To most religious people, sin is a four-letter word. Why is that? What is sin in the first place?
Religious people like to talk about sin. A lot. They seem obsessed—like Hester Prynne’s accusers in the novel The Scarlet Letter—with shame, guilt, and condemnation.1 And most people are not amused.2
The problem isn’t that most of us think we don’t have faults or make mistakes—we know we do. But the word “sin” connotes something more dirty, sinister, or perverted.
So why are religious people so focused on sin? Why do they try to force their understanding of sin and morality on everyone else?
It all depends on your understanding of the word “sin.” Before we dispense with the term altogether, writing it off as an archaic notion that needs to be forgotten, let’s explore the concept a bit deeper.
What is sin? And why is it such a big deal?
Missing the Mark
The most common explanation for the concept of sin comes from the Greek word hamartia. Homer and other classical authors used hamartia and related words to describe “missing the mark” or “failure to reach a goal.”3
The authors of the New Testament used the term in a similar way. For them, the goal of life was to do God’s will, and you could do this by following the teachings and moral “laws” of the Bible. They believed that when we keep these laws—like “do not steal” and “do not murder”—society flourishes as it was meant to.
But when we transgress these laws, that action is called sin. As one biblical writer explained it: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”4
So if the standard is following God’s moral law, then missing the mark—sin—is simply the breaking of God’s moral law. Put another way, sin is falling short of the ultimate goal of obeying God’s directives. And, according to the apostle Paul, no one is immune: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”5
Admittedly, seeing sin as simply the breaking of God’s moral law is not the most satisfying perspective. After all, some of the Bible’s “laws” are hard to understand and feel arbitrary. They make God seem like some cosmic cop waiting to zap anyone who steps out of line.
But that’s not how Jesus described his heavenly Father when he taught, nor did early Christians view God this way. Perhaps our definition is still incomplete.
Corruption of What Is Good
Another way to understand sin is as the perversion or corruption of what is good.
“To pervert something,” theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes, “is to twist it so that it serves an unworthy end instead of a worthy one or so that it serves an entirely wrong end.”6 When we pervert things—whether habits, objects, ideas, or even people—we harm ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God.
Augustine, one of the church’s early theologians, articulated this understanding of sin most capably. He wrote:
Sin arises when things that are a minor good are pursued as though they were the most important goals in life. If money or affection or power are sought in disproportionate, obsessive ways, then sin occurs. And that sin is magnified when, for these lesser goals, we fail to pursue the highest good and the finest goals. So when we ask ourselves why, in a given situation, we committed a sin, the answer is usually one of two things. Either we wanted to obtain something we didn’t have, or we feared losing something we had.7
Some believe that religious people use the concept of sin to control or manipulate others’ behaviors. While that may be true of a few misguided people, the idea of sin as a corruption of good generally comes from a desire to help people avoid the damage sin can do in their lives, their world, and the lives of their loved ones.
Consider just a few of the good things in life that we can misuse and a handful of the consequences of such abuse: food (obesity and related diseases); beer or wine (alcoholism); sex (pornography and sex trafficking); politics (unchecked power); money (greed); recreation (irresponsibility); work (neglect of personal life); friends and family (codependency). The list could go on and on.
While these two concepts—sin as law-breaking and sin as the corruption of what is good—are insightful, there is one other definition that bears consideration. Put simply, sin is selfishness.
Sin occurs when one’s attitudes and actions serve oneself to the detriment of others or our relationship with God. Whether it is manifest in gossiping, losing your temper, or failing to love your neighbor as yourself, selfishness is at the heart of sin.
But selfishness is not only about tangible thoughts and deeds; it is more significantly a matter of one’s internal disposition and identity. Author Tim Keller observes, “Everyone gets their identity, their sense of being distinct and valuable, from somewhere or something.”8
The Bible teaches that God created us to be in relationship with him and live our lives in service to him—for his glory and our own good. Therefore, “Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him.”9
This is why sin is such a big deal. It makes a statement about our identity and relationship to God. One small sin may seem insignificant. But the very nature of sin begs the question of whether or not we acknowledge God as the Creator and ultimate authority—and that is always a big deal. In a certain way, our sin and selfishness say, “I’ll be my own god right now.”10
What, then, can we do about our sin? Obviously, we could reject the whole idea and go on our merry way. Yet few of us would be comfortable in a world with no boundaries or moral standards.
We can try to be better. But if we’re serious, just trying harder won’t solve our underlying issue of selfishness and identity. There must be a more fundamental change.
Perhaps the first steps are considering what we truly believe about God, evaluating how we incorporate these beliefs into our everyday lives, and striving to harmonize the two by seeking a right relationship with God.