Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sin and Repentance I: Disgusting to God

I had the following conversation with Scott Morizot of Faith and Food:

[The Heretic]  I’m still struggling with the idea of Sin. I’m still too steeped in the Augustinian idea of Original Sin that condemned me before I was born and the Evangelical idea that sin makes me so disgusting to God that he can’t look at me without the Jesus sunglasses. I don’t accept that those ideas are correct any longer and I am coming to see that there are some other much healthier ways of defining sin (thanks for all your blogging on Orthodoxy) but there is still that knee-jerk self-hatred when I see the word sin or try to request mercy for myself. Sigh.

[Scott replies]  I can empathize. I long struggled trying to grasp what Christianity really meant by that word, though for very different reasons. I did keep hearing explanations like the ones you mentioned, but since I was an adult without any real predisposition to accept them, they mostly got the Spock raised eyebrow reaction from me. (Internally, that is. My life has conditioned me to be able to smile and nod pleasantly even if I believe you’re completely off your rocker.) I also intuitively distrust an approach that basically says that before you can be a Christian, you first have to somehow feel bad about yourself. It can be effective, since most of us have done things over the course of our lives about which we feel badly, but it’s manipulative and paints God in a bad light. 

Almost everyone in any tradition will tell you that the Christian concept of ‘sin’ is most closely tied to the idea of missing the mark. Most people, however, don’t even notice that the statement begs the question: What’s the mark? For Christians, the ‘mark’ is, of course, love of God and others (which is one thing, not two separate things) and union with Christ. So when we miss the mark, we fail to love as human beings should and we try to distance ourselves from God. 

When we repent, then, we keep turning back to God and we keep trying to love. But we’re not good at it and we usually get ourselves and others all twisted up and damaged. So when we pray for mercy, we are asking for help and healing. God offers both in overflowing abundance. He gives us himself (or as much of him as we can bear) to help us. 

The Jesus Prayer, in particular, simply asks for mercy because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t actually know what sort of help we need most of the time. In fact, we sometimes don’t want the help we truly do need. Sometimes we’re afraid of being healed. We are often impatient, but God’s not in a rush. I try to remember that fact.

 (reposted from the-jesus-prayer-18-repentance with permission)


  1. "Sin" just means an act that separates us from God (usually an immoral act). The concept of sin is theologically sound, even though for psychological reasons, we carry the emotional baggage which is socially implied in the word: rejection by God, by everybody because you are a "sinner". The idea of God being merciful only makes sense when we take into account that we return to Him as a source of unconditional love. Sin exists because of our free will, but we should hate ourselves for sinning, let's just return to Him, and do the best to not fall again. That is my view at least.

  2. "...rejection by God..."

    That one, right there. that's the subtext of everything I was taught about sin. That my sin (however accrued, at conception or through my own evil inclination) caused me to be rejected by God.

    I've struggled with how to see the universality of the human experience of separation from All That Is/I AM, the existential suffering that every single human being has to deal with (however unconsciously) without the shame-inducing overlay that derives from the Christian doctrine of Original Sin (or sin, period) or my Christian understanding of the Jewish concept of ritual uncleanliness.

    I could get it as long as I used the psychological jargon of Jung, Frankl, or even Freud; I could kinda see it in the language of Buddhism or Islam, but Christian language just sent my innards into convulsions, even though rationally I knew it was all the same thing! I have even been studying the idea through my homeopathy course for over a year. I'm still coming to acceptance of the homeopathic version of this idea because it is too easy to "blame the victim" or feel like "you were born tainted but it is your fault". Just as I learned it in Christianity. One of the major early America homeopaths even called it Original Sin in his writings.

  3. How can it make sense to be made human, and then condemned for being human? "you were born tainted but it is your fault"

    Blamed and punished. Illogical. Cruel.
    I don't accept it anymore.

    God made us . . knows us . . .knows we are but grass . . . and he loves us.
    I finally realized how asinine it was for me to hate myself for being human.

    Shame is from the Evil one . . . or whatever the source of evil and death is.

