Saturday, September 29, 2018

City Notes '18 | Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Sin: A Mountain of Metaphors


Sin is a death dealer and a life stealer. This definition frees us to affirm that God hates sin. Not because God is an angry rule-maker. But because God loves us without constraint.


Sin, grace, neighbor. These words have been used, abused, and accrued by many throughout the centuries in relation to religious and irreligious discussions. 

Sin, in particular, is a word that has some painful punch to it, particularly in how it's been used to separate and isolate, instead of reveal and heal.

In another one of my favorite books published in 2018, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them, author Jonathan Merritt helps unpack the word, "sin," with history, curiosity, consideration, and meaning. For some more help, The Bible Project's brilliant and illuminating Word Study videos on Iniquity, Transgression, and Sin.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 15: Sin: Pocket Nails and a Mountain of Metaphors from Learning to Speak God from Scratch:

| 1 | Stain: The earliest notions of sin in Judaism drew on the metaphor of a stain. It is something that marked us and awaited cleansing. In this metaphor, the spit and polish of forgiveness was not sufficient to completely wipe away sin. 

| 2 | Weight: A different metaphor eventually dominated among early writers of the Jewish Bible: sin as a weight. Whenever a person or a people broke God's laws, sin was the weight that was lowered onto the people. This mass would be dragged around until it was lifted—not by way of individual repentance, typically, but rather corporate ritual.

| 3 | Debt: By the time Jesus arrives on the scene in first-century Palestine, the understanding of sin as a debt had replaced earlier notions. Jesus speaks of sin predominantly in terms of a debt that needs to be paid off. Many recite His famous prayer He taught by praying, "Forgive us our debts." And when He wants to describe what the Kingdom of God is like, He talks about a servant who owes a colossal monetary debt to a king. Paul follows suit. In Romans, he talks about "the wages of sin," an idea that would sound strange to earlier Jewish writers. This new definition of sin allowed the biblical authors to add a feature to their understanding of the concept. 

Some today talk about sin primarily as a "problem." It is an obstacle that we face, a puzzle that needs solving. Others speak of sin as a "sickness." It's an illness, a malady, a vexing condition. Still others speak of sin as "lawlessness."

Like all metaphors, these reveal a part of the truth, but not the whole truth.

When we speak of sin as a problem, it implies that God is the solution to what ails us. But this isn't the whole truth, because God doesn't just solve the problem of sin in the world without us. When we speak of sin as a sickness, it expresses the notion that sin infects all of us at some point during our lives and is often contagious. But this isn't the whole truth, because a sickness is something that happens to you and you are not responsible for its effects. Punishment for an evildoer would never be justified if sin as sickness told us everything about it. When we speak of sin as lawlessness, it helps us to understand the ways in which our everyday behaviors may be unloving and harmful, and it leaves us responsible for our actions. But it doesn't tell the whole truth, because it can turn God into a strict disciplinarian with a list of dos and don't while subtly encouraging us human to derive our worth from being on our best behavior.

Sin is something we've done that robs us and others of the fullness of life given to us by God through Jesus.

A theologian friend of mine provides a definition that I find helpful. She says that life itself is the only framework comprehensive enough to explain sin. After all, sin affects all of life. 

Since Jesus described Himself as the One who came to give abundant life to all creation, we might think of sin as anything that robs us of the fullness of life—or something we've done that robs others of the fullness of life. Sin as a thief, if you will.

Some people use the word flourishing to describe the abundant life, so they describe sin as anything that does not promote flourishing. And the Jewish scriptures use the word shalom—a state of total peace and harmony in life—to get at this idea. Shalom is, as some have said, "the way things are supposed to be." All things reconciled. 

We might say that sin is whatever contributes to life being less than what God intends. Under this definition, sin is a sickness, a problem, and a failure to live by ethical rules that promote life. It's like a stain, a weight, and in some way, a debt. It is brokenness and messiness and mistakes. Sin is a death dealer and a life stealer.

This definition frees us to affirm that God hates sin. Not because God is an angry rule-maker. But because God loves us without constraint. God wants each of us to live the abundant life. God wants peace for us. God wants shalom for us. God wants us to flourish. He wants us to recognize the divine imprint in others and support their flourishing. Any force that resists the abundant life is called "sin," and this is a force to which God stands opposed. 

Sin is a reality faced by all—the cost of life on earth. It mars everything. Sin is present in workdays and weekends, in family lives, in public policy, and in private thoughts. Even our good deeds often have sinful motivations. A friend of mine is a great philanthropist, but he gives money so that others will consider him charitable. Another friends attends every baseball game his son plays in, but he is driven by a need to be better than his own absentee father. The most selfless acts are often touched by sinful impulses.

We cannot understand what we will not name, and we cannot confront it unless we name it rightly. By acknowledging sin exists, we affirm our common condition, recognize that no one is better than another, and recommit to work for the flourishing of all. By speaking it out loud, we admit that life is not always as it should be. By confessing it, we remind ourselves that forgiveness is always available to bullies and so-called snowflakes and everyone in between. Speaking such a word requires people—you and me—to admit that we are deeply flawed and often engage in destructive behavior. This first step may be the most formidable of them all.

Next post: City Notes '18 | Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Grace: Umbrellas and Unmerited Favor

Here are links to previous City Notes books:


2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalFaith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal Current

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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