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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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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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Good Question

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My daughter-in-law brought homemade cinnamon rolls to our Thanksgiving Day celebration. Our family decided to get together all day, so we started with breakfast. She asked me what I thought of her cinnamon rolls even though everyone else had already raved about them.

“I don’t know if they’re really good,” she said, “or if everyone is just saying they are to spare my feelings because I’m pregnant.”

So she asked me.

I have a reputation in my family for speaking my mind without regard for people’s feelings. I have this reputation for two reasons:

  1. I have a high regard for the people I love and their ability to accept my opinions.
  2. I am an insensitive asshole.*

I tried her cinnamon rolls. While I was eating one, it occurred to me that if anyone spared her feelings, it was because they love her. I asked her, “Would you rather experience some doubt about yourself knowing that your friends and family love you, or would you rather be certain but know that they do not?”

She thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know,” she said.

“They’re very good,” I said. Indeed, they were.

*I sometimes shamelessly use the first reason as cover for the second. I’m sorry. I’m only human.

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