What Is Sin?

(The Nationalist, 07 April 2000)


‘We don’t hear about sin any more’. ‘Is there any such thing as sin nowadays?’ ‘Has sin gone out the window and can everyone just do whatever they want?’

Does some of that ring a bell with you? I hear it from time to time. In the past, things were pretty cut-and-dried. Sin was breaking the law of God, and we had worked out pretty exactly what that involved, down to some very detailed rules and regulations. You knew exactly where you stood.

Now it all seems hazy and everything seems to be up to the individual to decide for him/her self. The British rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it neatly: ‘Sin becomes immorality, immorality becomes deviance, deviance becomes choice, and all choice becomes legitimate.’ (From his The Persistence of Faith, London, 1991, p.50)

What about looking at sin in a different way – in terms of relationships, and especially relationships with God, with other people, with one-self and with nature? The whole of life is one and each of those relationships inter-acts on the others. If one relationship is strengthened, all benefit; if one is weakened, all suffer. For example, if we play false with other people, we are not being honest with ourselves.

There is an order of priority in the relationships. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’ A negative example of that is that the ideologies of the twentieth-century, hugely cruel and destructive as they were, such as Nazism and Communism, had this in common – they were atheistic. The most enduring of the ideologies, nationalism, often has a character of practical atheism about it: ‘My country, right or wrong.’

Looking at sin in terms of relationships poses a basic challenge about the way we live our life. The most useless and wasted life anyone could lead is one which is self-centred. And the best kind of life – in every sense – is one which is other-centred. ‘The one who seeks to save his life will lose it, and the one who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will find it,’ said Jesus.

Being self-centred and being selfish are not the same thing. Being selfish means deliberately choosing one’s own (perceived) interest against that of another person. Being self-centred means that it simply doesn’t enter our heads to think of the other person’s interest in the first place. To my mind, it is the worse of the two.

Sin is about alienation: about being divided from God and from others, from our own good, and from the good of that part of nature which is most intimate to us, our body.

Turning from sin is about an end to the civil wars that rage within us; it’s about healing, the restoration of unity, the creation of harmony and of right priorities.