Defining Sin: Communicating the Problem of Good vs Evil

A friend asked me how I'd define sin. This question is SO huge for modern man. In our culture's Postmodern trend, there is no truth, no right and wrong, no morality. The artistic vehicles of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror allow for the most creative settings and characters, and thusly are the strongest fiction sub-genres for dissecting morality.

Here's the key. When believers speak in our Christianese vocabulary, truths aren't understood by the lost.

My friend explained what his question was about: "I ask because Joss Whedon says he doesn't believe in sin, and yet clearly believes that betrayal of a personal trust is bad." There's a terrible dichotomy ripping-up the minds of real people. People we know. Here's their thinking: if one judges, one imposes a personally-chosen value system on others, yet when one's treated unjustly, a tension between hypocrisy and justice haunts their conscience.

There are two kinds of people. Some see morality etched-in-stone from the Lawgiver, as real as the laws of physics. Others see morality as personal decisions, like grocery shopping, personal preferences and choices. When these two debate, tar comes off the roof and neither understands why.

The following is the response I sent to my friend:

"Francis Schaeffer tells the story of a casual group discussion about morality. An East-Indian student insisted there was no right and wrong, only action. Schaeffer fetched a boiling teapot from the kitchen and held it over the young man's head. The poor lad collected his things and walked out the door.

I used this technique in an online debate once. One defender of postmodernism simply refused to acknowledge truth, and resisted the axiological argument for the existence of God. Finally in a reply to him, I pretended to lose-it and treated him rudely. When he was offended, I apologized for baiting him, but demonstrated that nobody can live as though right and wrong doesn't exist.

Those who deny sin (violating those laws written upon our hearts), cannot explain why nearly every culture that's ever existed has seen things like murder, rape, and theft as wrong. Compassion, forgiveness and selflessness are uniformly seen as noble. If there's no such thing as sin, or a Lawgiver, this coincidence is a real problem for guys like Joss."

Moral of the story? Don't say sin, say failing or personal weakness. Speaking King James to 21st century man? You're not communicating. Christian fiction authors must always keep their peanut-gallery audience in the frontal-lobe.


The Christian Writer's Notebook


Terri said...

Good points! I think most people acknowledge the concept of right and wrong. We must beware of assuming what the more provocative of the netizens pretending to be erudite are indicative of the world at large. My students don't even understand the concept of flexible morality or philosophical relativism even when in some cases it would be good for them to do so.

I think the problem is the word "sin" has been used a bit too freely by Christians over the years to refer to everything from women wearing make up and going to movies to murder. And even when it has been used in proper context, it has often been used without humility.

"Thou art a sinner, and I am a pure one" is the message many have gotten over the years. In fact, all we are as one person put it one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.

So, I think they understand the concept of sin and even believe in it, but they don't necessarily believe in the image of what they think Christians mean by it.

I use terms like moral failings, or failing to live like we know we should. Even atheists understand and usually follow some sort of ethical or moral system. Few are total hedonists.

Fortunately, even the most philosophically amoral among us live much better than their philosophy.


karen_m said...

've always liked the Francis Schaeffer analogy, and I like how you bring up the dichotomy most postmodern unbelievers face.
Although I would be careful about how much I renamed sin to accommodate modern culture; I understand your point about the need to speak something they understand, but too many euphemisms weaken the meaning of what sin is. Specific words have specific shades of meaning, and you can lose a lot of the meaning of "sin" in the euphemisms. I think that words like failing or personal weakness could at times be useful in helping to establish a definition of sin with those who don't believe in it, but I have seen way too many Christian groups and organizations adopt soft-talk so they won't offend their modern culture.

And, in my years as a counselor, I met many, many people who used "softer" words to get around having to recognize that they were actually sinning. A "moment of weakness" sounds a lot more palatable to one's conscience than a "sin". The problem with these people is that by avoiding recognizing sin, they were avoiding recognizing their need for biblical repentance, therefore avoiding the very thing that could have eased their distress. "Moments of weakness" can be tolerated or overlooked or fixed in our own strength. "Failures" can be corrected if we do better next time. One of the important concepts behind sin is that it is an act of defiant rebellion against God that is born from the cancer of depravity in our souls, and that only the grace of God is sufficient to help us overcome that rot.

I would have no trouble speaking like that to a Christian, even a new Christian, but if I was trying to describe the gravity of sin to a secular audience, I would obviously use a more diplomatic approach. The important thing is to be careful that we don't use words that make it easy for people to excuse or overlook their sin.

I'm not advocating bible-beating here, and I'm not saying that anyone who refers to sin as something like "failing" or "personal weakness" is a compromiser. Like everything, it's balance.

Andrea Graham said...

I'm afraid Karen's right. If the culture doesn't understand what the word "sin" means, it really has to be explained to them, because there simply is no equivalent language. It's sad, though, having to explain the meaning of "sin" is like having to explain the meaning of "love" (oh, wait, we do!)

Sin, fundamentally, is anything we say, believe, think, or do, and any omission, that contradicts God's character as revealed in scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. What other word encompasses that?

BTW, likewise, to be holy is to possess the heart and character of God. That's the core problem with "Holiness" Churches. The ones we're most familiar with aren't truly Holy at all.

They often fall into the trap of focusing on the externals. While the tomb's been whitewashed and dolled up, the dead man (cracked mirror) inside is left unrevived. That's why Jesus taught to deal with the heart first, and the externals second.

When we do it backwards, the first things often go ignored. But when we do things in the proper order, the change inside often pours out and washes the outside clean, too. For instance: an uber-critical gossip with no make up: legalistic hypocrite.

But it's a different story altogether if a particular woman's primary motive for wearing make-up was insecurity with her physical appearance, and as a result of becoming secure in her relationship with Christ, now sees herself as He sees her, and no longer feels the need or desire for it (as it was with me.)

See? The one changes her appearance but reminds a prideful gossip. The other has her heart changed, and the outer appearance changed as a natural overflow of that inner change.

Often, what you do is not so much the important question as why you do it. Wrong motives can render even otherwise moral behavior a sin (another reason why there is no substitute for the the word.)

karen_m said...

I was thinking more about my post and thought of a way to clarify what I was trying to say....

Yes, as Terri points out, the word sin can be overused by legalists who would make everything sin that doesn't fit their preferences. I grew up in that kind of church. Because the legalistic factions in Christianity are an extreme, they sometimes speak louder and are remembered longer than the more balanced in the faith.

But-- and here's what I couldn't quite find the word for-- we need to make sure, when we speak of sin, whatever we may call it, that we emphasize the idea of transgression.

And we need to emphasize that the problem is transgression of more than just some vague personal code. Depending on the level of secularization with the individual with whom you are speaking, you may have to start by describing it in terms of transgression of a personal or human code but you should just use that as building block to guide them toward realizing that the real transgression is against something much greater than they are. Of course, only the Holy Spirit can open blinded eyes and hearts; you can't argue someone into seeing that they are a sinner in need of a savior.

We all understand the concept of "wrong" in so much as we have been given a conscience which lets us know when we are not acting in accordance with whatever moral conditioning we may have had through family/societal influence.
But I think it takes the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit, before we realize that "wrong" is indeed "sin", ie, a transgression not just of man's codes but of God. I think that shift in understanding is part of the way God calls our hearts to Himself. As I mentioned, only God can open eyes so that we see sin as He sees it, but we who are His messengers can help by relaying it as He sees it. With tact and wisdom, but with clarity.

I think that clarifies what I was trying to say ,at least in my own mind.