Sin! Judgment! All right, buckle up, here comes gloom and doom. Get ready to feel like a worm. Get ready for judgment and catastrophe and indignation. Right? Isn’t that how we instinctively react to the whole concept of sin?
I learned a very helpful perspective about sin from reading a little book called The Forgiveness of Sin by Rev. Chauncey Giles, a New Church minister in the late 1800s to early 1900s (and a favorite author of mine). I know, it sounds dry as dust, but it turned out to be pretty awesome.
People often feel like the Lord made up a bunch of arbitrary rules about what would be good and what would be bad. So it seems like the Lord says something is bad or good because He feels like it and He gets to make the rules.
In reality, it’s not arbitrary at all. Sin means spiritual disease. There are lots of types of sins, and they are described in the Word with the names of natural diseases because those diseases are the physical symbol of those spiritual ailments. So to say that something is a sin is simply to state that it does harm of one sort or another to our spirits. The Lord’s statements about right and wrong are the equivalent to statements of scientific or medical law. In fact, scientific and medical law function the way they do because their functioning is modeled on the functioning of spiritual law. Physical and spiritual illnesses are two levels of the same things that function in the same way on different planes.
So instead of being arbitrary, the Lord’s laws of right and wrong are simply a description of what will happen if we do something good or bad. For example, we know that science has a law of gravity. We could say that we don’t like the law of gravity and we are going to ignore it. We want to be able to jump up in the air and not come down. And we are welcome to try it out. But of course, we may get hurt, if we decide to jump off something high, because we will discover that what goes up must come down. It’s the way the physical world works. And if we think about it, we realize that it’s a good thing there is such a thing as gravity, or a lot of bad stuff would happen and mess up the whole world. The laws of how things work are there for a very good reason.
Spiritual laws of right and wrong work the same way. When the Lord tells us not to do an evil, it’s because He knows that the results will hurt us and others. The problem with evil isn’t that the Lord has some made-up rule against it. The problem with evil is that it always without fail brings harm, and that is what makes it evil. And that is why the Lord tells us the laws of spiritual reality, just like we can discover the laws of scientific reality in this world. He wants us to be aware of what will hurt us and of how to fix the hurts we experience. When the Lord tells us not to commit a sin (“Thou shalt not”), it is the same thing as a parent telling a kid not to take poison, even if it tastes like candy. The sin may “taste like candy,” but the effects will be lethal. Sin causes your spirit to be sick, or maimed, or dead. So the Lord tells us about it, in order that we may try to avoid it and grow in spiritual health instead. And when we get stuck in one form of sin or another, he gives us processes to heal. Sometimes the process is the spiritual equivalent of painful surgery, but it does bring healing.
I think there are so many applications for this concept. It’s certainly a good one for working with teens. At least in America, the current culture regards making judgments and being judgmental as a terrible thing to do. Saying something is a sin would therefore be the worst thing you could do, the most extreme form of judgment. But that approach is all based on the idea of sin and judgment as being arbitrary. The whole perspective changes when you realize that the Lord in His Word is giving us what you might call spiritual medical advice. Nobody thinks it’s “judgmental” for a doctor to say, “You have strep throat and you need to take the following medicine and drink lots of fluids and rest.” The Lord in His Word gives us the cures for all our spiritual ailments. He doesn’t do this because He enjoys standing in judgment and feeling superior to us; He does it to give us a fighting chance, to play fair with us, to help us out.
And here’s another possible application. “The church,” as an earthly organization, is in the same difficult situation regarding sin that individuals are in. Each of us knows ourselves well enough to realize that we have our own special sins of choice/habit that we battle with (or not) all the time. So it feels pretty hypocritical to even discuss what is and isn’t a sin – after all, who are we to even talk about such a topic? We can look at the earthly church organization with all the faults that result from it being a group of human beings in the making instead of a group of angels. And we can think that it seems mighty hypocritical for the church organization to hold to any teachings about sin. And it would be hypocritical for both the individual and for the church if they were the ones making up the definitions of what is and isn’t a sin. But that’s not what should be going on. The definitions need to come from the Lord, and we need to stand by His definitions. We can find His definitions all through the Word. My Dad used to reference a quote that said the Word is like the manufacturer’s instruction booklet. The Lord is the manufacturer of us, and He tells us in the booklet what will make the mechanism function smoothly and what will mess it up. When He tells us in the booklet that something is a sin, it’s the equivalent of Him saying that if we pour sand in the gas tank, the car will malfunction. He’s not being mean or ruining our fun, He’s just explaining the workings of the mechanism. And when an individual/organization reads what it says in the manufacturer’s instructions, then they would be irresponsible if they started pretending that it’s actually okay to pour the sand in the tank (even when that individual has a problem because they personally enjoy pouring that sand in there! – that doesn’t change the fact that they know what the result will be). We just need to remember that all of us have different tendencies to mess with the mechanism, so none of us gets to make personal remarks about the others; all we can do is stick with the rules the Lord laid down for our happiness, treating Him as the authority and not ourselves.
Another application of the idea of sin as spiritual disease is an answer to the perennial question of why it matters what sins we do if the Lord will love us just as much anyway. The problem doesn’t happen on the Lord’s end. He keeps sending just as much love as always, but the sin that we choose causes a spiritual hurt that messes with our ability to receive what the Lord is sending. Choosing sin is choosing hurt.
So we come to what seems like a paradox: the Lord’s warnings to us about sin are actually part of His loving kindness and tender mercies towards us. He isn’t trying to ruin our fun. He is trying to protect us from suffering and open us up to happiness. And His efforts to do this never cease.
One last comment – Giles’ book talks about how the spiritual healing process works, what forgiveness actually is, what it does and doesn’t do, and how to achieve it. I found it very helpful. If you’re interested in more, contact me.