I internalized the concept of sin at a very young age. When I first started attending Sunday school at 7 or 8 years old, right and wrong took on a whole new meaning for me. Of course, I had already known that there were “bad” things, things I shouldn’t do. I wasn’t supposed to take what wasn’t mine. I wasn’t supposed to hit my sister. I wasn’t supposed to talk back to my parents. I knew the basics, but “sin” was something else entirely.
“Sin” taught me that the bad wasn’t just something I did; it’s something I was. It was a destructive force festering inside me. It wasn’t so much about my public behavior so much as it was about my private thoughts and internal worth. Actually, I was taught, it really didn’t matter if I never stole, never hit my sister, and never talked back to my parents. I was still a sinner. I was still rotten to the core.
When I became a teenager and really began to formulate my theology, I received a particular definition of sin that was reinforced to me over and over again: “Sin is anything that separates you from God.” It was just like when I was younger, an internal sense of dissonance that made me feel shame for my thoughts and feelings. Only, as a teenager, I was “saved.” So, when I gave in to impure thoughts, I was also responsible for ruining my relationship with God.
I must have been 13 or so when I read the book Every Young Man’s Battle, learning about how evil pornography was and how I needed to not think sexual thoughts about girls if I wanted my relationship with God to remain intact. At the same time, I was attending youth retreats with themes on “fleeing the evil desires of your youth,” “guarding your heart,” and “saving sex for marriage.” Most of it, yes, was about sexual purity. But there was also stuff about not listening to secular music, making sure I spent enough “quiet time” with God in Bible study, not drinking or doing drugs, and so on and so forth.
This is what sin was to me: anything that made me look disgusting to God on the inside. That’s it. And it never occurred to me that it could be anything else…
I got off easy.
Many of the kids that grew up in the same culture I did were introduced to the same concept of sin. Their internal sense of worth and value before God was continually called into question, just like mine. Only, I’m a cisgender heterosexual male, so there are all kinds of things that I did not have to deal with. I did not have to conform to the social norms of a body I didn’t belong in. I did not have to go through conversion therapy. I did not have to apologize to my rapist. I was a sinner because of my thoughts and feelings. There are many I know who were sinners because of their biology.
They told us “sin was anything that separates you from God,” but what it really translated to was, “sin is anything that unites you with pleasure.” Sin was anything that made you feel good. And feeling good was a bad thing. We were made for God’s pleasure, not for our own. If we did something we liked because it felt good, even if it didn’t hurt anyone, it was a sin. Because it was selfish. And we weren’t supposed to live for ourselves; we were supposed to live for God.
Needless to say, this conception of sin led myself and many others to develop a poor self image. We could not do anything that made us happy without experiencing feelings of guilt and shame. God could only be honored through our self-deprivation. If there was something that we really wanted, if there was something we desperately needed, we sacrificed it for the sake of our holiness. It made us miserable. It crushed our spirits. It drove some of us to depression and even to the brink of suicide. But it was our cross to bear, so we made the sacrifices. After all, if we could just stick it out, we had heaven to look forward to, didn’t we?
It’s not surprising to me that many who come out of the Evangelical Christian culture in which I was raised want to get rid of the idea of sin entirely. They associate it with “purity culture,” with ideas of shame and self-hatred. They associate it with personal piety and private salvation. It’s because of this idea of sin that many of the people I know have spent years in therapy, trying desperately to construct a workable self-image and get on with their lives. I understand the desire to do away with sin.
But I don’t think we should get rid of sin; I think we should reinvent it.
Actually, it’s not really a reinvention. It’s more of a reclamation. Because, you see, sin in the Bible isn’t merely about personal piety; it’s also about social justice. Sin is failing to “do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Sin is “cheating widows out of their property” (Luke 20:47). Sin is “doing violence to the stranger” (Jeremiah 22:3). Sin is neglecting the people with whom Jesus identified himself in Matthew 25.
In other words, sin isn’t merely personal; sin is relational. Sin is what we call the harm we bring to other people.
We were taught that “sin is anything that separates us from God.” We could say instead that “sin is anything that separates us from our neighbors,” but I don’t even think that’s quite right. It’s not about us being united with our neighbors; it’s about us seeking good for our neighbors, regardless of what we get out of it. So, if I may offer a revised definition of sin that I hope we can all get behind: “Sin is anything that separates our neighbors from themselves.”
Again, I understand the desire to throw out sin altogether. It has been used in such destructive ways, that I completely understand the revulsion. But, if you can think of sin in terms of the harm we do to others instead of in terms of some arbitrary form of personal piety, it can be quite liberating. For those who grew up like I did, internalizing sin as something that was inherently wrong with us, think of it this way: the sadistic theology of raising kids to believe they’re inherently evil is itself sinful. We weren’t the ones who were sinning; it is they who were sinning against us.
If we are broken, it is only because they broke us.
Sin isn’t something we did; it’s something that was done to us. And we don’t need to be saved from our sins; we need to be saved from theirs.
I need the word “sin.” I need it as a label to convey the intensity of cruelty I see in the world. I need it as a label for white supremacy. I need it as a label for misogyny. I need it as a label for the contempt shown against those in the LGBTQ+ community. And I need it as a label for the shame that was induced in me throughout my childhood.
“Bad” isn’t good enough. It’s just not sufficient to say that some behavior is bad. I need the religious language, because it packs a punch. Cruelty toward human beings isn’t just impolite or untoward. It’s blasphemous. It’s profane. It’s evil. It’s sin.
If you’re reading this and you grew up like I did, seeing yourself as a sinner just for being you, I want to be clear: you are not a sinner. You have nothing to repent of. You are already pure. You are already perfect. You are already whole.
Sin is a word for the agents of Empire. It’s a word for the oppressors, not for the oppressed. So, yes, we could just get rid of the idea of sin entirely. Or, we could reclaim it as a means to fight back against those who have destroyed us.
We need sin. Not because we’re sinners, but because we were sinned against. What they did to us is not okay, and we need a name for it. We could call it bad. We could call it wrong. We could call it evil. Or, we could call it precisely what I believe it is:
It. Is. Sin.
Image licensed via Creative Commons.