Name a three letter word, which will stop a conversation. Say it and watch people avert their eyes, stiffen, and slip away as quickly as possible. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book about whatever happened to it.
You’re right! The word is sin.
Here is Menninger: But first I must return to the promise to review the events in the recent rapid decline and disappearance of the word “sin,” not because any particular word is so important in itself, but because its obsolescence may be a clue to fundamental changes in the moral philosophy of our civilization. (Whatever Happened to Sin? 1973, p 27)
Thirty seven years later, sin sounds even more archaic. Sin grates against the ear like some antiquated puritanical rant. In a culture with license to say any swear word or expletive one can come up with, the taboo word is, ironically, sin.
Part of this may be due to a trivialization of the meaning of sin and the distortions we bring to it. For many, sin carries negative connotations of judgment, intolerance, hellfire and brimstone. However, sin is not a moralistic judgment. Sin, which is separation from God, is a description of the condition of creation, a condition of alienation and estrangement from our highest good.
Eugene Peterson writes, Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment. The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God. The Contemplative Pastor
As reasons for the decline of sin as a category for understanding the human condition, psychiatric nurse, Norman L. Keltner, cites four factors: First, the influence of psychology on our understanding of human behavior. Second, the erosion of personal responsibility.
A third factor is the focusing away from behaviors to one’s feelings about those behaviors. .. The implications of such views were that if individuals could get in touch with their feelings and understand their motivation, then many unacceptable behaviors were acceptable. While not totally devoid of some standard, the overwhelming move to openmindedness blurred the lines. When coupled with the growing philosophical view that right and wrong are better conceptualized as personal values than as community values, tolerance of once frowned upon or forbidden behaviors occurred.
Keltner finds a fourth tendency in our society’s whole notion of individualism. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues (1991) note, “… individualistic achievement and self-fulfillment make it difficult for people to sustain their commitment to others, either in intimate relationships or in the public sphere.” Whatever Became of Sin – Revisiting Menninger’s Question
A world view that includes both God and sin, assumes that persons are responsible for their behavior, that some behaviors draw us closer to God and other behaviors lead us away.
Without sin as part of our understanding of human behavior, we are left with explanations that fall short and miss the mark of a satisfactory remedy. Without sin we do not need God, Jesus, or that nasty thing called religion. Without sin the crucifixion is just one more state execution and Easter, an interesting ghost story.
Without a serious reckoning with sin, we fashion a god and a religion which suits us, which condones the behavior we want, and urges us to satisfy our desires at others’ expense. The word for this, another taboo word, is idolatry. Without sin, we delude ourselves into thinking that we have accomplished what Adam and Eve were hoping for, when they succumbed to the temptation to disobey and replace God with themselves as sovereign in their lives.
As St. Paul wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we are deluding ourselves and strangers to the truth.” Avoiding the word, does not remove the reality of sin. Denial of sin does cut us off from the remedy – the mercy and grace of God, which free us from the crushing burden of guilt, shame, and having always to be perfect and right.
We, alone, cannot extricate ourselves from the mess of human existence. We can fight about whose fault it is. We can politicize and theorize. We can gather all the brilliant thinkers, artists, and scientists of the world to bring their expertise to bear. We can possess all the wealth of the world, yet we, on our own, cannot save ourselves. We cannot defeat the greed, the lust for power, the envy, the deceit, and the selfishness of the human heart. So we flounder, cry out, slashing at one another, bent over in pain and fear like souls in torment lost in a maze of fun house mirrors.
To see oneself or another as a sinner is like the child telling the obvious truth that the emperor had no clothes. There is wondrous freedom here to be honest about who we are and to be healed and forgiven. As Eugene Peterson writes, “To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals. It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace.”