From time to time, Christians have interactions with each other that amount to theological disagreements. Many of these encounters focus on something that Jesus doesn’t want us to do: sin. Well, if we all know Jesus doesn’t want us to sin, then why is sin such a challenging conversation topic? There are a number of differences from person to person in the understanding of what sin means. Ask a number of Christians to name off sins and you can probably predict what some might say. Prostitution. Drug use or sales. Sexual sins. Abortion. Gang membership. Belonging to the “wrong” church. Some will falsely tell you that same sex relationships are sinful or that the trans community is sinful (sadly, they will say this based on the fact that trans people actually exist). Some Christians, even within our own Anglican Communion, say that the Episcopal Church is sinful in and of itself for any number of reasons (ordination of women, same-sex affirmation, progressive theology, etc.). So many Christians claim to be experts about sin, especially when it comes to the ways other people live their lives.

            I’ve had people from other denominations tell me they are “worried about my soul” because I do not belong to their denomination. I have heard people say prostitutes are “sinners” because of the way they earn a living. I’ve heard people say that drug addicts, drug dealers, unwed mothers, and so many others are “sinners.” I find this to be paradoxical because Jesus calls us to love, not to condemn. Still, this is frequently met with the bogus statement “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Why is this statement problematic? Because it is not our place to judge someone else’s sin. We’re not capable of doing that. Only God is.

            The Prayer Book defines sin as “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 p. 848). Isn’t it interesting in that none of the “sins” we mentioned happen to make an appearance in the Prayer Book’s definition? We are also taught that “sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted” (BCP p. 849). So what does this tell us? The way I read it, it tells us that each individual Christian is capable of communicating with God and knowing what is a sin and what is not a sin. In other words, it’s up to God and to each individual to determine what is a sin and what is not a sin. So does this mean I’m encouraging people to participate in potentially dangerous behavior? Not exactly. I’m simply not in a position to condemn people for their behavior that likely does not affect me. I’m not qualified to tell someone else that their behavior constitutes a sin.

            So how do we know when we commit sin? Are these activities sinful? Our friends in the Roman Catholic Church tell us that “mortal sin is sin whose object is a grave matter, and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1857). By this very definition, with which many Episcopalians agree, it isn’t exactly that cut and dry, is it? This definition seems reasonable to me. It is also pretty vague. Who is to say what kind of matter is a “grave” one? For me, those would include actions that violate someone’s humanity. Murder. Theft of someone’s goods. Hurtful behavior. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Speaking to someone in an unkind way. Behaving in a way that injures another, physically or emotionally. Those are some pretty widely accepted examples of grave matter. But what if someone doesn’t share our feelings about the gravity of these types of behaviors? Or what if we’re wrong? There’s nothing that says we’re right. There’s nothing that says we know better than anyone else what is or what is not a sin. That’s where the whole “full knowledge” thing comes in. And what about deliberate consent? That means we have to do something wrong knowing it is wrong and then say to ourself, “I’m gonna do this horrible, horrible thing anyway!” When we look at it that way, it’s not so hard to know when we’ve committed sin. It is, however, really quite difficult to say whether someone else has committed a sin.

To further explore the definition of sin, let’s take a linguistic detour. The Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτία (hamartia). This word is the word Jesus uses when he tells the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). Literally, this word means “to miss the mark.” What about when he teaches his disciples how to pray? The word we often translate as “trespasses” or “sins” (depending on which version of the Lord’s Prayer we’re praying) is ὀφείλημα (opheilema). And this word means “something that is owed.” In other words, more of a debt than a sin. In other words, forgive us our debts. According to what we’ve learned, we must knowingly and intentionally do something terribly wrong that misses the mark and causes indebtedness, all the while knowing that all of these conditions are true. No wonder so many people like to point fingers! It’s easy to see what other people do wrong. We can say, “that person wronged me! They owe me!” But it can be more of a challenge to look inward and identify our own shortcomings.

            So again, we must ask, what does it mean to sin? The best I can come up with, after looking at all these definitions from varied angles, is that sin is something that separates us from God. It’s something that interferes with our ability to connect with God. It’s something that interferes with our relationships with others. It is something that harms or damages others. Sin is something that blinds us from the all-encompassing and unconditional goodness of God. It isn’t something that makes God punish us. Moving away from God is punishment enough. Sin damages our own souls. We don’t need to be concerned about the souls of others. We must focus on protecting and nurturing our own souls.

            So what about some of those behaviors we talked about earlier? What about things like gang membership or prostitution or drug use or abortion? Are those sinful? And the answer is, well, it depends. We can suppose under the right set of circumstances they are, and under the right set of circumstances they may not be. Is it truly sinful for a woman to choose a life of prostitution when that is a way she can support herself and her family? A way she can put food on the table for her children? Is it truly sinful if someone joins a gang because he’s suffered a life of abuse from his father and other family members and he’s never really found a true place of “fitting in”? Is it truly sinful if a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy because she has determined that the decision to do so is the best option for her at that time? Is drug use a sin when someone is taking the drugs as a means of alleviating the pain of past emotional trauma? I argue that in any of these cases, unless the criteria of leading a person away from God is met, that these circumstances are not sinful. They may not always be the healthiest options, but I don’t see them as circumstances that warrant condemnation. In each of these situations, God knows the person’s heart. God knows the hows and the whys of the behavior. God, who is always good and always loving, is in charge.

            We all commit sin. It’s part of our nature. We all do things that move us away from God. But we all have the opportunity to change course and to move back toward God. Our baptismal covenant reminds us that we pledge to “repent and return to the Lord” (BCP p. 304) not if but when we fall into sin. When Jesus tells us to repent, he uses the word μετανοέω (metanoeo), which means “to turn around” or “to change one’s mind” or “to change one’s purpose.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t call us to beat ourselves up over sin. He calls us to recognize our wrongdoing and then try to do better. When we examine our sinfulness, we are called to look deep inside and to pay attention to the ways we’ve found ourselves moving away from the grace of God. We recognize it. We try to do better. Our goal is to be as near to God as possible. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. No matter what, God’s love is eternal. It is unconditional. It is insurmountable. God loves the worst sinners among us just as much as he loves everyone else. If you are reading this, then know you are loved. If you are not reading this, know you are loved. If you are writing this, know you are loved.

What’s Sin Got to Do With It?