But what is sin? What does it mean to commit a sin, and what is the essential reality that lies behind the act of sinning? Perhaps you are thinking that sin is the stuff that we do wrong. Perhaps you are thinking that sin is a violation of God’s law? Perhaps you think of sin in terms of disobedience of God’s commands or in terms of violating the terms of one’s relationship with God.
All of these explanations have merit. All of them tell us something important about the nature of sin and its impact on our relationship with God, on our relationships with others, and on our own psyche. Perhaps, however, there is another way to think about sin. Perhaps there is a way to describe the phenomenon of sin in a way that pulls together the various strands of the biblical narrative in order to make sense of our own story of pain and deprivation.
Here is my proposal. What if we think about sin as an unhealthy and destructive reaction to disappointment, pain, and shame? We are certainly saying that sin is, in the language of social work, a “maladaptive coping mechanism,” but we are saying something more. We are saying that sin happens when we experience disappointment, pain, or shame, and, instead of turning to God for help and to one another for comfort, we turn away from God and seek comfort in our own ways and through our own means.
Explanation and Justification
This way of conceptualizing sin represents a significant shift both in my thinking about the message of the gospel and in terms of how I put that message into practice in my own life. For a long time, I have wrestled with the very pernicious and very personal reality of sin, but it was only as I began to read Klaus Haacker’s book on the theology of Romans (in Cambridge University’s New Testament Theology series) that I began to re-evaluate the way I understand the phenomenon of sin. Haacker argues that the issue of suffering is an integral part of both Paul’s gospel and of the overall argument of his letter to the Romans (cf. Romans 5:1-11). And if those of us who have been transformed by the gospel react to suffering differently, then it only stands to reason that an inappropriate reaction to suffering might well be at the heart of what God calls sin.
As I reflected upon this insight, it occurred to me that the “suffering” that we are talking about needs to be defined somewhat broadly. It includes at least three phenomena that are universal to the human experience—disappointment, pain, and shame. Disappointment happens when we do not get something that we want or need. Pain is what happens when we get something that we do not want. Shame (perhaps the most destructive of these negative experiences) is what happens when our worth as a person is diminished in the presence of others.
If we reflect upon our own experiences, to say nothing of what psychology and sociology have taught us, we will find plenty of evidence for the connection between sin and the negative experiences of disappointment, pain, and shame. We use sex, drugs, alcohol, and even food to mitigate the impact of disappointment and pain, and we use wealth and especially the power to prevent disappointment, pain, and shame from occurring.
But is there any biblical warrant for thinking of sin as an inappropriate response to negative experiences? I think that there is, and we find it in the Bible’s account of humanity’s origins. Think about the story of humanity’s first sin in Genesis 3:1-19. Eve throws away her trust in
God’s goodness and provision because she is convinced by the serpent’s lie that God was holding out on her, and she pursues the gift of wisdom through a means that was forbidden to her. In Genesis 4:19-24, Lamech reacts with murderous rage when he receives a physical wound from an unnamed assailant, and rather than being remorseful about what he has done, Lamech arrogantly pronounces a more severe curse upon those who would avenge the young man’s death than God used to protect Cain. And speaking of Cain, his murder of Abel could well be interpreted as a response to the shame he felt about his offering not being accepted (Genesis 4:1-16).
Now, it must be admitted that the motivations behind any given act can be quite complex, and the writers of the Bible do not always provide for us a window into the mind and experience of a particular sinner. Moreover, sin sometimes seems to result from nothing more than the greed of the sinner. (See, for example, David’s adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:23. David clearly did not lack sexual pleasure or honor, but he clearly desired the pleasure, and perhaps the honor of sleeping with Bathsheba.) Nevertheless, I am convinced that understanding sin as an inappropriate response to negative experiences can help us make better sense of what we read in Scripture and can help us understand our own inclinations towards sin.
A New Perspective on the Gospel
I am convinced that this way of understanding sin has wide-ranging consequences for those of us who want to proclaim the message of Scripture accurately and live its message faithfully. We will tease out some of those implications next week. For now, I want us to think about what this way of understanding sin means for the gospel.
The message about Jesus Christ is not good news because it promises liberation from the disappointment, pain, and shame that so often characterizes our present experience. Rather, as we learned last week, the message of Jesus is good news because it gives us the capacity to re-evaluate the disappointment, pain, and shame of our present experience in light of all that God has done and will do on our behalf.
But in order to accomplish such a re-evaluation, we will have to trust God. Let’s return to the stories of Eve, Cain, and David. If Eve wanted wisdom, all she had to do was ask God for it. She (presumably) walked with Him every day when God came to visit Adam. God actually explained Cain’s options to him. He laid out how Cain could obtain what he desired, and He informed him of what would happen if he did not heed God’s advice. As for David, part of God’s argument (presented through the prophet Nathan) against David’s actions is that, if there was something lacking in David’s life, all he had to do was ask God for it. In all three cases, sin resulted because the people involved did not turn to God to meet their (actual or imagined) needs. Instead, they displayed a lack of trust in God’s goodness by turning to their own way to meet their needs.
By contrast, Jesus modeled a different way of relating to God. Even though his Father was leading him down a path that he knew would lead to immense suffering, he trusted that God would provide the strength that he needed in the moment, and he trusted that God would lavish immeasurable blessing upon him once he completed his task. The good news for us is that, because Jesus trusted his Father in this way, we can be forgiven for all the times that we did not trust God. Moreover, we can live the same kind of life that Jesus lived because God has adopted us into His family and because God has sealed tour adoption by sending His very own presence to live within us.