In a comment thread elsewhere, a thoughtful reader asked me, “What is sin?”
Nothing like three little syllables–nine letters and a fishhook at the end–to get you right in the craw! For the last two weeks (if not for my whole adult life) I’ve asked myself this same question. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sin, in theory almost as much as in practice, has occupied both the minds and hearts––and even the best minds and hearts––for … oh, forever.
Who am I, though, to answer this kind of question? To define points of doctrine? In response, I’d rather describe than prescribe, would rather share what my life’s passage has been (and what sin has meant for me), than talking hamartiology, theology and philosophy. Besides, those -ologies can quickly get thick, inaccessible and even explosive––a mine field of semantics.
Instead of going the route of theoretical theology, I’ll break up our discussion on sin into a few simple parts, each post built on a parable taken from personal experience. Then I’ll try to offer a loose definition of some aspect of sin. I hope you’ll come back to leave a comment. I think the comment thread will be better than the posts. (Come back, at least, to hear some great stories.)
A 50-Cent Parable
I was six. Laura Nieminen, my friend upstairs in our apartment building, had a fifty-cent coin. It lay there, unattended, on a windowsill in her bedroom while we two sat on her floor playing dolls.
Trying to play dolls, that is. I couldn’t concentrate on a single one of her many Barbies, (I had none, by the way; she had a whole Rockette line-up, so I was feeling deprived,) I was too distracted by that flat silver disc glinting in my peripheral vision. It was magnificent. Magnetic.
So much so, that when Laura left to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t resist. And why should I resist? I thought. I’ll never really take it. I’ll just touch it for a second, feel its weight, its slick surface, its shininess.
I took it in my hand. It was warm, having lain in the sun by the window. The heat made it more magical. There it was, solid and glossy in my palm, with that impeccably chiseled JFK profile.
And something in me gave in, stopped resisting, took a step. Quickly, I wrapped the piece in a teeny yellow Barbie doll rain slicker Laura had told me I could have, (“Oh, I’ve got lots others,” she’d said. And that, I said to myself, meant she wouldn’t miss some stupid coin, either. She had more of everything. I had less. Taking it would be justified.)
I slipped the hot wad in my pocket, and took off.
In a dead sprint, I ran out of Laura’s room, out of her apartment, down the hallway, down a lightless stairway, down another hallway, into our apartment, and straight to my bedroom at the end on the right. I shut the door behind me. Panting, and swallowing a surge of something new and electric, I stashed the coin in its shiny yellow packaging way back in a drawer under some cotton underwear. Then I flopped on my bottom bunk, sweaty-palmed and a bit queasy. I was stiff but shaky as I closed my eyes to stare into the dark, swirling pit of what I’d just gotten away with.
Weeks and months went by. Laura never asked for her coin. This was a relief, because that meant she hadn’t noticed, and if she had noticed, she hadn’t cared. I thought. In my mind, if she didn’t missed it, and no one caught me, then I was off the hook. I’d really not done anyone any harm. I wasn’t bad.I of course never gave the coin back to her. But I never spent it, either. Honestly, I’m not even sure of whatever became of the fifty-cents.
But I know what happened to me. At first, I could think of little else but that coin. That little disc of metal clouded—or better, eclipsed—my other thoughts. And I felt not only less light in terms of luminosity, but I felt less light in terms of weight. I was heavier in spirit—my spindly little six-year-old self—no matter how much I tried to whistle in the dark or how much I smiled as I skipped on the playground.
Skipped, by the way, right past Laura. Because besides taking away my lightness of mind and lightness of spirit, my dishonesty eventually distanced me from my friend. In fact, although I got her yellow Barbie slicker back to her somehow (probably confecting some fib for why I’d run home that day, so stacking another untruth on top of the deceit of stealing) I never went back to her apartment. Never played with her again, in fact.
What’s more, I felt awkward—ill at ease—just looking into the eyes of my parents, my sisters. Could they see into my eyes? Know what I was hiding in my room, in the back of a drawer, in my thoughts?
This preoccupation meant I was also ill at ease with myself. Because when I did look into my own eyes, (I climbed up onto the cool white enamel bathroom sink to get a good look of myself in the medicine chest mirror rimmed in metal) I thought my eyes looked. . . different? My act split me from myself. I felt regret. Worry. Guilt. I became redefined in my own mind: A girl capable of that.
And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted. Instead, it cost me, and it still does.
Sin, for me, is any deliberate action (and I’ll include thought patterns as actions) that is in opposition to what our most vibrant conscience tells us is right, good and true. Sin is also stepping over divinely ordained guidelines. Sin leads us away from light, wholeness, peace, and joy. Sin, unresolved, impedes our growth. It is real, omnipresent, and causes misery and death. Avoiding sin eases life. Abandoning sin can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But doing so gives life, and that life is both more abundant and freer than any life we’d ever imagined possible.
What about this 50-cent Parable rings true or familiar to you? What doesn’t?
What from the concluding “definition” of sin works for you? What does not?
How would you describe or define sin?