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What is Sin?

By the Rev. Paul Wheatley, St. Augustine's Oak Cliff

“I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.” –Marilyn Monroe

Though its purposes and use would be inappropriate for discussion at a dinner party, no preliminary tour of a house is complete without showing guests the location of the toilet. So too, though it may be a topic we rarely discuss in polite company, no discussion of faith or human life is complete without talking about sin.

The word “sin” conjures up emotions of disgust and delight, shame and satisfaction. A succulent slice of chocolate cake described as sinful is more likely to incite hunger than guilt. Yet, to label a person with the same word evokes images of Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and provokes others to see them as an outcast. Sin is a powerful word.

However, to St. Augustine of Hippo, evil and sin are unable to be powerful in themselves. For Augustine, evil is not a power or a thing in itself, but rather the absence of something, namely goodness. Just as a bright room cannot be made dark by turning ‘on’ the darkness, but only by turning ‘off’ or blocking the light, so too sin takes place when we reject, deny, or fail to live up to the goodness with which God created each of us “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” [Gen 1:31, NRSV].

The Greek and Hebrew words that we translate into our English word sin share this same sense Augustine speaks of. To sin is to miss the mark, referring to an archer’s arrow that fails to hit the bulls-eye. In other words, sin is settling for, contributing to, or committing an act that takes away from the goodness God created. When the serpent deceived the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden, the result was loss: The easy, close relationship they once knew with God became distant and estranged. Their home in Eden no longer fit, and no better home existed outside its gates. They became exiles, pilgrims without a destination, people in hiding. Adam must confess, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” [Gen 3:10].

This confession is something we now share with that man on his way out of the Garden. This is what we call original sin: we don’t have to learn how to hide from God or to go our own ways. In our own unique ways, we hide; we mask our frailty with misdirection and half-truths. Confessing this truth in our own lives is part of understanding what sin is, and how it affects us.

Confession isn’t just something done in a dark chamber, with a screen hiding the one confessing from the priest; just as Adam did, it is something anyone can do at any time. Confession is simply admitting the truth to God or someone else. Confessing sin involves honesty with self, and honesty with God, naming the places where we have missed God’s best for us, and admitting that living a life of wholeness involves turning away from these places back to the home God has for us in his will.

Where we as Episcopalians best explain how we define sin is the confession of sin we make corporately in our Sunday service before we take communion. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, from which we take our Sunday worship services, puts it this way:

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.

[BCP, p. 360]

There is much that could be said about this, but I want to highlight four things.

  1. Sin, even if committed against others or against ourselves, is also committed against God: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you

For example, if I were to tell a lie to a friend, I would have certainly sinned against my friend, and may need to make things right with my friend by coming clean and telling the truth. At a deeper level though, I would have also sinned against God, who is the Truth and whose word is truth. By lying, I violate God’s best for my life: a life lived according to the truth.

  1. Sin isn’t just an action. It takes place in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

This acknowledges that not only in our actions, but in our thought patterns and in the words we so carelessly fling about, we can do wrong and can miss God’s best.

  1. Sin isn’t only doing something wrong. It can also be failing to do something. …by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

This is what some people refer to as sins of commission and sins of omission.

  1. At the core of sin, most often, is not a failure of holiness, or a failure of perfection, but rather a failure to love. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

Speaking of love, the quote from Marilyn Monroe above—perhaps more of a theologian than she realized—shows how, at the foundations of our being, we are all looking to be loved and to love. To confess sin, to bring the failure to love God and others, that we all share, fully back to the merciful God of love is to open ourselves to the possibility that we need God in his mercy to restore us to relationship with him.

In other words, to answer the question of what sin is, is also to begin the journey of confession. To confess is to return to relationship with God, to journey from the exile of Adam and Eve that we still experience, and to return to the face of the God from whom we hide. This is what the word repent means, after all. Being honest about sin, naming it in our specific thoughts, words, and deeds, and acknowledging the ways that we naturally gravitate away from the wholeness found in relationship with God allows us the opportunity to return to the love of God made available to us in the mercy of Jesus Christ. Then, we can know true love: That we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

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