This little problem


The Problem of Sin

Even though it’s over twenty years ago, many will remember the disgraced tv-preacher, who, after having assisted in defrocking others because of their immoral behaviour, was found to be hooked on illegitimate sex himself. Trying to save his multi-million dollar ministry, he cried his heart out on television, declaring that he had sinned against the Lord. His declaration of guilt was carried by the news channels world-wide and invariably their report included his confession that he had sinned!

Sin is quite a fashionable subject.  It appears to be a far more interesting topic for novels and screenplays than virtue will ever be. Sin is exciting. By comparison, virtue is tame and colourless. Christians may consider this a lamentable state of affairs, but it is the reality they face. Their talk about sin is unwelcome. Postmodern people, in particular, do not have much time for the concept of ‘sin’ in the traditional sense of the word. For them sin has lost its sinfulness. Hugh Thomson Kerr, the senior editor of the journal Theology Today who died in 1992, once said, Nowadays people ‘have substituted relativity for reality, psychology for prayer, an inferiority complex for sin, social control for family worship, autosuggestion for conversion, reflex action for revelation, the spirit of the wheels for the power of the Spirit.’  And, indeed, when people make mistakes or fail to live up to their own expectations, many no longer feel any guilt, but at the most a sense of shame or embarrassment.

But, in spite of how people have devalued the term, sin is still what it is. It does not just refer to our inadequacies that we will eventually overcome, or to our errors of judgment that are simply part of our life-long learning process. Sin is much more than that. A famous French writer once aptly said, ‘Sin is whatever obscures the soul.’ The word stands for rebellion, for disaster and death. It stands not for something that is superficial and circumstantial, but for something that is lethal and for something that, unless it is stopped, behaves like a virus or even a cancer. You may like it or not, but that is how the Bible defines sin.

What is it?

Sin is transgression of the law of God. Where there is no law, there is no transgression (Romans 4:15), and the opposite is just as true:  There is a law. God has revealed a set of moral principles, which we usually refer to as the Ten Commandments, to the human race, and we face the sad reality that there is plenty of transgression of that law. In fact, every human being that ever lived has transgressed this law: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). When God, as we read in Psalm 14, looks down from his heaven to see how we are doing, He sees that all people have been affected by sin: ‘There is no-one who does good. Not even one’ (vs. 3). So, there is, indeed, good reason to refer to sin as a problem.

But, biblically speaking, sin is not just breaking one or more commandments by some intentional or unintentional act. Sin also has to do with what goes on inside of us. Although we will not be held responsible for every fleeting thought that is less than pure and less than altruistic, any wilful fantasizing or conscious day-dreaming about things we know to be wrong, is just as bad in God’s eyes as the actual deed. Thus, hoping that someone we intensely dislike will be hit by a car is no less objectionable than actually killing that person with a shotgun. Jesus himself expressed this very succinctly by citing an other example: ‘I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). The ‘cherishing’ of a sin ‘in our heart’ is fatal if we want to maintain a relationship with God (Psalm 66:18, 19). The medieval church may be criticized for establishing a shortlist of seven ‘mortal’ sins: Pride, Lust, Greed, Covetousness, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. But the list shows a sharp awareness of sin in terms of wrong motivations and negative attitudes rather than simply as the actual deeds of lying, stealing, murdering and sleeping around. Also, take a look at what the apostle James says when he underlines how serious God takes all of this. ‘Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’ Surely, it is no exaggeration to refer to sin as a problem.

The Bible minces no words as it speaks about sin. There is sin in what we do, and there is sin in our heart, in our motives, in our scheming and fantasies. But there is more to say. One of the Hebrew words that is usually translated as ‘sin’ has the root meaning of ‘missing the mark’. Thus, sin is not just transgression of a set of rules, either in deed or in thought, but it also includes a falling short of our potential and a tragic missing of the mark, when we aim for something but fail to achieve what we aimed for. Look at some of the great men of the past—and of the present, for that matter—and admire their talents and their possibilities. And then, consider how they ruined their lives by reckless living and immoral choices. For most of us, the situation is less radical, but who would dare to suggest that he/she has no sin problem?

Sins are not to be understood as a few isolated acts, interspersed between the many things that are noble and good. Sin is like a venom. It spreads and infects the entire human being. It is more powerful than we care to admit. Even the great apostle Paul had to admit that he continued to be faced with a relentless problem. He badly wanted to do what was good, but often this was to no avail. ‘For what I want to do’, he says, ‘I do not do, but what I hate to do, I do’ (Romans 7:15).  Does that sound like something you recognize in your own life?

Where did it all start?

Where did it all begin to go wrong? Where did the sin problem originate? Even before the first human couple got off to a bad start, and ‘fell’ into sin, rebellion against God had manifested itself in heaven. How sin could ever find an entrance in a perfect universe is something our finite minds will never understand. It is a mystery we cannot hope to fathom, but this much we know: It had to do with God’s desire that his creatures should have a free will and would serve Him, not as pre-programmed robots but as individuals who had chosen to do so out love for their Creator. At a fateful point in time some heavenly being we now refer to as satan made the choice—against his Creator-God. That’s where the sin-problem began. And this heavenly rebel introduced it on the earth, as soon as the first couple had been created. Adam and Eve too had a free choice. They could have said ‘no’ when the test came, but, tragically, they said ‘yes’ when the suggestion to rebel against God was so shrewdly presented to them. Ever since mankind has gone down-hill. Sin became hereditary, and every human being has been born imperfect and has experienced the inborn tendency to pursue precisely the things that lead him away from God and his love. Mankind has been infested with a spirit of egotism and greed. Love for self has come before love for others. It is true that there have been gradations of sin. Some sinners have been monsters and some have been great role models in spite of their imperfections. Hitler and Stalin have undoubtedly been greater sinners than Mother Teresa or Marten Luther King. But not even Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II were without sin. All people have sinned. The sin-problem is larger than life. It is superhuman. Therefore the solution for the problem must also superhuman, if it is going to be adequate.

Fixing the problem

This is what postmodern people do not accept. If there is a problem with us, we must fix it ourselves! Putting the blame and the responsibility somewhere else, they insist, is a ridiculous cop-out. Seeking a solution for our own failings and inadequacies beyond ourselves is deceiving ourselves. It means looking for a Truth that has evaporated as modernity gave way to postmodernity. The Bible, however, does not allow for this minimalizing approach to sin. In stead, it maintains that sin is a superhuman problem. If ever there was a Truth that has been experientially proven it is this: Sin has dimensions that are totally beyond our control. But there is another, glorious Truth that overshadows this tragic Truth of sin. Just as the problem is larger than life, there is a solution for that problem that is also larger than life: Jesus Christ. There is One who lived a life on this earth like all of us, but who was not tainted by the hereditary sin disease. He became the Solution for the sin problem.  ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Of course, we are left with many questions. Is it fair that all Adam’s descendants became infected with the sin-virus? Why must we suffer because of the mistakes of our first ancestor? And, surely, an all-wise and loving God could have devised some other way of dealing with the sin problem? Why did sin develop the way it did, and cause so much havoc and misery? There are many question like these one could ask. And, they have indeed been asked and are still being asked—throughout history, and around the world. The questions have been whispered and shouted. They have been uttered as philosophical enquiries and as curses of desperation. Indeed, sin remains a problem—in more than one way. But, when we consider the glorious solution, all doubt and cynicism must dissipate. Jesus Christ is the Solution. He ‘came to save [all] people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). That should be enough for all of us. It is!

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