In defense of sin

When I signed on to be a guest blogger, I didn’t anticipate writing a post like this one. But several comments on earlier posts have pushed me to say a few words in behalf of sin, . . . or at least of sinfulness, . . . or at least of recognizing the pervasive reality of sinfulness.

More specifically, in response to the question of what it is essential to believe in order to count oneself a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, several commenters recently suggested that the answer might be simply: love. Loving God and loving our neighbor. This is surely an appealing position. After all, people disagree about lots of things, but no one is against love. (Or at least hardly anyone. Nietzsche, maybe? And Satan, obviously.) And, the scriptures clearly teach that God is love, and that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. Might it be that, as the song says, “Love is all you need”?

The suggestion reminds me of a talk I heard last year by a Catholic scholar whom I admire tremendously. She is properly concerned about how the Christian message can be made more accessible and appealing, especially to younger generations. (Younger than me, anyway, which will include most of the people on this planet.) And she suggested that Christians need to emphasize the positive, joyous aspects of the faith, and to back off from presenting the restrictive, burdensome aspects. I’m not sure I got it right, but I understood her to suggest that we need to stop talking about sin.

I can partly agree, just as I can agree with the commenters’ assertion that love is central to the Gospel message. I’ve heard some wonderful talks about how God loves us no matter how humble or sinful we are; I’ve even tried to give that message myself on any number of occasions. And I acknowledge that I myself often fail to reflect or project the joyfulness of the Good News. (That was one of my resolutions for this year: try to be less gloomy and a bit more joyful.)

But stop talking about sin? Would that be wise?

G. K. Chesterton quipped that original sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.” Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wouldn’t put the point in terms of “original sin.” But we have our own ways of making a similar point. “The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever, unless . . . ,” and so forth. This is not exactly a cheerful theme, perhaps. But it is an essential one, I think, for more than one reason.

First, the human propensity to sinfulness– to pride, selfishness, dishonesty including self-deception– is simply a fact, and if we try to overlook that fact we will be left with a greatly impoverished understanding of the human condition. We will not understand why people do what they do– why we ourselves do and say and feel what we do. We might, for example, try to explain all of human behavior in terms of something like the rational pursuit of self-interest. Which is real enough, no doubt– and I myself sincerely appreciate the contributions of the economists– but rational self-interest falls well short of capturing either the depravity or the majesty of our kind.

Even more importantly, if we limit ourselves to affirming that God is love and that we should love God and our neighbor, we will fail to understand the nature and extent of God’s love; and we will fail properly to love our neighbor. It’s ironic, maybe, but if we focus exclusively on love, I fear we will fail to understand and appreciate what love really is.

With respect to God, the main point of His coming to earth, or sending His only begotten Son to earth, was precisely to redeem us from our sins. Without acknowledging our sinfulness, we will thus fail to appreciate the reason for– and the depth and reach of– the Atonement, in which God’s love for us was manifest. Just as I won’t appreciate the value of medicine unless I acknowledge the reality of disease, I likewise won’t appreciate the love that God manifest in the Atonement unless I recognize the pervasiveness of sin.

And with respect to our neighbor, a single-minded focus on loving others is likely to lead us to suppose that we are required to love people as they are (which is true) and thus that we need to affirm and support them in continuing to be what they currently are or think they are (which can be a disastrous mistake).

Ancient pagans recognized failure and foolishness, and also shame– cowardice, intemperance, and so forth. Christianity presented the idea of sin. One major scholar, Kyle Harper, describes the change from pagan to Christian sexual morality as one From Shame to Sin (which is the title of Harper’s book on the subject). This was not a welcome notion: it was one reason why Christians were often resented and rejected; and it is still a reason why in an age that is anxious to affirm everyone in whatever they conceive their identity to be (“I’m okay; you’re okay”), Christianity provokes suspicion and hostility today. But the Christian recognition of sin is also a reason why Christians from Paul to Pascal have offered more searching and profound interpretations of the human condition than pagan or secular thinkers have been able to provide.

It may be true that younger people today– and older people, and almost all of us– do not especially enjoy hearing about sin. Sin is a suspect and unwelcome concept in contemporary culture. Banishing the concept, of course, does not eliminate the fact. And, ironically, condemnation– ascriptions of hatefulness that themselves often exude hatefulness– is as pervasive as in any time I can remember. And forgiveness is in scarce supply: how often do we hear of some politician or athlete or media personality who is vilified or sometimes “cancelled” because of some incorrect expression, sometimes made inadvertently, or sometimes made years ago. I suspect that without acknowledging sin, we cannot really appreciate the meaning and necessity of forgiveness.

Moreover, even those who want to deny the unpleasant fact of sinfulness may still have a perhaps suppressed sense of the reality of sin. Christ and the Gospel, I believe, are the only ultimate remedy for that condition. So I think we would lose a great deal if a proper emphasis on love led us to eliminate the recognition of sinfulness as one of the central Gospel truths that is essential, not optional. Put it this way: the Gospel is a joyful thing, but we will not be able to appreciate its joyfulness unless we acknowledge the condition that the Gospel is a remedy for. Namely, sin.

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