or Biden. He wasn’t talking about the impact or consequences in this world – here and now – but about the “spiritual” impact for the individuals who cast those votes.
This divorce of “sin” from its real-world impact, this spiritualization of “sin” that turns it into a “between me and God” issue, is so significant. I’m trying to find words to express why I think this is so important.
I see it in my “Side B” gay Christian friends sometimes… This (in my opinion) overemphasis on whether something is “a sin” or not. Is it “a sin” to feel physical yearning for someone of the same sex? It is “a sin” to hold hands, to embrace or kiss?
I see things so differently now. I could be wrong – I’m the first to admit that – but it seems to me that they have it exactly backwards. It seems to me that things are categorized as “sins” in the bible precisely BECAUSE of their real-world impact/consequences. Stealing, infidelity, murder, rape, oppression of “the other,” lying… These are obviously sinful. God speaks against these things and calls us to live free of them, not because if we “sin” we are somehow stained/cut off from God, but because they literally HURT us and others.
I remember being taught in my high school youth group (I remember this so clearly… where I was sitting, who was speaking, the way the room was set up…) that when we “sinned” it was like adding another brick to the wall that separates us from God. I was told that if the wall got too high, that God would literally not be able to even hear our prayers. The only prayers that he would hear were prayers of confession. Those confession prayers would remove the bricks and allow communication to flow again.
They never addressed issues of bodily autonomy and consent. They never talked about issues of justice and oppression. They never talked about issues of race and gender. But boy did we spend a lot of time talking about “sin,” how to avoid it and how to deal with it if we did it.
The more I experience life, the longer I walk with God, the more I understand what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 22:37-40. “Jesus replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” I really believe Jesus was saying not to worry about all those rules and regulations, all those laws, all those lists of “sins.” You think about two things… Love God and love other people. If you let these two principles guide your life, everything else will take care of itself. I was reading in Hebrews 13 yesterday, and a verse jumped out at me in a brand new way. I had never thought about it like this before. Verse 7 says “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” I thought back to the people who taught me about God and life and the bible and “sin.” Honestly it made me really sad. Look at those words again: “Consider the outcome of their way of life.” Ouch.
As hard as it is to acknowledge this, the community that raised me up in the faith has turned into a swamp of right-wing conspiracy theorists who worship Trumpism. They are very, very concerned with what is and what is not “a sin.” Abortion is a sin. Homosexuality is a sin. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. Drinking is a sin. Doing drugs is a sin. Watching a movie with a sex scene is a sin. Voting for Biden is a sin.
But when I “consider the outcome of their way of life” as the writer of Hebrews encourages me to do, things start to get pretty clear. Fear. The outcome of their way of life is fear. Fear of the “radical liberal agenda.” Fear of communism or socialism or Marxism. Fear of the godless liberals. Fear of the “gay agenda.” Fear of the public schools. Fear of the government. Fear of the mainstream media. Fear of the Democrats. Fear of the liberal Hollywood elites.
And all of this is rooted in the “fear of the Lord.” They are terrified of God. After all, Matthew 10:28 says “Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” and Proverbs 9:10 says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I grew up so afraid that God would somehow reject me. I lived in fear of being “left behind” at the Rapture. I had a Sunday School teacher who scarred me for life by saying – AND I QUOTE – “What would happen if you were sinning when the Lord came back? You just might not go.” Never mind that I was a devout little boy, so spiritually hungry, so sensitive to God, so deeply aware of others, so full of love and good intentions for everyone… No. It was all about what might happen if I was thinking about sex with another guy when Jesus came back. BUSTED.
I remember reading Dallas Willard in the early 2000s. It was pretty mind-expanding to read “History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” He called this the “Gospel of Sin Management.” He was right on. In my experience, there is a direct relationship between how we view sin and how we live our lives. It fascinates me to no end that the more “conservative” one is in this area, the less likely one is to care about the here and now. For all the people debating whether it is “a sin” to do a particular thing (or NOT do a particular thing… can’t forget that!) I hope and pray that you will step into the freedom and abundant life that Jesus said he came to bring us. There is no fear in love, and God IS love.