Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Theory of Relativity

Sin is a tricky thing. As children, we are taught that sins are the bad things we do and that God doesn’t like it when we sin. To be honest, that’s probably a lot easier that trying to describe the human condition to a four-year-old. As we grow up, however, that notion of sin continues, but I’m not sure it’s a completely accurate portrayal of the theological concept.

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 59:1-15a) begins,

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot heat; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear.

To me, that’s a much richer portrayal of sin and how it actually affects our relationship with God. For starters, it reminds us that God isn’t affected by our iniquities. It’s not God who is unable to hear us; it’s we who have separated ourselves from God. Contrast that with the image taught to most children. I grew up thinking that my sins made God angry with me or, at the very least, hurt God’s feelings. Why? Because that’s what happens to my mother or father when I do something bad. They get angry at me or get their feelings hurt. Why wouldn’t it be the same with God? But, of course, that’s not how God works. God isn’t influenced or affected by sin. He’s God—he’s bigger than that, impervious to sin. (Otherwise, our hope of salvation would be empty.)

In this passage, Isaiah also reveals how sin affects us. It creates a perceived distance between us and God—not because God has withdrawn from us (“his hand is not shortened”) but because we’ve pushed ourselves away from him (“your sins have hid his face”). That means that when I’m surrounded by my sins, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the fact that God is still able to save me. And that makes sense. In a life that is plagued by transgression and iniquity (“We grope for the wall like the blind”), we can’t see that God is near us. He feels distant if not completely absent. That means that sin is that which makes me feel separated from God and God’s saving love. It doesn’t matter that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). When immersed in sin, God feels light years away.

And that leads me to a place of deep theological challenge: is sin relative? If God’s hand really isn’t shortened and if he’s really able to reach out and save me no matter how far I’ve strayed from him, doesn’t that mean that the perceived separation between me and God is only an internal construct? I’m thinking about 1 Corinthians 10:23-30—“I do not mean your conscience, but his.” Isn’t sin, which doesn’t in any way affect God’s end of the human-divine relationship, purely a psychological construct? In other words, if some action or behavior or pattern makes it harder for you to known God’s saving love (sin), then you should avoid that. But, if something others might perceive as “sinful” (e.g., eating meat sacrificed to idols, wearing garments of mixed fabrics, engaging in same-sex partnerships) doesn’t create any perceived distance between you and God, should you think of it as sin?

I believe there’s a role for community in this question. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they should abstain from certain practices if it caused another to stumble, so, too, do I believe that we should refrain from plowing ahead with the sanctioning of particular sacramental rites if they are causing those within our community to perceive increased distance between themselves and God. The time might not be right for changing what the “books” say about what is sinful and what is not, but I do believe that the time is coming when we admit that our community isn’t damaged by certain things that once seemed to harm us. Surely sin isn’t completely relative—at least not on an individual basis—but God and God’s love are a lot bigger than any distance I might think I’ve created between myself and him.

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