Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

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.)

Age six

Age six, with ponytail

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.

Age six, contemplating a bigger heist

Contemplating a bigger heist

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.

In so many ways, still that little girl

In so many ways, still that little girl

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?

15 thoughts on “Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

  1. So beautiful and so true! I love this: “[it] 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…” I think if ever in doubt, there is no better way to know that we have sinned but by this clouded, heavy spirit.
    Oh, how the innocence of our existence becomes marred by the unavoidable temptation of sin! And how delicious the freedom and abundance available to us when we willingly release that which weighs us down and clouds our vision from the beauty of life! So beautifully portrayed in your 50 cent parable! Can’t wait to read the others!

  2. This is beautiful and it seems your story illustrates that “our most vibrant conscience” is the final arbiter of moral goodness. I like this idea but do not understand why this definition needs to include the aspect of “divinely ordained guidelines”? If one so chooses, anyone can incorporate such guidelines into her own personal morality and conscience, thereby leaving that beautiful, vibrant conscience to guide us.

    In my opinion, the difficulty with incorporating external guidelines themselves as the line of right and wrong is that guidelines do not fit universally, unless you are saying that what constitutes the divinely ordained guidelines vary depending on what any particular person acknowledges as divinely ordained. For example, I am not Hindu and therefore I do not incorporate the tenant that I ought to bind myself to the principles of the Vedas into my moral conscience. That is not to say that there are no truths in the Vedas, just that those divine guidelines are not universally applicable to me and are not incorporate into my conscience. Or are you suggesting that they are part of a larger picture of morality and the divine? It is an interesting idea that together, all theology and philosophy that contributes to the realm of morality are universally applicable and we would benefit from such study and incorporation.

    One additional blow against removing the arbiter of right and wrong, truth and goodness to an external source of guidelines is that I personally am responsible for my decisions. I do not get to blame the captain that gave me an order, for good or ill. In the cosmic scheme, it seems to me that I have only myself to blame if I choose poorly. As a result, I simply must rely on my conscience, and all that I can incorporate into that conscience, to help me choose wisely.

    Beautiful story and example of the pain of living and learning. I hesitate to call your actions a sin, mostly because that word is extraordinarily overloaded as a tool of shaming and I am certain that as we live and learn, our conscience does become enlightened along our individual paths. Was it a mistake from which you learned? Definitely. Did that lesson improve upon who you are today? Maybe. Either way, you are a dear one. Thank you for your thoughtful writing.

  3. That pretty much gets it. That “funny tummy” feeling that just never goes away. God knows. You know. Even when no one else does.

    Carrie

  4. Such a perfectly descriptive post on the angst involved when we sin. I thought the parable was brilliant. I was moved by how you chronicled the consequences in terms of what it felt inside for you and how it changed your relationship with your friend. I love the definition you crafted. I think it’s spot on.

    Sin is sometimes translated as “missing the mark.” When we act against the light inside of us, we miss the mark. For me, the mark I’m striving for is to become like Christ. One of my main goals with the youth I teach is to help them understand that our sins do not make us bad. Our worth doesn’t change as we sin. Our worth is fixed as divine children of divine parents. Sin moves us further from light, which never feels good inside (which you so ably described) and weakens our spiritual receptivity. Any discussion of sin and/or the different ways we sin must also include the concept of repentance — the means of turning back, regaining our footing and getting our focus back on the mark.

    It’s too bad the word sin is so intertwined with shame. Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”. I think there is a healthy dose of guilt/sorrow for our sins which is helpful in motivating us to turn around. But when we internalize the guilt and take it to mean we are bad/unlovable/inherently flawed when we sin, then we move into shame, which I don’t believe is ever helpful for our spiritual growth.

  5. I really like your parable and your writing…wording choice, phrasing choice so aptly described the process of the effects of your incident in terms of your thoughts and actions. I wonder if, as an adult, you have ever tried to find or reach out to your childhood friend from whom you took the fifty cents?

    • Maggie: Since I moved frequently during my upbringing, I lost contact with Laura only shortly after pocketing her money. Thanks to your prompt, I’ve just requested her as a FB friend. I’ve tried to track down people like this before, and have been reprimanded by FB. So we’ll see how this goes…I doubt she’d remember be from 40-something years ago. I want to repay her, with interest. Wouldn’t that be great?

      • Hahahahahaha!!! UPDATE….Be watching in the coming posts for an online reunion between childhood friends. One of those time when wading into the schlock of social media is so worth it. 🙂 Thank you, Maggie, for the nudge.

  6. Melissa, I hope it isn’t too tacky that I’m doing this in a comment, but I’d love to email you to ask you some questions about some wards and branches in Europe. My email is amirabook at gmail dot com. I’m mostly curious about whether there are English branches in some cities like Bern and Berlin and if you can tell me anything about the units in Paris, Frankfurt, and Vienna, especially if they’re good places for teenagers. Thanks!

  7. Yes, sin eats away at me. Just like the tiny Fisher Price doll bed I stole (from the church nursery, no less!). I tried to bury it, but the guilt couldn’t be hidden or buried. So many applications to real life. And as we get closer to God, our sins become harder to bury away or ignore. Great post!

    • Oh, those Fisher Price temptations.

      🙂

      Right! And a coming post will examine just what you’ve said: as we move closer to light, we see our failings with more clarity. This is a good, it’s progression. Light and self-awareness are good, refining.

      And I’m looking forward to your upcoming book, “Rare Bird”. Please keep me posted.

  8. Sorry I missed this! Must have fallen victim to an overfull RSS purge.

    I did the same thing as a child, but with my friend’s $5 bill on his dresser. And his parents were better off than mine–my Dad was a public school teacher, Mom a govt clerk. With 5 kids, keeping us fed and housed was apparently enough of a challenge. So there’s the economic context to think about, to me. “The poor can’t afford morality,” said Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

    While not claiming any relation to the divine, Confucius seems to formulate “guidelines” that would have prevented us both from straying into sin:

    The Master said, “I would like to bring peace and contentment to the old, to share trust and confidence with my friends, and to love and protect the young” (Analects 5.26, Simon Leys transl.)

    –they all boil down to respect and care for all. And a government that does its part in that mission to serve.

    • CB- Concise and confucian. Yes, government (or any leadership) must care for its people and cannot escape culpability if its methods and leaders do not achieve those moral ends. Some of the greatest moral challenges, then, arise when moral people are limited in their exercise of agency because of corrupt or immoral leadership.
      More to come..

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