One of those conversations that I have with so many people begins like this, “Is _________ a sin?” It is always a joy when these conversations revolve around someone reflecting on their life and truly trying to make sure their life reflects the love and grace of God. However, there are times when people begin a conversation this way and their intent is to justify their lifestyle choices and selfishness and those conversations are often joyless. On either account my first thought is, “let’s change the mentality”. Because what people are often expressing in asking if something is a sin is a perception of God in terms of law and order. Most people see God in terms of a judge and sin is breaking the law. Stop and consider which word in this list do you consider the closest synonym for sin– crime, heartbreak, transgression, misdeed, err? And how does God correct or account for sin– restoration, punishment, defeat, chastisement, penance, retribution? Your answers will determine your view of God and how God interacts with the world. But, your answer will also determine how you view your self, your own sins, and how you view people you consider sinners. I do not fault people who see God as a God of law and order first; after all, theologians have run with this concept since Jerome first used “peccatum” for sin in 405CE. But, as weird as this might sound to you the God of the Old Testament is not a God of laws, but a God of relationship. If that statement is true how much more do we see that in the person of Jesus?
The history of Israel as a people group is rooted in God freeing them from slavery. This is not the action of a god who is primarily concerned with law and order, that god respects the Egyptian law and is not moved by the peoples’ cries. By freeing the Israelite slaves, God was overturning the law and order Egypt had created to restore the relationship with Abraham’s family and through them the world. Further, when Israel violated the “laws” they had just received at Sinai, a God committed to law and order would have punished (destroyed) rather than forgive them. God decided not to punish and forgave. In fact, if you read the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy closely you will find a cycle of God giving “laws”, Israel breaking them, God forgiving, God introducing new “laws”. A God committed to a system of crime and punishment would never act this way. If you paid attention you noticed the quotes on laws; the word “law” helps convey the mindset of crime and punishment to us. But what if you go back and read this paragraph with the word “instruction” instead of law. Instruction is an equally good word for what Moses gave the people, and changes our mindset toward God. No longer is God legalistic, issuing decrees from the throne, now we can understand God as trying to build a relationship with wise people. A God whose primary concern is laws does not bring Israel back from exile, they failed, they sinned, now they are punished. A God of relationships brings a people back to heal the wounds they caused and restore the relationship they broke.
Seeing God from this angle allows us to make more sense of the Incarnation. A God of regulations and laws does not become a person to get people out of punishment. A God committed to relationship becomes a person to restore the relationship. Jesus comes to bring healing and restore our connection to God (and yes this fits in with substitutionary atonement for anyone who cares).
So, why does this matter? Well it matters for two reasons, one is at the level of society and the other is a personal reason. In the example I opened with, many will ask if ________ is a sin because they are only concerned if they are guilty or innocent and not concerned if their life is actually producing the relationship God wants. Is ________ a sin– is it bringing you closer to God or not? If you are worried about whether it is legal or illegal before God, it is a sin. If you are worried about whether your action/attitude is impacting your relationships– now you are asking the right question.
While the personal level is where I spend most of my time and honestly where most people live, it is the corporate level that I want people to see. Too many Christians use the idea of sins being crimes keep them from healing wounds and restoring people. Christians have no problem seeing criminals as sinners in need of punishment, instead of people needing restored. Is the murderer a sinner? Yes, of course, what was Jesus’ reaction to the bandit on the cross? Forgiveness. The reality is we cannot allow someone’s status as sinner to be confused with the status of criminal. Sinner means someone who needs to restore a relationship with God. Seeing sins as crimes allows us to absolve ourselves from guilt as long as we do not violate God’s laws. But if sin is a breakdown of relationships then we have different responsibilities which cannot be boiled down to– is it against the law.
Progressive Christians have no problem distancing themselves from the sinners on the right because they commit the crime of pushing policies which hurt minorities. They will often criminalize and dehumanize people on the other side including fellow believers. I was told this week by a friend that a progressive friend questioned whether he was a Christian because he took a conservative stance on an issue. This mindset is sin, it is the breakdown of our (corporate humanity’s) relationship with God, to say nothing of our ability to “love our neighbor as ourselves”.
And of course, Christians on the right will use the definition of sin as a crime to vindicate themselves and distance from others. One example I see from many is they define sin as a crime to keep from healing the wounds of racism- “slavery wasn’t my crime why do I have to pay the penalty?” If I say slavery was a sin with the meaning crime, of course I am not guilty, I never owned a slave; but if it is a breakdown in relationship of course I am a sinner because restoration has not happened. This shift away from sin as crime and God as criminal judge is a necessary part of us growing in wisdom. It is also necessary for us to heal our wounds.