On Normalizing Sin (Without Minimizing it)

I once worked with a woman who was, let’s say, ‘challenging’ to be around. She was brusque and impatient, and never had a kind word to say about anyone. Every day at lunch, she told us stories of an estranged relative, an unreasonable neighbour, or a friend with whom she was on the outs. The funny thing about it was that she would begin each story with, “You know me; I get along with everyone …” There was a complete disconnect between who she thought she was and who she was in reality. When one day her story was about her daughter having called her out on this very fact, she was in tears, completely shocked that anyone might suggest she wasn’t completely innocent in all these strained relationships.

As extreme as this former colleague was in her self-delusion, I think this story illustrates a more general principle. At some point along the way, we in the West seem to have lost our ability to accept the notion that we might not be completely innocent in this life. In traditional Christian language, we have ceased to be able to recognize the reality of sin in our lives. I’m not talking about sin in the general: We are still great at pointing out the sin in the personal lives of other people, and in the impersonal, but no less real, systems and structures we have to deal with. We can even at times admit to sin in general terms, like when we talk about sin as being about broken relationships. But when it comes to our own, specific sins, many of are blind, and completely unable to integrate the idea that we are sinful into our self-image. It’s something akin to a more generalized version of the idea of ‘white fragility’ that has surfaced over the past years about why it’s so hard for white people to talk about race. It’s as though our egos are like balloons — over-inflated and therefore ready to pop at the slightest prick.

A few years ago, in my main post about the ways the Scriptures speak about sin, I wrote about how part of our collective discomfort in talking about sin comes from an over-emphasis on personal sin over the past few centuries. (I used the classic (if awful) eighteenth-century sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as my prime example.) And this is, I believe, unquestionably true. The way sin was talked about was extreme, shaming, and punitive. It was spoken of to instill the fear of hell into people, rather than the “fear” — awe, wonder, amazement — of God in them. And after a few hundred years of this, it’s no wonder our society has largely opted out.

Now we’re in quite the opposite state of affairs. If a prayer, hymn, or sermon mentions sin at all, someone is bound to object to the ‘over focus on sin’. Some people in my own tradition, which features a prayer of general confession within the Eucharistic rite, object even to its very basic language of:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.

But there’s a problem here.

The actual issue the Christian teaching on sin intended to address — our universal and pervasive habit of missing the mark, of causing ourselves and each other to stumble, of failing to show up for ourselves, each other and for God, of bruising or breaking relationships of all kinds — remains. And we need a way of talking about this. Not talking about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it just makes us less able to deal with it. The less we talk about it, the less we see it. The less we see it, the more we push it into the realm of the Shadow. And that’s very dangerous, not only for our lives and relationships, but for the whole world. We need this language badly. The Bible offers us many different images to help us talk about sin, and in the next few weeks, I’d like to spend some time looking at these metaphors for what we call ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’. But for today, I’d like to propose something more basic, but also perhaps controversial: I think we need to normalize sin.

For much of Christian history, especially in the West — and not without some biblical precedent — we have talked about sin in extreme ways, as though it were a fatal illness or a serious felony. But for most of us, the way sin works is more like a thousand paper cuts, or a series of small infractions that compound each other. It’s all in the messy details of everyday life. This was wonderfully dramatized on the third season of the NBC comedy The Good Place, when the characters, trying to figure out what has gone wrong with the afterlife, discover that the complexities of modern life make it almost impossible to do anything without what we would call ‘sinning.’ Even something on the surface ‘good’, like buying flowers for your grandmother, ends up getting caught up in economic injustice and ecological harm. Life is messy and complicated and we are often legitimately torn in many directions, and so it’s impossible for us to do right by everyone all the time. In other words, sin is normal, so we should normalize it — without minimizing its negative impacts on the world.

A great example of what I’m talking about is the idea of racism. For me, and I would imagine most white people who grew up in a multicultural society, racism was held up as pretty much the worst social sin imaginable. To be ‘racist’ was the purview of people in white hoods burning crosses, of crooked cops, of slavery, segregation, pogroms and ghettos. And so when, over the past decade or so, as the conversation around race has changed and People of Colour have challenged white folk to examine our attitudes and assumptions around race, the expansion of the meaning of ‘racism’ has been a big stumbling block for many. But, this has far more to do with how we’ve framed racism in our desire to be a multicultural society than it does with the idea of racism itself. I learned a good lesson about this in reading Bryan Washington’s recent novel Memorial. One of the main characters is a Japanese-American man, the other is his Black boyfriend. While their relationship is pretty awful, one thing that stood out to me was how casually they talked to one another about the things they did and said that the other experienced as being racist. It was a window into a fascinating alternate reality, in which conversations about race didn’t need to be as emotionally charged as white people generally assume they must be.

This sort of approach is exactly what I mean by normalizing sin. It would transform so much of our attitudes and conversation. To go back to the topic of divorce from this past Sunday, again, I don’t think anyone would blink at the idea that the breaking of relationships is a helpful way to understand sin; yet, to say that divorce — a formal breaking of relationships if there ever was one! — is sinful, rubs us the wrong way. This has more to do with the emotional weight we’ve put into the word ‘sinful’ than anything else. If we remove that burden from it, we could have a much more fruitful conversation. Okay, so the breaking of relationships is sinful, and therefore divorce is sinful. But, because we’re human and relationships are hard, many of the ways we live in relationships are also sinful, so divorce may in fact be the option with the most grace and best chance of good spiritual health for both parties. And if this is true in big things like divorce, it is also true with smaller things too. The more we talk about sin, the more we acknowledge and confess it, the better conversations we can have about it. The better able we are to see it, the better handle on it we will have.

I’m all for talking about our original created ‘very goodness‘; I’m certainly all for talking about the wonders of God’s grace and salvation. What I am arguing here is in no way a return to the ‘bad old days’ of fire-and-brimstone sermons and a hyperfocus on behaviour-control in Christian religion. Quite the opposite. But for very goodness and salvation to have substance — for them to be something more than just vapid empty ‘love-and-light’ spirituality — we also need to have ways of talking about sin, and specifically our own sins. We need to normalize sin, without minimizing it, so we can better comprehend the nature of God’s grace and the full measure of our salvation, which — if it is working right — transforms us, making us better able to be who we want to be in our relationships, not cause others to stumble, and show up for one another in love.

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