Getting right what’s wrong — why defining sin can be helpful

Sin is not a particularly fun topic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if most people avoid this post completely. But the ways we think about what’s wrong in our lives and the world around us has a massive effect on our relationships, including the relationship we have with ourselves.

First off, we’re sinners. As 1 John 1:8 puts it, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Self-deceptions runs deep with us humans. And one of our deepest self-deceptions is that we aren’t sinners. We long to think well of ourselves — and we should, being created in the image of God and died for by Jesus — but we try to protect our egos by pretending the wrong that we do either isn’t wrong or that it’s not too bad. We want to avoid acknowledging we’re sinners.

OK. So, we’re sinners. But why focus on it? Doesn’t that just make us feel bad about ourselves?

When we know what the problem is, we have the opportunity to seek its remedy. What we don’t do is dwell on it in a “I’m such a worm” kind of way. There’s no help in that. No, the whole point of this is to ask for help from the one who is our Remedy.

Also, when we use just one word for what’s wrong with us, it flattens out a multidimensional issue. And that’s something the Scriptures refuse to do. By using a wide range of words and images, the biblical writers both soften the harshness of the word “sin” while deepening and broadening the scope of the problem.

So, here’s an introduction to the downside of our human condition.

We are broken.

 One word we encounter in the Scriptures to describe us is “bad.” This doesn’t mean rotten to the core. It means faulty. One proverb refers to an untrustworthy person as an unstable ankle. He doesn’t stand up under pressure. She lets you down when you try to put your weight on her. Unreliable. Broken.

This extends to being deformed or blemished. Just as blemished sacrifices were not acceptable, so too were deformed priests not acceptable in the tabernacle and temple. This isn’t meanness on God’s part. It’s rather a living metaphor. We were created to be God’s image, to accurately reflect his character and rule in the world, but when we are deformed, we are like those warped mirrors in a hall of mirrors. We’re distorted images that inaccurately reflect God to the world.

Redemption is a form of healing, where God heals (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly) what is broken in us so that what is broken in our relationship will be fully and finally healed.

We are turned around and turned inward.

When husband and wife are struggling with one another, they will sleep back to back, turned away from one another. When friends are angry with one another, they avoid looking at each other. When neighbors are at odds, they don’t walk near each other’s home. When Cain was angry with God, God asked him why his face was downcast, why his posture was turned away from God.

Our posture gets all wrong.

The Scriptures call on us to repent. This simply means to turn around. To “re-turn” to God. To stop our Jonah-like fleeing and move in a God-ward direction.

We disobey and rebel.

God is King. Sin is a rejection of God as King. It is also a rejection of any of those he has granted his authority to — government officials, parents, and so on — since all real authority is derived from God, even the authority of those leaders we are far from fond of.

When we rebel, we declare war against God. And in war, people always get hurt.

The good life is living by the kindly rule of the great and gracious King.

We trespass.

Bad boundaries simply keep people apart in unhelpful ways, but good boundaries protect relationships. When we trespass, we cross boundaries that are essential to harmonious relationships.

We invade homes. We step on toes. We cross the line.

The word salvation includes in its imagery living in a wide open space. It’s the sinful life that’s the cramped and squeezed down life. The good life is not a boundless life, but a life lived in a space where the boundaries have fallen in pleasant places.

We act lawlessly.

This is where that rarely used word “transgression” comes into play. Sin acts as if there is no law and order behind the universe. It is careless. It acts as if the rules don’t apply.

Imagine playing a game of Scrabble and another player puts down her tiles in a random order each time she plays, not making words but scoring huge number of points because she doesn’t believe the rule about having to make actual words applies to her. Or imagine a guy who drives on any part of any road or highway he chooses to, believing traffic laws don’t apply to him. Both would be disastrous.

Living well and playing well with others requires an underlying order that we agree to and submit to. Rules protect relationships and rejecting them may seem fun for the moment, but is ultimately harmful and far from fun.

The Spirit of God writes his law on our hearts.

We miss the mark.

Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. 1+1≠3. Sorry, do it over. If I dial the wrong numbers, the wrong phone answers. If I drive in the wrong direction, I don’t arrive at my desire destination. If I show up after the game is over, I don’t get to play. If I don’t aim at the target, I won’t hit it. If I’m a Bible scholar who knows the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem but don’t go there myself, I won’t see and worship him.

We can become distorted and perverse.

There are horrors in this world and most of them arise from the human heart. Our ability to conceive of evil and to choose it is abhorrent. But we do it. Rapists. Drug lords. Scam artists preying on the elderly. Child pornographers. Terrorists. Death camp soldiers. Sex slavers. Bribe-taking judges. Partial birth abortionists. And on it goes.

This is merely a severe form of brokenness. The Bible uses the image of being crooked or bent, instead of standing upright, to give a visual image of being perverted. Where we should be standing straight at a right angle before God, we’ve hunched over our hearts.

To be distorted is to be less than human.

We get off track and wander.

Jesus called himself The Way and the earliest Christians called themselves followers of The Way. The image of staying on a path or road is associated with the life God has created and called us to. It’s the image that John Bunyan soaked in so well in his brilliant classic Pilgrim’s Progress. It suggests both a means and an end. The road suggests both a destination and each step toward that destination. To wander from the way is to miss out on both.

To follow Jesus is to return to the Way.

We get in debt.

As those who have weighed themselves down with credit card debt know, it’s a weight that keeps us from living how God intends us to live. It also gives ownership of our lives to an entity other than God.

The biblical word redemption speaks salvation to our slavery and indebtedness.

We dry up like a desert.

Parched. Dried out. Thirsty. Empty. Desolate. Barren. Hostile. Dead. Sin is a relational desert.

The Scriptures are full of images of God’s redemption being like a stream in a desert. And Jesus called himself the only real drink to quench our thirst.

We cause injustice.

Where God in Jesus enters our world, impoverishes himself in order to enrich us, dies that we might live, humbles himself in order to exalt us, injustice sets itself apart, enriches itself at the cost of others, endangers the lives of others, and exalts itself while pushing others down.

All of these images of and angles on sin have a relational component. Each highlights an aspect of our relationships with God, others, creation, and ourselves which have come unravelled because of something wrong in our hearts that is expressed in our actions.

To a certain degree, sin can be mastered — just as God told Cain it could be — and rejected. But only certain manifestations of it can be for a darkness remains over our hearts and minds. A renovation of the heart is necessary — a new mind, a new Spirit — so that we can more accurately image God.

Thanks be to God that that’s exactly what he’s up to with us!