Have you noticed the inordinate amount of attention that is given to concerns about sin at the intersection of faith and sexuality? It seems to be a sticking point for so many. “But it’s sin.” With this short phrase dialogue can be cut off, attempts to understand can be closed, relationships strained, alienation experienced, judgement felt, and accusations, both spoken and unspoken, levied.
Is that all there is to this conversation? Aren’t we all sinners? Don’t we all sin – all the time?
How do we determine what is sin anyway? It seems like things we used to think were sinful – simply aren’t any more. Riding bikes on Sunday? Buying a scratch lottery ticket? Getting remarried after divorce? Taking someone to court?
Or what about the reality that Christians disagree about what is sinful? Join the army – or be a pacifist? Save for retirement as a responsible citizen or give generously to the poor rather than storing up earthly treasures? A “better safe than sorry” attitude that seems to foster legalism or a “freedom in Christ” disposition that seems to invite license?
And what about the picking and choosing that the majority of Christians do on matters that directly impact their personal life? Surely having sexual intercourse with a female partner when she has her period can’t be sinful – not when we have immediate access to the amenities of indoor plumbing to ensure cleanliness and good hygiene. One pastor told me that he was so sick and tired of the weak and flimsy arguments for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church – naming shellfish and polyester as two examples. Because heading over to Red Lobster for shrimp fest is clearly no big deal but two same-sex oriented people covenanting to love and care for each other the rest of their lives, including the bonds of sexual intimacy, is …… well ….. in the eyes of many, unrepentant sin.
You’ve probably heard some different definitions of sin – adding to the complexity of the whole matter. A common one is “missing the mark” – falling short of God’s best. Another would focus on the result, “separation from God.” Some quote the Bible and understand sin to be transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18). The dictionary additionally offers that sin is a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle or any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse etc.; a great fault of offense.
Neal Plantinga offers this understanding of sin: “God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be. God is for shalom and therefore against sin. In short, sin is culpable shalom-breaking.” (A Breviary of Sin. Eerdmans 1995 p.14 bold emphasis mine)
Shalom is the interconnectedness of God, people, and all of creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight – where there is universal flourishing and wholeness.
We are called to participate with God in cultivating shalom. We are called to join in the reconciling and redeeming work of making things right. This is the culmination of God’s loving desire for the world from before the beginning of creation itself.
When we live this calling, when we are attuned to both the reality of and the need for shalom, we are free from anxious sin avoidance – and engaged in living in the reality of the Kingdom of God, both here and not yet fully realized.
I don’t know about you, but my early years in the Christian community were marked by somber warnings, shame and fear-based motivation, and regular reminders of the torturous suffering my sin caused the crucified Christ. The notion of total depravity, connected to the doctrine of original sin, emphasized that the human heart is “utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered” unless the grace of God intervenes. This was the stuff I cut my teeth on. I felt a lot of shame about this pervasive sense of sin, some of which I seemed to have little control over.
Guilt is feeling badly about something you have done. Guilt is a sign that your conscience is functioning – and guilt can lead you to take the necessary, but often uncomfortable, steps to make things right through apology, confession, repentance, making amends, and exercising self-discipline to ensure that you are prepared to make different choices in the future. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling badly about who you are. Shame can paralyze you in a pit of self-loathing. In that sense, shame is self-defeating because it really doesn’t equip you to grow in maturity and mastery over sin – whether as an individual – or as a community.
What I missed then, but has made all the difference now, is that sin is not our starting point. God is our starting point. God’s vision of shalom is our starting point. And God’s sure victory in realizing this vision of shalom is our starting point.
My sin, your sin, our sin as communities, has been taken up into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The power of sin has been broken, past, present, and future. Sin cannot ultimately thwart God’s unfolding of his gift of shalom. This is our starting point. We are forgiven. We have been made right with God through Christ. We belong to God. We are united with God in pursuing shalom for this world.
What this means practically, at the intersection of faith and sexuality, is that I don’t need to argue or defend a particular definition of sin. I don’t have to point out inconsistencies or prove hypocrisy. I don’t have to worry that good faith interpretations and understandings will in the end be shown to be erroneous. I don’t have to be anxious about getting everything perfectly right. I don’t have to feel ashamed. I don’t have to be motivated by fear or even guilt.
I am the Beloved of God, secure in the accomplished work of Christ, participating with God in the experience and pursuit of shalom.
It isn’t that sin doesn’t matter or that we are completely free of sin. It is simply that our lives are hidden in Christ. Christ is our righteousness. We can get on with offering all that we are and all that we have to dismantle the barriers that are preventing flourishing for our neighbors and the creation around us. We can be so alive to the love of God, that our gratitude and our love energize us to persevere.
Because at the end of the day, God’s grace is bigger than sin, more powerful than sin, and will triumph over sin.
Philippians 3: 7 – 14
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.