It’s a wet night and I’m walking with my friend, carefully trying not to slip on the concrete. I don’t remember how the conversation got here or how it started, only that it’s raining and when it rains we get heavy. So now we’re discussing the prison system. He says,
“I guess it’s harsh, but bad people shouldn’t get the chance to keep going.”
“What makes a bad person though? Aren’t we all bad sometimes?”
So he pushes back:
“Okay, I’ve heard the spiel before. We’re all filthy sinners and deserve to burn in hell. I get it.”
And it was already pretty raw but that’s too raw so we change the subject. But months later, the moment keeps coming back. What had he heard about sin and about God? How had it affected him? Why does it feel so important?
Why we talk about sin
This is what makes it so urgent: That a proper understanding of what sin (or ‘badness’) is and how it is dealt with is crucial to a healthy, loving worldview. An incomplete understanding can lead to misplaced resentment toward God, other people, and ourselves.
Too much condemnation and you become rigid. You’re ruled by fear and pride. Sin is sin and sinners are the enemy and that’s all there is to it. If God is here to punish you, you and your loved ones have to defend yourselves by being perfectly well-behaved.
Too much apathy and your walk toward maturity loses its direction. What is it to you? A truly loving God can’t care about your behaviour because he knows it’s impossible for you to be perfect. Anyone who thinks differently is uptight and nosy. Everyone should leave everyone be.
Even where people aren’t thinking about sin, they have thoughts about morality. They make judgements about right and wrong. Regardless of stance, these ideas influence everything we think and do so we can’t afford to ignore them.
How we talk about sin
We do ignore them, though, because sin isn’t a popular topic. It isn’t nice. Most people maintain a safe distance, satisfied with vague Sunday school recollections. So the most common explanation of sin goes something like this:
God created the world and it was good. Humans decided to be bad and it was like a Pandora’s box of bad got opened. Then God got mad and kicked them out of the good place. Now the world has lots of bad and we have to try our best to be good anyway. Because something something Jesus or else eternal torment.
And it isn’t completely wrong, but it’s like looking at a preschool rendition of the Mona Lisa and calling da Vinci a fraud. There is so much more. Opening up to a deeper understanding of what sin is and how it affects you, personally, takes courage and vulnerability. It also opens you to the sweetness of the solution.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
(1 John chapter 1, verses 8-9)
The bad news
It is impossible to dig your way out of this. You might say you do good because you’re good, and other people do bad because they’re bad, and that is a delicious lie.
Who would you be if you’d grown up with less? Or with more? Or around different people? And are your motives always as pure as your deeds?
We like to think we’re the ones driving our own actions, reactions, ideals – but nobody exists in a vacuum. We are in constant interaction with our environment. It’s easy to talk about ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ like some abstract currency, but we don’t get to decide what is in the storehouse.
“Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
(Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 20)
Yes, we’re all sinners. Let’s treat that statement as less of an attack and more of a global reality.
The good news
God has shared his moral structure with us so we don’t have to invent one. He has paid off our debts so he could meet us in our mess. He fills us with his Spirit so we can be restored. Basically, we aren’t alone and we aren’t doomed. It isn’t up to us to be good.
If I didn’t know this, my growth would be stunted. In my avoidance of becoming a ‘bad person’, I’d be afraid to make mistakes. They’d be too uncomfortable to face, let alone learn from. If deeds were inseparable from value it would be depressingly easy to become worthless.
So sin may look like a big dirty scary topic, but it’s an extremely necessary one. Incomplete understandings can only be harmful. We find our healing in this: That God doesn’t threaten us into goodness. We’re grafted into it.
Eleesa Jensen is currently studying Psychology and Education at the University of Auckland. She loves to paint, play guitar, and write as a form of worship and to process her thoughts.