  4. "blaming the victim" never makes sense--if you actually think about it--but it appeals to many people who want to be reassured that We could never succumb to the horrors that They experience. Rational or not, though, when it is bred into your psyche before you've reached an age of reasoning, you're kinda screwed. How do you talk yourself out of an irrational belief? I know (both rationally and experientially) that God does not reject me but I continue to reject myself based on those old pre-rational teachings.

    It is part of the reason I have to set aside the identity of Christian. I can't shut down that voice telling me how worthless I am (yet) but I can turn the volume down to really really low as long as I am outside the institution. I can more easily turn up the volume on the voice telling me all the Lovely True and Good things from non-Christian paradigms. If I can only hear the Truth from non-Christian places--that's where I need to settle in for a nice long rest.

  5. If Christianity is true, then describing "sin" as something that separates us from God has the character of the absurd. As the Psalmist cries, there is nowhere we can go where God is not. As Paul declares in Athens, in God we live and move and have our being. As he writes in Colossians, everything subsists in and is contingent on Jesus.

    Nor does sin have the solid character of an independent "act." Missing the mark involves action, of course, but it's more of a failure to reach the goal. How do we fail? Here the NT is abundantly clear. We fail to love. And because God is love, when we do so, we do attempt -- consciously or not -- to distance or separate ourselves from him.

    But we can't actually be separated from God in any sense. If we could, we would simply cease to exist. But non-existence -- however much we strive for it -- lies beyond our power. Moreover, it's a struggle to even maintain the illusion of separation. God keeps pursuing and piercing our bubble. Adam (which simply means 'man') hides only to hear God asking him where he is. Jacob grasps for all he can hold only to find himself wrestling with God. Moses flees, but even on the remotest mountain encounters God. Israel is unfaithful, yet like Hosea with Gomer, God remains faithful and ultimately becomes the faithfulness of Israel in Christ.

    Man turns from his only source of life and is enslaved by death. And even there, God follows him.

    No, if it's possible for a human being to separate themselves from God, then Christianity is not true. And if it's not true, it's a waste of time and lives.

    I'm not really trying to pick on anyone, but it seems to me that too many Christians today speak sincerely, but injudiciously.

  6. wow, Scott, how did I miss that one? I guess I am still so psychologically mired in the thought-stopping "blame-and-shame game" that I totally didn't see how illogical that definition is.

    We were always so proud of our "separation from God" answer because it seemed so intellectual, so (apparently) logical, so not the "you did a bad thing", and so damning because it wasn't just limited to one's actions but one's thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and just being born human.

    I'm going to post this conversation as its own blog post because it is such a obvious yet completely ignored point and I don't want my email subscribers to miss it. Thanks, Scott!

  7. I don't think repentance is necessarily something required to become Christian, rather, the idea of introspection. We look inside ourselves at things we'd like to have done better, or not done at all. And we give those thoughts to God, asking for help in being done with feeling "less than", and feeling wholly loved and accepted, which we already are, but we battle with because we know we all make mistakes. I made mistakes parenting and they haunted me for years, until I realized there was a loving God who didn't expect me to make perfect decisions. I wasn't even expected to acknowledge those decisions, as many people simply cannot do, and yet are loved unconditionally be God anyway. The one thing that I think we are expected to do, at least try, though imperfectly, is love each other. Knowing we will fail at that, we still try, because we know how good it feels when somebody loves us just for the sake of loving us.


  8. I think we often confuse responsibility with guilt. We are always responsible for the affects of our behavior; but unless there is cognition and volition [knowing and willing], there is no moral guilt.

    Of course, even then, with what depth psychology has taught us of denial and subconscious motives, discerning one's guilt or innocence is no simple matter.

    Perhaps the best thing is to do one's best in dealing with our personal daemons, imitate St. Paul and leave all judgment to God [1 Cor. 4:3-5], claim the Gospel promise of forgiveness for all *sins*, both known and unknown, and sleep well.

    Guilt causes psychological pain. As with physical pain, it's purpose is to focus our attention on that which needs healing.

    Wallowing in guilt instead of treating the cause is pathological, not *spiritual*.

    Guilt and self-righteousness are two sides of the self-centeredness that separates us from God and others.