Responding to sin

One of the things I am turning over in my head is the motivation behind sin. Talk to some people and they will bring out a well-worn harangue about calling sin a sin, and making sure folks know exactly what sins are being committed. These sorts of people are concerned that God will present them with a list of other people’s sins that weren’t properly admonished, thus losing pool privileges for a 32nd part of eternity. Or maybe such people like to be right, and want others to know that they are right, a fact that becomes even more potent when those others are wrong. It’s nice to be right when someone else is wrong, so nice that a person might feel compelled to seek out those situations if none are immediately presented. Or, more kindly, folks like to point out sins because they genuinely care for others.

Jesus was the latter sort of person on occasion. Sure, it’s hip and cool to bring out how accepting he was and how he ate with sinners and otherwise made company of those normally turned down for religious membership. Though, if you read closely, you’ll notice that he ate and chatted with the sinners mostly to have a conversation about their sin. He was very open but he was also very forthright. Jesus’ problem wasn’t that he demanded less of sinners, it’s that he demanded more of them. Rather than handing out passing judgments he actually expected people to change.

Oftentimes people actually changed.

This is curious really. Jesus who was more strict than other religious leaders on a lot of issues (don’t look at ladies, don’t be angry, be perfect, etc. and so on) was also the most willing to engage on a level that brought change. He is not known now as being judgmental even if he was exceedingly moral.

What’s the trick to that?

I think a lot of it comes in seeing sin as more than sin. Jesus did not consider mere actions to be the end of the discussion, as is the case with most moral conversations today. He was always alert to the underlying reality of the person in question. Thus, the same sort of action could have entirely different responses from Jesus. He did not see all symptoms as arising from the same disease, and as his quest was to truly heal he sought to bring to each person the particular cure. Sometimes this was kindness. Other times this was anger.

The fact is that people fall into sin for different reasons, and while all sin leads to death, the reasons for the sins can themselves be less than evil.

Throughout the Bible the worst source of sin is pride. From this particular sin arise actions that seek primacy, asserting oneself over another. We see sins of domination and power grabbing. This sin of seeking domination can be expressed in just about every form of other sin, from physical sins to emotional, passive aggressive to just plain ol’ aggressive. Sins that come from this motivation seek to depersonalize others, lowering them, defeating them, dominating them in a quest for power and sustenance off their depleting souls. This motivation is what spurred Jesus to anger–which is why he reserved his fiercest comments for the religious leaders of his day. God made humans in his image, and to dehumanize anyone is to strike against God’s very foundational work and the most anti-Spirit and anti-Christ activity possible. Those who engage in such sins, however they may be formed, have to be broken and humbled. They need to be warned and overthrown. They have to be removed from their perception of superiority and placed back within the community of their peers. They are forming their personhood on false premises and so will face the wrath of God for their dehumanizing efforts.

On the other side of sin is another sort of motivation. Here the motivation is not to dehumanize others, but rather the motivation is to find some sort of inner personal reality. It is not a seeking after dominance that motivates these people to sin, it is a seeking after purpose, a seeking after feeling, a seeking after emotional sustenance. They make missteps not because they are evil but because they are lost, yearning for a fullness of soul in whatever way presents itself. Wanting to quiet the chaos and still the storms, by whatever means necessary. Sin can go a long ways to providing temporary inner relief and can masquerade as a source of being. It is a liar, of course, but a good liar, making people not realize the effect of their indiscretions.

For the most part these people are already broken and don’t need to be broken more. They are a ruined people. Which is why out of these sorts of people can come the otherwise most compassionate and welcoming sorts of people. Broken people relate well to other broken people. They feel the judgment but are lashing in wrong ways because of their desperation. What these sorts of people need is hope. They need to know there are paths of salvation and healing that far outweigh the meager offerings of sin. They need to know they are not stuck after all, and do deserve more, and are made in the very image of God. They need to know that they are persons already.

They do not seek to dehumanize others, rather such people are desperate to humanize themselves, and in doing whatever creates a feeling of even temporary humanity, they are missing the mark. This is why Jesus ate with such people. This is why he chatted with the woman at the well, who he told clearly her missteps while following up with a messag e of total hope and light. His goal, you see, was not to be right. It was to bring real change to people’s lives.

To bring real change we have to, like Jesus, be aware of not only the sins on the surface, but also aware of the motivation beneath, responding to the motivation that may be a signal of hatred towards God or a signal of desperation for God. We have to be those who humanize others, who help remind each person we meet they truly are made in the image of God and are particularly blessed by the Holy Spirit among us. Most folks will be raised by such efforts and are to be encouraged not blasted. Others will be threatened by such words, and like the rich young ruler, will only find God by letting go of themselves.

This nuance of sin motivation is the only way I can find to explain Jesus’ varied reactions, and is certainly something I need to keep in mind whenever I am confronted by the sins of others and by my own sins.

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