Sin: Can We Talk About It?

About a week ago, one of my Facebook (FB) friends posted this comment as a status up-date: “Everybody sins & God loves everybody. No exceptions. How come people like to separate the clauses?” I may not have given the comment much notice, but this FB friend is known to be theologically articulate and progressive. At first glance, I thought the comment seemed a bit shallow and representative of the kind of theology one would find on a bumper sticker. The incongruence of the statement coming from someone known to be theologically articulate gave me reason to ponder the comment. I thought I’d share some of my reflections on the two parts: “everybody sins” and “God loves everybody.”

Sin. What is it? The word is used a great deal and generally makes people uncomfortable. In the United States, social conservatives refer to personal actions like adultery, abortion, and sex between members of the same gender as sin. Social progressives tend to view failing to care for the poor and social injustice as sin. Much like everything else, we tend to approach sin in a relativistic way. Is sin like pornography? You know it when you see it. Or maybe sin is like that definition of promiscuity that holds that a promiscuous person is someone who has more sex than I do.

My progressive Christian friends don’t talk much about sin. The conservative Christians I know seem fixated on sin. When I’m with Buddhists, I don’t hear the word used. But I did have a Buddhist friend from Vietnam who regularly claimed that doing particular things were sins. When I asked her about this, she said that in Buddhism there are lots of sins.

The most common word used for sin in the Christian New Testament is the Greek word hamartia. It’s an archery term that literally means missing the mark or the target. In archery, if a person misses the mark, then there’s something flawed in the process of shooting the arrow. It’s not so much that someone does something wrong, but that there’s an incorrect approach to one’s stance, holding the arrow, aiming, etc. I presume that most of those reading this are like me and have no more experience with archery than playing an archery video game. But think of what goes into hitting a hole in one in golf, successfully shooting a foul shot in basketball, making a penalty kick in soccer or a turkey in bowling. Hitting the mark isn’t about just one thing. Hitting the mark involves a process in which one performs a set of skills with a precision. When one misses the mark, the hole in one, the foul shot, the penalty kick, something’s wrong with the process. That’s the essence of sin.

The writers of the New Testament didn’t understand sin as an act but as a way of being or doing that isn’t integrated, centered or properly balanced. Because sin is related to something that’s out of balance, we miss the mark. This understanding of sin was prevalent in Christianity for most of its first thousand years. It was lost to the narrow focus of sin as a particular action that came from penitential manuals created by Irish monks of Medieval Europe.

It’s useful for us to consider the ways in which our lives are out of balance. The truth is: we all live in a way that’s not centered. We work too much. We eat too much. We don’t exercise enough. We can be judgmental, demanding, impatient, and on and on. In other words, we all sin. We also know that when we experience life as balanced, when we have a sense of internal alignment, we treat self and others differently then when we’re out of balance.

When I think of experiencing that internal alignment or balance, I recall the experience of wholeness I find in meditation or contemplative prayer. There are also times when I write and the creative juices flow and everything in me seems to be focused and work together. There are other times as well, as in intimate moments with my beloved, when present to another in need of support, or when I’ve been walking or bike riding and find the rhythm of my body and the rhythm of nature around me moving as one. The experience of internal alignment or balance can be found in the experience of doing anything.

Living in balance and integration is a dimension of what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. The practice of keeping one’s mind focused in the present moment has the ability to open us to the balance and integration that allows us to hit the mark. The balance and integration that allow us to hit the mark are tangible aspects of God’s love. It’s the opposite of the imbalance and lack of integration that is described as sin.

Here’s a suggestion that may be helpful to others: perhaps you can take a moment to think about or share as a comment something about your experience of hitting the mark and living out of the experience of balance and wholeness. After all, by sharing the journey together, we find insight for our own path.

(Originally posted on e-merging on January 26, 2011.)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Sin: Can We Talk About It?

  1. Bill Percy says:

    Coincidentally (if there are coincidences), I was reading this morning about the Buddhist practice of “right action,” which, considered negatively, is all about “missing the mark” and “creating imbalance” by wrong actions. As a Roman Catholic kid, I grew up with Saturday evening “Confession,” including the long list of sins we memorized in first grade to guide our “examination of conscience.” Not saying my morning and evening prayers. Not obeying mom. Teasing someone in school. Cheating. Hitting somebody. Not cleaning my plate (there were starving children in China, after all). Most horrific: Dirty thoughts and touching myself. The list went on, but the habit of examining specific “bad” actions was ingrained. Now, 60 years later, the Buddhist — and your — model of “creating imbalance with my behavior” is so much more meaningful to me (old gents have poor balance to start with and don’t need more!). Thanks for the post.

    Bill

  2. John Purssey says:

    Do you think that Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is the Buddhist equivalent of sin?

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