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What Is Sin?

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Sin is a religious concept, and it is impossible to understand it it without invoking a religious context. Atheists tend not to believe in it because they recognize that sin is an offense against God, but they don’t believe there is a god (See, for example, this speech by Dan Barker). For those who do believe in God, sin can still be a troubling concept. It seems to denote both individual deeds and a rebellious attitude, acts that nearly anyone would regard as wrong (murder, rape, theft, fraud, perjury) and acts that seem wrong only if you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs (working on Saturday or Sunday, playing card games, cussing, drinking, smoking, and dancing). In the popular—and secular—mind, sin seems to be nearly synonymous with illicit sex or even with ordinary pleasures. So what is sin? And why do Christians make such a big deal out of it?

When I was a child, I thought sin was breaking a commandment. God had a list of rules everyone was supposed to keep. If you broke one of the rules that was a sin. This list of rules, I learned, included the Ten Commandments. To a child, these rules seemed both arbitrary and unnecessary. It made sense that the first rule was to have no other gods. Imagine the confusion that would result from having more than one Rule-maker! But the rest just seemed like nonsense or else so obvious that no one would need to have it written down. Who wants to make graven images? Or take another man’s wife? Or commit murder? The two that made the most sense to me were the requirement to honor my parents and the prohibition against desiring what someone else had. I’ve written elsewhere about this last commandment, but what is especially odd about it is how unenforceable it is. How do you make a charge of coveting stick? The other commandments all enjoin or forbid specific deeds, but this one forbids something that no one around you may even detect. It is one of the earliest indications that God cares as much about why we do what we do as about what we do.

Another thing I thought as a child was that God’s rules are absolutes. In fact, I was very much a rule follower. I was seldom tempted to break rules, and when I did, I was racked with guilt about it until it was discovered and I received punishment or absolution. The existence of a rule was therefore often sufficient to keep me in line. I was surprised, then, when my own children showed no propensity to regard rules in this same way. Most of them would do a quick cost/benefit analysis in their heads before breaking a rule. If the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost, they had no compunction about breaking the rule and no apparent sense of guilt about it. My own natural bent made me a compliant child, but it also set me on a path to becoming a Pharisaical Christian. When you’re good at keeping rules, it’s tempting to think that rule-keeping is sufficient for life. It isn’t.

What I referred to above as “cost/benefit analysis” is a capacity we all have. It is the capacity to decide for ourselves whether a course of action is good or bad. In the myth of the Fall found in Genesis 3, Eve exercises that capacity when she decides “that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” Set against her own judgment is the mere prohibition of God, which has nothing to recommend it except God’s power and authority. The serpent even undermines that by accusing God of self-serving motives: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God doesn’t want any competition. He only forbade it keep you down. He lied about the whole “you will die” thing. Eve desires good things for herself, and the serpent persuades her that the only thing standing in her way is God’s absurd rule.

This is the normal course of sin. It begins with desire for something God has forbidden. Desire magnifies all the good things that will come and diminishes or eliminates all the potential harms. Then we set our own judgment against God’s and do what we want instead of what we should. Sin begins with disagreement with God.

In orthodox Christian belief God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at once. So his commands are grounded in love and wisdom and strength. But he doesn’t need to have infinite capacities in order to make wise rules. He only needs to be stronger and wiser than you are. Just as good parents who are stronger and wiser than their children make good rules for them to keep them safe and teach them, so God, who is our Parent, makes good rules for us—his children—to protect us and teach us. If we disagree with him, we are always in the wrong. There is something breathtakingly audacious about disagreeing with God, about trying to explain something to him as if he didn’t know, or about thinking we have a perspective he hasn’t considered. It’s like explaining relativity to Einstein. When Abraham dared to do it, he at least showed some trepidation and humility.

Of course, disagreeing with God is not sin; it is only the beginning of sin. For one thing, it is impossible to always agree with God, for to do so, we would have to always believe only what is true and right. Now, each of us thinks that what we believe is true and right. Who would hold on to a belief knowing it to be false or wrong? But we know, since we are human beings with limited perspective, that some of what we believe is not true, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. It is only when we insist on our own way in defiance of God’s command that our disagreement rises to the level of sin. And what is God’s command? He commands us to love him first and foremost and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our lives are not characterized by loving our neighbors—by sincere respect and affection, wanting what is best for them—then we deceive ourselves when we say we love God.

