Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Nature of Sin

Well, daylight savings time just ended, which means . . . I suddenly have an extra hour to blog!

The idea of sin has been dancing around and around my head. I recently escaped from a truly horrible relationship. As I was leaving it, I found myself, time and again, doing things which I couldn't stand myself for. Not only that, but I was doing things which didn't seem to be like me, in the slightest. As soon as I was clear enough of this relationship, I looked back and realized that for the whole two and a half years of it, I had been doing this. I had been losing myself. It was only when I was partially free enough to realize it that I saw what I was doing, and was convicted of it.

Now this got me thinking on the nature of sin. Thomas Merton talks a lot about the self, and identity in God. One of his essays is called "Things In Their Identity." He says that (for example) an oak tree is always an oak tree. It is exactly what God intended it to be. It is fully itself, and can never be anything else. In the Islamic tradition, this is called an 'involuntary Muslim'. Muslim means 'submission' (which I find incredibly beautiful, by the way). A tree can not choose, therefore it is an 'involuntary Muslim'. Therefore its existence glorifies God.

Humans, on the other hand, can choose either to be themselves, or not. When we are not ourselves truly, we are not following God. At the same time (and CS Lewis talked about this as well, in the one chapter of Mere Christianity that I LIKED as opposed to the ones that made me want to hurl the book across the room), it is only in God that one can actually find or be oneself. It all ties together. Sin as turning away from God and our true selves.

At the same time, I was thinking on the nature of children, and the particular joy I feel in the last few minutes of meeting as they come in. This week in meeting I felt called to speak, and I mentioned the above, about being an involuntary Muslim . . . or not. And I also realized, and mentioned, that we are called to be child-like in our faith. And the reason for this, I believe, is that children are the best or perhaps the only human example of sinlessness. They cannot yet choose to be other than they are. This is why the children inspire me so, and why we are called to their perfection.

Speaking of being called to perfection, is it not that we are also called to a Christ-like perfection?

I know I am not an orthodox Christian by any means, and when I think of Christ I don't think of Jesus the man, I think of a state of being. We are called to become ourselves in Christ. Perhaps Jesus was the only adult man who walked on earth who ever attained this state of perfection, of being wholly himself. Trees do it and children do it, because they are incapable of not doing it. To be fully ourselves as an adult human . . . this is the nature of the child-like, Christ-like perfection we are called to. And it's not easy.

So this is what I got out of my relationship. I don't think it was specifically my 'fornication' (for instance) that was my sin. It was my turning away from God, in not being fully myself. It was in how the boundaries and deliminations of that relationship turned me into Other than what I should be.

Now, I was brought up Catholic. Being brought up Catholic, one is inclined to think about sin in terms of specific rules that one can infract. You break the rule (sex, for instance), it's a spot on your soul, it needs to be wiped away.

Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox (and Jewish) tradition doesn't see sin like this. Sin's not about the specific rules at all, although they exist. It's any behavior which 'misses the mark,' meaning: draws the person in question farther away from God ('missing the mark' is how the word 'sin' is translated in the original Greek). It's not then that one needs to wipe the sin away. God already does that, unconditionally, because God loves us when we cannot love or forgive ourselves. It is that one needs to find the path again. Back to one's true self, and back to God.

As a brief coda to this post, these thoughts also led me to thoughts about forgiveness.

There have been few people in my life that I have been truly furious with, and needed to forgive (and by forgive I don't mean 'let the matter slide.' I mean the utter forgiveness in which one lets go of any need for apology or repayment). One of these was a person who brutally hurt my closest friend. I simply could not forgive her, for quite some time. I carried this grudge in my heart and could not let it go. It was only when I came to the full realization of my own sin and my own failing that I was capable of forgiving her. And this made me think that perhaps this realization of our sin is the core of humility, and that humility is entirely necessary for the act of forgiveness, or forgiveness becomes merely self-righteousness. I freely admit that pride is by far my greatest failing. I have so much pride. It is good for me to be reminded in this way to let go of my pride, and forgive.

Now if only I could forgive myself . . .


Nancy A said...


Big laugh about hurling Mere Christianity across the room! I still have dents in my wall! Like good ol' St. Paul (who I really think got in the bible as an example of how *not* to be), CW Lewis's sin was hubris, thinking he knew it all. Spouting on and on about things he thought and assumed and made up along the way. But oddly enough, like Paul, underneath all the thickness, one finds little treasures, gems of spiritual awareness, that makes one realize that despite many failings and wrong paths, the Spirit can speak through our lives.

earthfreak said...


I've read this post a few times, but haven't commented, because there's so much to it, at least for me, I can't even figure where to start....

I completely "resonate" with your description of sin, and of God. I find absolutely nothing in the idea that God is "judging" us - I think the God's forgiveness is part of the wonder of it all.

I think that we can feel when we are "sinning" - it's like eating too much chocolate or something. It's silly to think God is up there going "tsk, tsk" - God still loves you, God probably doens't even "want" you to suffer, but you still have a tummyache (or other unpleasant consequence)

I had a similar (?) and probably terribly different relationship experience a while ago.

I had an adulterous (well, not legally, no one was married) affair with a woman who was in a long term (not "open") relationship with a man. I often felt like she worried about what God thought of it, who might find out, if she would be embarassed, or suffer consequences. But it ate at me - cheating on this man I've never met, putting myself in a relationship where I felt "second" all the time (which felt absolutely wrong to me)

And yet, I also felt "in love" - I felt like something between us revealed God (wholeness, my true self) to me in a way I've never known it.

I still struggle with whether that was a toal lie - like waking up from a dream where you can fly and really really wishing it was true.


I am still struggling with forgiving her too (and myself) - for various cruelties within the relationship (and, true to form, she managed to get me to believe for a while that I was bad for not being able to forgive her)

I am still getting to that place, and have just recently come across the idea that the "victim" (oh how I hate that word!) doesnt' have a moral obligation to forgive (this in the context of the holocaust, which is clearly a very different thing) - and I've actually found it very freeing.

I guess, again, the idea that God loves me and forgives me whether or not I can forgive her, frees me up to forgive if I find it to be part of my path to wholeness (which I suspect that I will, but haven't yet)

ACK! too much writing!

I, too, love the idea of "involuntary" "submission to god's will" (though, as a feminist, "submission" still raises lots of hackles! - I think there is a better word for it, but I can't think right now what it would be - something more like cooperation?)

and how trees and children (and dogs! I love to watch mine run on the beach - it is a spiritual experience!) just can't help living in Christ.

Somehow adult humans almost seem not to be able to help NOT living in Christ (at least not all the time)

at least it's something that I've managed to lose since childhood.

peace & blessing


Elie said...

I loved your writing about sin & forgivness... and i just want to encourage you to keep thinking deeply in the depth of your soul. You're a treasure! God is with you.

Disciple123 said...

Hey Nancy. I think it's great you know about Mere Christianity. I disagree with your assment of C.S. as arrogant. I think Mere Christianity is one of the most imoportant books of 20th century and is the most well thought out and reasoned explanation of Christianity there is, second only to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I think his first section on the existence of God is not only reasoned but it's logic is inescapable. It leads directly to Jesus, why He had to be and who He was.
I can't think of what specifically you found so infuriating. The only content that gave me pause was his very grounded assertion that we need to die to ourselves. but that is the message of Our Lord Himself. And you are right. It ain't easy - for that specific reason.