The oft-misunderstood Christian notion of sin makes many people uncomfortable. Indeed, it establishes a clear line of accountability — but to a God who loves me and has my best interests at heart. Again the parallel to a doctor applies. Coming from a strict church background, I missed this good-news aspect of God’s wisdom. I thought of God as a cosmic policeman enforcing arbitrary rules rather than as a doctor who wants me to thrive. My conversations with the uncommitted convince me that many people have a similarly erroneous concept of sin. At the heart of sin lies a lack of trust that God intends the best for us.
Ignatius of Loyola defined sin as refusing to believe that God wants my happiness and fulfillment. Human rebellion began in the Garden of Eden when God said in effect, “Trust me. I know what is best for you.” Adam and Eve failed the test, and we have paid the consequences ever since. Today, some likewise insist that we humans should decide for ourselves what is best. A damaged human making that judgment is like an alcoholic deciding whether or not to drink. For our own well-being we need to trust God for basic guidance about how to live.
As pastor of a thriving church in Manhattan, Tim Keller often converses about faith with skeptics and post-Christians, and he has learned to present sin not so much as “doing bad things” as “making good things into ultimate things.” Says Keller,
Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom.
Unless we love natural goods — sex, alcohol, food, money, success, power — in the way God intended, we become their slaves, as any addict can attest. Jesus demonstrated in person how to live freely and fully, and not surprisingly he upset the religious establishment in the process. I cannot imagine anyone following Jesus around for two or three years and commenting, “My, think of all he missed out on.” More than likely they would say, “Think of all I am missing out on.”
Sin as refusing to believe that God wants my happiness and fulfillment.
Eugene Peterson points out that “the root meaning in Hebrew of salvation is to be broad, to become spacious, to enlarge. It carries the sense of deliverance from an existence that has become compressed, confined and cramped.” God wants to set us free, to make it possible for us to live open and loving lives with God and our neighbors. “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free,” wrote the psalmist.
We need not hide, like Adam and Eve in the garden. We have been forgiven and transformed so that, according to Peter, we actually “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
When I leave the doctor’s office after an annual checkup I have a clearer picture of my ideal health, which will include exercise, proper diet, and careful attention to some nagging ailments. From time spent with God, I have a clearer picture of spiritual health too — not an anxious, furrowed-brow perfectionism or an uptight legalism, but a relaxed confidence in God’s love and a trust that God has my very best interests at heart.
Perhaps the most powerful thing Christians can do to communicate to a skeptical world is to live fulfilled lives, exhibiting proof that Jesus’ way truly leads to a life most abundant and most thirst-satisfying. The fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — flow out of a healthy soul and in the process may attract those who have found such qualities elusive or unattainable.
Yancey, Philip. 2014. Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.