Lenten Reflection – What is Sin?

One of the central biblical passages in Christian thinking about sin is the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent. This is a story of things going wrong in Eden. Eden is portrayed as a land of flourishing relationships. The first is between people as represented in Adam and Eve. They are made for each other as partners who live together in unashamed nudity. Second, there are flourishing relationships between humans and the natural world. Adam and Eve work the garden, living off its produce, naming and living alongside the animals. Lastly there is a flourishing relationship between humans and God. God walks among them in the garden. It is a land of abundance in which Adam and Eve’s needs are met but do not toil. Furthermore, it is a land in which human beings have a vocation as participants in God’s creative activity. God plants the garden, but Adam is set to till it, working with what God provides to further it’s flourishing.

So what has gone wrong? How does sin enter the picture? What is the nature of Adam and Eve’s temptation and the consequential sin they commit? The nature of their temptation is as follows: First there is the temptation to be like God; Second the temptation to gain knowledge and wisdom; and lastly, is the temptation to eat good fruit. The serpent, speaking against God, tells Adam and Eve that they will not die if they succumb to these temptations and their eyes will be opened. Sure enough they do not die and their eyes are opened. The consequence is that now they are made aware that they are naked and fear God will see their nakedness. Adam does not say, ‘I was afraid because I had disobeyed you,’ but ‘I was afraid because I was naked.’

This shame is the clue to reading the text as a paradigmatic tale of sin and punishment. Shame refers to seeing yourself as you imagine others see you. It is a form of self-knowledge without love. Shame is a form of knowledge that sees accurately but judges harshly with unforgiving scrutiny. When Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened, they see themselves accurately as finite, weak, needy or unreliable.

The fruit of the tree turns them into judges, which is what the knowledge of good and evil mean. They do not gain information of what is right and wrong. They gain instead the stance of a judge who pronounces sentences, condemning and accepting, activity that properly belongs to God. Adam and Eve, seeking to be in the place of God, condemn themselves for not being gods. In this they see accurately – they are finite creatures not gods. But they do not see truly. They do not see the proper dignity of their position, and the vocation for which they were created, to glorify God as creatures and participate in the life of God as His creatures. They do not see the love that binds them to their creator. All they see is that they are creatures, and that there is a gulf between them.

As a consequence of their initial acts of disobedience or sin, Adam and Eve’s relationship is disrupted (shame, a little later, blame), and so is their relationship with God (fear). The later activity of Adam and Eve, however – their hiding, their blaming – are no less actions that distort and destroy the harmony of Eden. Yet they are more the outworking of now diseased understanding and loveless imagination than the deliberate transgression of commands. However simple sin may have been to start with, it has begun to metastasize.

Christians have long said that the sin from which human beings need salvation is not simply to be found in deliberate individual acts of transgression, but rather is something deeper and wider – something that human beings inherit, and can’t avoid. Racism, for instance, is not simply my individual racist acts, but is the racist culture I grow up in (which seeps into me however much I try to avoid it), and racist structures of the society I live in (which make eradicating racism at times almost impossibly difficult, even with immense good will and widespread good intentions). I need saving not just from the consequences of the particular sins I commit, but from the sinful air I breathe and the sinfulness of the world I inhabit.

It is in this way Christian theologians have spoken of sin as being inherited. It infects people prior to any responsibilities of their sinful activity. Thus sin does not simply terminate in the sovereign wills of responsible individuals, but in the mess of influence and the context of life in which all of us are embedded. Beyond the individual, culpably sinful act, there is the power of sin (what Paul calls the power and principalities of this sinful world), from which it takes its strength and direction – and Christian theology has called this power ‘original sin’.

Christian theology has mistakenly talked about tiny babies as infected with sin. A baby is born needing a loving environment in which to grow, so as to grow up to be a loving person. It does not happen automatically, and it does not happen all at once. There is nothing wrong with being a baby, nothing wrong with them needing to grow into maturity, needing to grow into life and love. None of that is sin. But no baby born in our world is born into a wholly loving environment she would need in order to grow properly.

It is not that the baby has somehow done something wrong – and the proponents of original sin do not say any different. The baby does, however, lack something: she lacks the environment she needs because she is part of the distorted, sinful human race. The baby is born into a world with polluted air, and is bound to grow up with some degree or other of distortion, and to become part of the system that recycles this air. It is not her fault, but it is becoming part of who she is from the moment she is born – and it is most certainly something from which she needs to be saved. Original sin is not so much a crime that deserves to be punished as a wound that needs to be healed.

So there you have it, a rather not straightforward definition of sin. But most often the mysteries of God are not. It’s both something we do and something that controls us. We are both culpable for our sins, yet we cannot defend ourselves against it because it conditions all of our life stories. That is why God’s salvation is first and foremost about what God does and only second what we do and God, of course, knows that. That is why He sent His one and only Son, Jesus to die on a cross. God knew that only He could build a bridge between us, and that is what He did on the cross. In the outstretched arms of Jesus the bridge of forgiveness and reconciliation was built. But now that the bridge is built shall we walk over it?



Lenten Reflection – What is Sin?

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