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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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ten commandments

8. No Stealing

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You shall not steal. —Exodus 20:15

It is hard to imagine a society with no sanctions on taking for your own use what does not belong to you. Some have tried, but even the wildest flights of fancy cannot come up with a sustainable culture that has absolutely no regard for personal property. I think the closest we come is in imagining cultures without individuals, such as the Borg in Star Trek: Next Generation. Each of us has a property in our own body, and much of our law is predicated on the notion that our bodies are our own and that we have certain rights bound up in our bodies that cannot be taken away by governments or other human institutions. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” specified in the Declaration of Independence are such rights. They pre-suppose individual freedom and personal accountability. They pre-suppose that each person has a property in their own body, that they have a right to sustain, protect, and defend that property against those who would try to take it. So the right to property—to own things and keep them for your own use while excluding others from having or using them—is an extension of the right to be secure in your own body.

But is stealing taking what does not belong to you, or is it taking what does belong to someone else? A lot of our history in the United States is predicated on the notion that taking what does not belong to you is not stealing, but taking what does belong to someone else is stealing. Consider the First Nations who were here when Europeans first arrived. Many of them did not consider land something that could be individually owned. It was a common property, owned by no one and everyone. Europeans, however, regarded land as a principle form of wealth. If the land belonged to no one, it was free for the taking.

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lying ten commandments

9. No Lying

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Of all the sins that seem really indispensable to human interaction, surely lying tops the list. A world in which literally no one lied is unimaginable. It’s not even clear whether we could agree what, in particular circumstances, would constitute lying. It is one of the first skills children learn, and even some animals appear capable of doing it. While the bible condemns lying in no uncertain terms, it also appears to permit it under certain circumstances. Abraham liedtwice—about his wife Sarah because he was afraid. Yet God intervened to save them—and to keep the bloodline pure—both times. In fact, the Old Testament is rife with stories of heroes lying to protect themselves, and there appear to be no bad consequences. Yet God gives this command: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Hmm. That’s interesting. Instead of a blanket prohibition on lying, there is a much narrower prohibition against giving false testimony against a neighbor. It is narrower because it implies a context of justice. Someone empowered to adjudicate a dispute is trying to get factual information about it. It is in this context that lying is prohibited. This is also why the Law required multiple testimonies to establish guilt. Where one person might have a motive to lie, two or three likely would not. This kind of lying can have deadly consequences.

Consider the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab, king of Israel, wants Naboth’s vineyard because it adjoins his own land and produces good grapes. Naboth refuses to sell because the vineyard is part of his family’s inheritance, handed down from father to son since Israel first took possession of Canaan. So Ahab does what any wicked leader does when he doesn’t get what he wants. He sulks. He pouts. He refuses to get out of bed. His wife, Jezebel inquires about what’s wrong. Upon learning the cause of his sullenness, she taunts him. “Aren’t you a king?” she asks. “I’ll get you your vineyard.” She sits down and writes letters to the leaders of the town where Naboth lives. She tells them to throw a party for Naboth, but invite two scoundrels who will wait until everyone is a little drunk and then accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason. Then they were to take Naboth out and stone him and let her know when the deed was done. The leaders do just as Jezebel asked. Once Naboth is dead she takes his vineyard for the king. To the common people it looks like a case of justice catching up with Naboth instead of cold-blooded murder.

Think this can’t happen now? Then I invite you to consider the case of Farkhunda Malikzada, a young Afghan woman in Kabul who was falsely accused of burning a Qur’an. Within minutes she was fighting for her life. A few minutes more and the mob had beaten her to death and set fire to her body—all because of lies told by wicked people who held a grudge against her.

These are lies told with the intent of harming or defaming someone. These are lies told in a context that inflames outrage and leads to mob violence resulting in death. The kind of lies prohibited by the commandment are not the little social lies we tell to people we don’t care about, nor are they the self-protective or self-aggrandizing lies we tell to escape censure or obtain approbation. They are lies told to harm someone else. I don’t mean to imply that harmless lies—if there are such things—are somehow blameless. Rather, to qualify as a lie prohibited on God’s top ten list, it has to be a lie that is intended to harm a neighbor. It has to be slander or defamation.

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