Sin is Nothing

Yesterday, we saw how Julian came to understand that God turns everything intended for evil to the good of the faithful. This idea turns the idea of sin and its relative importance on its head. And, versed as she was in a medieval monastic spirituality that emphasized the the dangers of sin, this probably came as a surprise to her. So it should come as no surprise to us that she reflected quite a bit about the implications of this insight. She didn’t shy away from it at all; in fact, she leaned into it, concluding that sin was nothing at all (Ch 11, short text).* And so today in our Lenten walk with Julian, I’d like to see how she gets there and what she does with it.

Julian’s reflections on the nature of sin start from a vision of “God in an instant of time … present in all things” (Ch 11). This panentheism (that God is in all things) seems strange to modern ears, but has been the dominant position through the whole of the Christian spiritual and mystical tradition. After witnessing this, she wondered “What is sin?” After all, if God is in everything and working through everything, what could possibly be done outside of God’s ultimate purpose? In her words: “I saw truly that God does everything, however small it may be, and that nothing is done by chance, but all by God’s prescient wisdom … which duly and to his glory he always guides to their best conclusion…” (Ch 11). This idea is a tough pill to swallow; not only does it foreshadow one of the biggest debates within the Reformation, about the possibility of free will, but it also seems to implicate God in everything bad that happens in the world. This is not an unimportant consideration, but this isn’t the point Julian is making. She is not arguing that evil is God’s will, but rather that God’s presence in and through all things relativizes evil. We saw this same argument in yesterday’s post, in the idea that God turns everything with which the devil tries to harm us to our benefit and salvation. As odd and difficult to understand as this idea is, she concludes: “Therefore I was compelled to admit that everything which is done is well done” (Ch 11). And, in fact “Sin is no deed [or, ‘nothing’ in the short text], for in all this sin was not shown to me.”

But such an idea has troubling implications and Julian was as aware of them as we are: “I often wondered why,” she writes in chapter 27, “through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all would have been well.” But Jesus answers her with some even more confusing words: “Sin in necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” (Ch 27).

What could it mean that “sin is necessary”? And how could such a state end with “all will be well”? The idea that sin is ‘no deed’ and possibly even ‘necessary’ has been around a long time in the theological trope of the felix culpa, ‘happy fault’. If, as in much of the Western tradition, we consider the Incarnation to be a response to sin, then it stands to reason that we should consider the Fall to be a ‘net positive’, for what was gained in response to sin was ultimately far greater than what was lost. As St. Augustine articulated it: “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist” (Enchiridion, viii). The idea is less common in the Christian East, where there the Incarnation was more commonly understood to be always a part of God’s plan for humanity rather than as a solution to the problem of sin; there the idea is that the incarnation was necessary because without it humanity would be forever ‘innocent’ but also therefore ‘childish’. This is itself an interesting idea because it’s the flip-side of the coin of developmental psychology, where separation of a child from their parent (e.g., in the ability to say ‘no’) is understood to be essential for ego development and therefore is seen as the beginning of the process of maturation that, if all goes well, ends in full and healthy adulthood. Thus for psychology too, ‘sin’ is ‘necessary’ in the world as we know it. But all this aside, for her part, Julian takes a different approach. Her starting place is in sin’s nothingness:

I did not see sin, for I believe that it has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it. And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time, for it purges and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy; for the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and that is his blessed will. (Ch 27)

I love this premise: We can’t really see sin because sin has no substance of its own, but we only see it by its consequences: namely in the pain it causes to ourselves and others. One of the problems with the traditional conceptions of Original Sin in Western Christianity is that it turns both righteousness and sin into ‘things’ of their own, rather than being inherently relational. (This is one of the most insightful critiques of Christianity offered up by Indigenous voices, for whom relationality has retained its central role.) This promotes legalism since it focuses on the things we can do wrong, causing a lot of people to understand sin primarily an ‘anti-checklist’ of things we do — and more often than not, these checklists get used against others rather than themselves! Julian’s understanding avoids this problem by not worrying at all about sin as a metaphysical concept, understanding sin only in terms of its consequences. In this framework, sin is necessary because our experience of pain is what causes us to stop what we’re doing. Therefore sin itself is sort of its own medicine, containing within it its own undoing. We see it through its negative consequences, come to understand ourselves better, and ask for mercy and help, from God and others. (A consequence of Julian’s line of thinking here is that it follows that the reason why sin proliferates in environments of social stratification, Empire, and globalism is that these things insulate us from the pain injustice causes. I think there’s something there worth exploring!)

About all this, Julian later concludes:

And then [when we sin], we who are not all wise think that everything which we have undertaken was all nothing. But it is not so, for we need to fall, and we need to see it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves, nor, too, should we know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator. For we shall truly see in heaven without end that we have sinned grievously in this life; and notwithstanding this, we shall truly see that we were never hurt in his love, nor were we ever of less value in his sight. And by the experience of this falling we shall have a great and marvelous knowledge of love in God without end; for enduing and marvelous is that love which cannot and will not be broken because of offences. (Ch 61)

And so, “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” (Ch 27).

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Julian’s approach here. I wonder how our experience of faith would shift if we were to live out this idea, if we were to stop worrying about ‘sin’ and focus instead on pain as a feedback mechanism in our lives and in the lives of others: to worry less about ‘doing a bad thing’ than on avoiding causing pain and harm to others? That could be an interesting experiment, and I encourage you to try it this week.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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