“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” Genesis 3:6
I’m embracing sin these days. Not in committing, but in acknowledging.
The idea of sin has rather fallen out of fashion. It is equated with shame and punishment, and, going back centuries, with coercive control by the church-state. Sin is not a term or a concept we want to be concerned with today in our liberated, do-what-you-like society.
But the meaning of the Hebrew word hata, which we translate as sin, literally means “to go astray”. And we can all do that.
…or can we, I wonder.
Straying from where?
To go astray implies there is a home, a baseline, a touchstone, something by which we can measure our emotional and spiritual journey through life.
Our consumer culture encourages more ownership and possession. Capitalism declaring profit as the new god—and science does the same for knowledge. The patriarchy holds up positional power as the pinnacle of success and neo-conservatives and new-age gurus alike encourage self-love as personal fulfilment.
We have discovered plenty of ways to measure our material progress: we have a very clear baseline from which to rise, a promised nirvana to reach, and a “rags to riches” narrative to inspire our journey. Yet we are hard pushed to identify a corresponding spiritual touchstone.
If our value system is centred on wealth, possession, knowledge, position and self-love what meaning could sin possibly have? If we have no home, how can we stray?
So in order to acknowledge sin I must first have a path from which to stray, an ideal from which to fall away. Acknowledging sin therefore allows me to claim such a path, even to invent a path.
With no path, no home, our poor behaviours are registered as guilt, disgrace, regret and remorse, ultimately descending into shame and self-loathing with no opportunity to unravel. And people who don’t like themselves tend to do things that hurt or deny themselves which may explain the ever-continuing rise in addiction, self-harm, body-dysmorphia and depression.
Finding my way
As someone with a self-harming history I can directly map the destructive spans of my life to my lack of path. Finding my way (not a one-time event) lifts the destruction, in no small part because I come to accept my failings as sin, as going astray.
Sin thus becomes a tool for self-reflection, for introspection, for confession and finally for renewal.
Our current collective understanding of sin as an inherent and punishable evil is a product of patriarchal thinking. We view the world from the hierarchical paradigm that has been thrust upon us throughout our lives, and over generations.
The Catholic church, and most organised religions, uphold this world view, even enforce it. It serves the purpose of control of the masses through fear and oppression. It is convenient to tell us we were born in sin, because then we are afraid of damnation and will do what we are told to avoid it.
But if we return to Genesis, we read:
“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
This is inconsistent with the idea that we are born in sin, unless we reconceive sin.
God banishes Eve and Adam from Eden to till the land. Almost immediately after the creation of humans God decides not to contain them, but to let them go free, and figure it out for themselves.
It is significant that it took a woman to initiate this change of plan. Adam would have stuck with the status quo—and perhaps has strived to return to it ever since. Hence our inherent conflict: we desire great freedom but at the same time we want someone to be in charge and tell us what to do. It explains so much!
To reconceive sin then we need to imagine God’s world not as a patriarchy, but a self-organised system structured on a few simple principles. Imagine God as a sherpa rather than a manager, a facilitator rather than an instructor.
In such a world what meaning could we ascribe to original sin?
Perhaps original sin is a gift received, rather than a punishment inflicted. To live well in our self-organised, principled world we would each need a mechanism for adjustment, a method to live in harmony with one another and within our communities.
Recognising our failings, faults and transgressions as straying from our values would allow us to self-correct, and to support one another in such correction.
Program of recovery
One of the most successful self-organised, non-hierarchical societies around today, Alcoholics Anonymous, suggests a program of recovery centred on three principles: love God, clean house, help others.
The second of these, clean house, focuses first on forgiveness and then making amends for one’s own wrongdoings, followed by a continuous practice of self-reflection and self-correction to walk the path discovered in the first principle. Only then is a person considered spiritually fit to work with others.
This coincides with the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew’s gospel:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
Nothing there about confessing to a priest or any intermediary. This is, as AA paraphrases, making direct amends to those we have harmed. This is taking courageous action, based on a sense of personal responsibility, guided by love.
The gift of sin
It may be that the greatest sinners are those with the greatest capacity for love, forgiveness and compassion. It takes a shift in perspective though, and a commitment to self-healing for the gift of sin to take on this new value: to become a gift we give away as much as a gift received.
The core text of Alcoholics Anonymous, expresses it thus:
“We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” (Emphasis mine)
I’m embracing sin these days, in gratitude that I have a home from which to stray.
Tobias Mayer lives in Sheffield and works as a teacher, facilitator and coach. He runs teamwork and leadership workshops utilising the Bible in creative and non-coercive ways. For more see Scripture at Work: Mark and the leadership posts on his daily blog.