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Brother Shadwick

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When I was about 14, my family started going to a new church. It was still an Assembly of God church, but it was not the one in Columbus, Ohio we had been attending. This one was in Delaware, about the same distance but in the opposite direction. We were living near Sunbury, Ohio at the time. I don’t remember why we switched churches, but I think it had something to do with our former pastor leaving. The church in Delaware was small, maybe 35 or 40 members, so when the 10 of us started going, of course we were going to have an outsize impact. The pastor, Brother Moore was a young, sincere man, and the congregation was made up mostly of middle aged and older folks. I’m sure our family alone doubled the number of kids attending.

Fifty years ago, churches had Sunday School followed by Worship Service every Sunday morning. Sunday School was a time of instruction, mostly for teaching kids, but most churches of my acquaintance also had adult Sunday School classes, but the folks who attended were mostly people with kids who were bringing them to be taught. The format was usually less formal than public school. Classes were small. There were often kids from 3 or 4 grades mixed together. Still, you were expected to listen to the teacher teach, not interrupt or talk in class, and generally behave yourself. At 14 I was really good at that, having attended church since before I could remember.

My Sunday School teacher at Delaware Assembly of God was a man in his 40s named Brother Shadwick. (In the Assemblies of God of my youth, every adult was either Brother or Sister from the pastor on down.) Brother Shadwick was short but wiry; he looked like a fighter with close-cropped hair, big ears and a bulbous nose, thick lips, and one of those sallow complexions that would go beet red when he got angry. He proved also to be proud and ignorant, always a dangerous combination.

Our class was in a small room off the fellowship hall. There couldn’t have been more than four or five of us. I don’t know if Brother Shadwick took an instant dislike to me, or if it was our first skirmish that made me his enemy. The lesson that day was about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Brother Shadwick was trying to set the scene. He told us that fishing boat Jesus and the disciples were in was very small, about the size of a row boat.

I raised my hand.

“It must have been bigger than a row boat,” I said. “It held Jesus and twelve disciples and their fishing gear. Jesus fell asleep in the prow. How could he sleep in the prow of a row boat?”

Brother Shadwick looked daggers at me. He stopped the class and had us all bow our heads. He prayed that God would forgive my sins and overcome my rebellious spirit. I was embarrassed, of course, but I also knew that I was right and the Brother Shadwick was wrong. Rather than admit to being wrong, he had treated me as if I had done something shameful. I knew I was not rebellious. In fact I was a compliant child, and I resolved to keep my mouth shut unless I was called upon.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was a 14-year-old boy. There is no other age when boys are more obnoxious. I was certainly not immune. I was no doubt tactless and cocky. But I was not interested in how he felt having his word questioned by a mere boy. I was interested in truth, and it mattered to me that he was changing the story to suit his own preconceptions. But after that incident I was wary.

Some months later another incident occurred. Our class had been combined with another, and we now met in the fellowship hall where there was more room. My younger sister, Lani was in the class. There may have been as many as a dozen students. This time the lesson was from Jonah. The story of Jonah is bizarre even compared to other Old Testament stories. The feature most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and survived inside it for three days, but that is not what makes it truly bizarre. Taken as a whole, it is a story about the compassion of the God of Israel for people who were not Israelites, who were in fact enemies of Israel. The last sentence, which God addresses to Jonah as a question, makes the point explicit:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

Brother Shadwick claimed that this meant that the people of Nineveh were savages, unable even to tell their left hand from their right. He compared them to people living in mud huts, eking out a living at subsistence farming. Sitting there listening, I kept thinking, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything.”

Then Brother Shadwick looked straight at me and asked, “Isn’t that right?”

What could I do? I pointed out that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, that they represented the dominant political power in the region at the time, and that the verse probably referred to children rather than to the entire population of the city. Brother Shadwick turned red. My sister rushed from the room to find our mom or dad. I found out later that she thought he was going to hit me. He did come toward me and stand over me. But he did not lay a hand on me. Instead he resorted once more to prayer for my rebellious spirit because I had dared to know more than he knew.

