I was sitting in a disused maths classroom one lunchtime when I was first told about sin. It was a lunchtime club for high-school teens and the leader had stuck a large target against one wall. We were asked to make paper airplanes and throw then at the target.
Nothing less than a perfect bullseye would be accepted.
We all launched our paper planes at the wall. None hit the mark.
Sin is failure to hit the mark.
I must have thrown that plane a dozen times before the leader stepped in to tell us the truth. Try as we might, our flights were as doomed as our actions.
That is: permanently incapacitated, condemned to failure and bound by a force I never understood nor chose to participate with.
Every act, every word and every thought judged against a standard I do not know. After every conversation, questioning myself: Did I sin? When? Which word was it? Which action was it? The minute details and subtleties of life on planet earth make such an existence impossible, or impossibly complex.
Just as well that the youth leader had his handy pat answer ready to soothe the existential despair such a confession so easily whips up.
The Good News of Jesus is that all my failures died with Jesus on the cross.
This of course gives the Christian leader enormous power. He creates a burden for the young person and immediately proposes a solution.
The problem is that in the world, sin is just fine.
Well, not all sin. Acts of theft, rape and murder are still disapproved of by society. And especially white, middle-class society.
Yet upon leaving the context of a Christian youth group, each young person will realise that the consequences of sin are as good as imaginary: That is, they are a matter of faith. In terms of existential impact, the two are often indistinguishable.
Of course faith dissolves the tension completely, since Jesus paid the price and allows human beings to encounter God despite their sins.
Upon reflection, the whole thing can come across as rather contrived.
That might be why so many young people leave the church.
If sin is considered to be the failure to perform the acts proper to a person in relationship with God, then a sinner is anyone who fails to do as God requires.
This whole Christian conversation about sin can happily remain in the realm of the imagination, scarcely impacting the reality of the community in their life together, their life in society whilst simultaneously enforcing a defining narrative.
We can call ourselves Christians without being any different.
We might never hit that imaginary mark, but we get to not feel any guilt about our actions either.
The title of this post asks the question “what is sin?”
I did not ask “What is a sin?” or “What are sins”.
I want to know what sin is made of, what is it’s essence.
Sin is: before God or with the conception of God, in despair not wanting to be oneself, or wanting in despair to be oneself.
-Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death
Here is the possibility of understanding the real substance of sin. That is, the way in which it impacts the human experience (beyond the obvious acts of evil which affect us all).
Kierkegaard identifies 3 types of despair:
- Despair which is being sort of blissfully ignorant that one is in despair, or ignorant that one is/has a self.
- Despair in not wanting to be oneself. Have you ever been upset, and then realized you were upset about being upset at all, as if you should be above being upset about such petty things? That is what this type of despair is sort of like.
- Despair in wanting to be oneself. This is like knowing you are in despair & reveling in it. Kind of like playing a bitter, poor-me victim.
These kinds of despair arise from the refusal to acknowledge God or be known by him. It is the setting of the self up as the Only One, the One who generates the Self and governs it.
The effects of sin can then be clearly seen. They are seen in the one who goes along with the prevailing ethical winds of the moment, never acknowledging that he is an eternal Self created by God.
They are seen in the one who finds himself despairing that his existence is finite, and endlessly distracts himself from the idea of eternity. He fills himself with earthly things, as if to constantly remind himself that he does not stand eternally before the face of God.
They are seen in the one who despairs in the face of God, knowing himself to be finite and bound to the earth he spites the God he once knew by clinging to the pain his life has brought him. He rules himself as king of the trash heap, spitting in the face of the One who truly established him.
If this is the effect of sin, if this kind of tortured and life-swallowing existence the sinner endures then the response must be more than an idea of forgiveness for arbitrary missing of the mark, but a new existence grounded in the new life of the resurrected Christ.
We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
1 John 5:18-21
And be kept from the idol of yourself.