Whaddya mean, “sin”?

In conversation with others, I have adopted the reflex of avoiding the word “sin” because of how it is (mis)understood in the Christian West — including, notably, by me until I began to gain a bit of nuance, initially from my first Orthodox Prayer Book, a $3.95 investment in learning about this Orthodoxy thing. I now speak instead of something being “contrary to God’s will” or will simply say “that will take you away from God rather than closer.”

Why do I avoid “sin”? Am I a softie, or have I gone liberal?

If we take a very simple word in English, like “sin,” we think we know what the word means — a transgression of God’s law. The Greek word amartia actually means to “miss the mark,” which helps us to understand what the Fathers meant when they used the word. This helps modern people also. Many people today have an aversion to a word like sin because for them it is a legalistic term that is used to pound people over the head. In its essence, it means that your goal is union with God an anything that deflects you from that goal is a sin. If you understand this, it gives you a much deeper understanding of our relationship with God.

(The Mystery of Holy Language, Road to Emmaus, Summer 2010)

I apprehended when still a Protestant that not all of the mess in the world resulted from folks defiantly shaking their fist in God’s face and shouting “my will be done!” A lot of interpersonal bruising and battering happened because of simple obliviousness, or from misjudging the circumstances. I knew that to be true quite immediately — that is, without being told by anyone else — from the times I had hurt others quite inadvertently, and from agonizing at other times over what was the right course among several baffling choices.

But I lacked much vocabulary for that. I’d just refer to it as my “fallenness” or “human frailty” or “limitation.” And I quietly experienced a bit of inner turmoil that Jonathan Edwards’ Angry God would dangle me over the flames of Hell for that sort of thing. Where was “God is love” in that?

All Orthodox Prayer Books, however, include the “Trisagion Prayers,” which has a paragraph that told me the first time I saw it that “the author of this prayer know something that none of my teachers or preachers until now seem to have know.” The paragraph, in the version I pray, is this:

O Lord, cleanse us from our sins. O Master, pardon our iniquities. O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities.

So simple. So profound. In SAT terms,

cleansing/sin = pardon/iniquity = healing/infirmity

Different things, different antidotes. Nuance that rings loud and true. Why had I never heard it?

Insofar as one’s version of Christianity lacks that nuance, it is wrong about The Fall, about “what ails us,” and about the real effect of “sin.” It will inevitably go wronger and wronger the further it builds on its skewed foundation.

Hmmm. Does that mean you could call such versions of Christianity “sinful”? You might want to reconsider them if you want to get closer to God.

2 thoughts on “Whaddya mean, “sin”?

  1. I have found one additional reason to seek clarification when speaking about sin with people. Generally, people focus on calling the actions of other people sin. You know, sin is that “big stuff” like murder, getting drunk, having an abortion, or being gay, especially as viewed from our contemporary political discourse. Or “sin” is the stuff other people do to you, especially when you’re trying to be pious and exercise forgiveness.

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