I do not know what resources Brother Shadwick turned to when he was preparing his Sunday School lessons. Perhaps he thought, as many people still think today, that he needed no resources but his own understanding to make sense of stories that were hundreds of years old. I was not so self-assured. My family had encyclopedias, bible dictionaries, study bibles, and alternate translations. When I read the bible, I referred to those resources to help me understand. I still use such helps when I read the bible.

Two more incidents help illuminate Brother Shadwick’s character. Both occurred shortly before my family left the church. The first was that Brother Shadwick got into a fight with a co-worker and was badly beaten. His nose was broken, and he came to church with his face heavily bandaged. He sued his attacker and lost. The judge decreed that Brother Shadwick had provoked his attacker, so no compensation was due. The second was a confrontation between Brother Shadwick and a new pastor who had come to set make things right at the church. I don’t remember what it was about. I just remember Brother Shadwick standing nose to nose with the pastor, flushed with anger, his hand balled into a fist and spitting his words between clenched teeth. He still had bandages on his nose. The pastor regarded him with absolute calm but refused to back down. We left that church, and it closed for good not long after.

Some people would have been soured on church forever by these incidents, but I was fortunate in several respects. My parents knew me well. They knew I was not trying to cause trouble or show up Brother Shadwick in front of the class. They didn’t berate or discipline me for standing up to Brother Shadwick when he said things that revealed his own prejudices, especially when he asked for my opinion. I also knew that Brother Shadwick was not best representing the character of Christ in these episodes, so they did not make me question God’s goodness. Besides, I had my own relationship with Christ, and he sustained me even when others who also claimed to follow him misunderstood me. So I bear Brother Shadwick no ill will. I hope he has found peace and been delivered from his anger.

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How I Stopped Annoying Women

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In high school I was in love with a girl who had long, dark, very straight hair, brown eyes, a heart-shaped face, and a demur attitude. (Some will say I was not really in love, which is in some sense true. They will say I was merely infatuated, but the fact is, having experienced both infatuation and real love, I can say with some authority that they feel the same. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that infatuation makes you insane, but real love is always eminently reasonable. But once again, when you’re in the midst of it, insanity seems oh, so reasonable.) We were in the same grade, so we had some classes together. We also attended some of the same religious meetings. Whenever she was near, I was very aware of her presence, and I schemed to be with her and show her attention without seeming to intend it. Crazy, right? At prayer meetings, I would sit next to her, so I could hold her hand during prayers. My prayers were not exceptionally spiritual, but I did make a number of extravagant promises to God which I have since forgotten. He probably still chuckles over them.

Girls did not flock around me. In fact, they avoided me as if I had cooties. With the advantage of hindsight, I know now that in my teens I was uncommonly ugly and socially awkward. It would be hard to imagine a combination more deadly to incipient romance. I lacked both grace and good looks. I was also naive. All I had going for me was an impressive grasp of calculus—not a trait over which many girls were known to swoon.

After high school I spent a decade with my heart on my sleeve, always ready to be in love with any young woman who was civil to me. If she were more than civil—if she flirted even in the most desultory fashion—I was instantly smitten and made myself intolerable until she utterly spurned my affections. This happened more than once. Possibly more than 5 times. It is still painfully embarrassing to contemplate.

As I grew older, despite remaining absurdly naive, my physiognomy changed. I became more or less average-looking and acquired enough social grace to pass for an ordinary guy. By the time I met the woman who is now my wife, I effortlessly and unwittingly impressed her with my erudition and aplomb. But she was different, too, from the kind of woman who usually attracted me. She was not demur. She was vivacious. She acted as if life were a present she was just about to unwrap. She had firecracker eyes, and she was infectiously alive. She dragged me out of my woebegone stupor and loved me unflinchingly.

These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).
Theodore Roethke

Suffice it to say, I stopped annoying all woman and began to annoy just one. (At least, I think I stopped. One can never be entirely sure.) For some reason I have yet to grasp, she considers knowing me a privilege for which a little annoyance is not too steep a price.

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