The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.
What Is this "sin" thing? Part 1
Is it the same today as in 1200 BCE?
Copyright © 2017 Dorian Scott Cole
Some think that maybe we need a new definition of sin. The word doesn't fit well into modern culture, and the notions about what sin is, don't fit either. Preaching sin, guilt, and punishment have commonly served to drive people away from the church, and to focus on the wrong things.
The related idea of being tolerant of each other doesn't fit well either. Divorce affects nearly half of marriages, and single heads of household are now over 50%, since we apparently prefer not to live together and tolerate each other. LGBTQ issues remain unresolved or rejected by many churches and religious people who are adamant that it can't be tolerated. The younger generation simply leaves the church and refuses to participate because it no longer seems relevant. Outsiders keep it at arms length. The church is slowly decaying, with attendance dropping steadily since 1900, with many people having no idea what the mission of the church is.
In this study on sin and iniquity, I look at the idea of sin, origins, and how it applies today.
What is so bad about sin?
Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
Terry found Keith's wife, Sue, very attractive. During one of Keith's extended business trips overseas, he asked his good friend Terry to look after his wife and family. During Terry's assistance, Sue received some bad news about a favorite uncle - he was going to die from cancer. Sue was inconsolable until Terry arrived and comforted her. They grew close. Soon they slept together (had sex).
From that moment on, Sue not only had feelings for Terry, she could no longer be intimate with Keith. After 3 months of ineffective counseling, she finally confessed to the affair. Keith could not overlook his wife's indiscretion. His relationship with Terry was also over. After two years of struggle, Keith and Sue broke up. And Terry's marriage also failed and he divorced his wife, Sandy. In another two years, Keith and Sue got back together and their marriage became stronger than ever. But Terry's marriage was permantly torn. Terry's wife deeply felt rejected, couldn't overcome it, then turned to drugs. Two years later, her life completely wrecked, she overdosed and died.
Was Keith and Sue's stronger marriage worth the destruction of Sandy? Or is this a tragedy that could have been avoided?
Carved in stone is the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery." As far back at least as 1200 BC, up through at least the time of Jesus, and into the 20th. Century, adultery led to the breakup of marriage. What this meant for the woman was that she had no means of financial support. She was likely to become a harlot to support herself. While people may have found it difficult to live together and work out their problems, the alternative was even worse. It was better for a man or woman to endure their mate's complaints and faults than to divorce. Maybe the immediate practical effect of divorce today is different - women can support themselves.
While the Jews had strict controls over divorce, the Samaritans employed it without restriction. Jesus spoke harshly about divorce, while ignoring the Samaritan's stand, and said that those who divorced should not remarry. Harsh, especially in today's world where divorce affects nearly half of those who marry, and not remarrying deprives them of emotional support and may deny their child a mother or father. Difficult choice.
Is divorce a good idea? According to the American Psychological Association, "Healthy marriages are good for couples' mental and physical health. They are also good for children; growing up in a happy home protects children from mental, physical, educational and social problems." In general, those who work through marital problems end up with a stronger marriage. And then there are those who continue to make each other miserable and create a horrible environment for their children.
Today divorce is easy. It can be the escape hatch for those who find they aren't very compatible or just fall out of love. Why live in misery... or with someone you don't love? Why even try to get along if you can just call it quits and move on - go live your life unfettered and unchallenged? Why stretch yourself? Why put up with anything?
Are we still wed to an 800 BC commandment? Are adultery and divorce sins that still carry the same weight? Can we just ignore them? Is it wrong to remarry? Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, everything is legal, but not everything is profitable. Love is the fulfillment of the law. (End paraphrase.) What we decide to do takes discernment and a lot of wrestling with the consequences we are about to bring on ourselves and others. Do we drag the escape clause into our marriages so we can just bail when things turn sour?
The never ending legalities
According to Paul, we are all worthy of death. That's also a bit harsh, but it was his point to anyone who thinks he can get around God by simply thinking they are good enough and don't have to try any harder. Not that he's sending you to Hell, but there is a judgment for those who turn from him.
God created us and he knows we're all human and subject to failures of all kinds. He made us inquisitive and we break rules to find answers. "Don't eat that apple from the tree of knowledge!" Oops - I lusted after knowledge of good and evil. "Now you're going to get that knowledge, and it's going to be painful." God knew we would - it's our nature. We're not robots, we have human tendencies - we're created that way. But in our journey to knowledge, we are molded, stretched, and refined by fire.
Everything can be forgiven. We need to remember that because we are going to stumble and fall. But are some commandments to be taken more seriously than others? Sin isn't anything new. The world of Noah was rife with sinful acts. Every person did as he pleased and that brought their destruction, and that of Sodom and Gomorrah who were notorious for mistreating others without conscience. Living an uncaring and mistreating lifestyle can bring our destruction.
Not everything has always been a sin. Jewish Rabbis (teachers of Jewish Law) believe that, from their ancient commentary on the Bible, the Talmud, only seven laws were given to Noah. These were considered universal laws.
- Do not deny God
- Do not blaspheme God
- Do not murder
- Do not engage in illicit sexual relations
- Do not steal
- Do not eat from a live animal
- Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws
We may blow off 1 and 2, but we do tend to stay true to 3 through 7. On 1 and 2, Noah, Moses, and Jonah tried to sidestep rule number 1 and lived to tell about it. Well, we think maybe Noah didn't want to build and ark in the middle of nowhere and look like an idiot, but asked himself, "How long can I tread water?" Moses didn't want to confront Pharaoh, claiming he wasn't an eloquent speaker. But God said he would run his mouth for him. Moses acquiesced. Jonah was sent to do a task he considered defaming. Instead he escaped on a ship, drawing a storm that put everyone in peril, bringing their wrath on him. Overboasrd he went, then he finally did as God asked. You can deny God, but it isn't wise, especially if you turn from him forever - denying God might not be forgivable because you never ask for forgiveness.
Through Moses, God further developed the number of Jewish Laws. He carved ten into stone, tailored to Israel.
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make idols.
- You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet.
Many today feel that they have broken many or most of the Ten Commandments. But murder? Meh. We're very selective. And some of these we throw at others while ignoring the ones we break. Currently LGBTQ tops the list of preferred sins to turn into weapons, and maybe it isn't even a sin after all. Further in this series, we'll ask that question.
Ten laws weren't good enough to address all of human behavior. The Laws continued to multiply until by Jesus's time, Judaism had 613 Laws. These laws included 365 things that you should not do, and 248 that you should do. Some of these prohibitions are self-evident, such as stealing. Some commemorate Jewish historical events. Some have no rational explanation. Some apply to only men or women. Reference: 613 Commandments in Judaism.
In reality, people will always find a way around a law. Where there is a will, there is a way. So there can never be enough laws... or probably enough lawyers. But Christ came and fulfilled the Law. Love. Love is the measure of all measures. Paul said in Romans 13: 8-10, (NIV) "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."
In my book, "Ontology Of God: The voices of the ancients speak," Among other things, I outline the development of law in the Bible and other cultures. The PDF version is free. The print version costs a bit. Ontology Of God: The voices of the ancients speak.
The new covenant
The Prophets Jeremiah and Joel saw a new day coming in which The Law would be written in the hearts of men. It was to be a new covenant brought by Christ. Jeremiah 31 (NIV): "...“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is confirmed in Hebrews 8:8
Joel referred to the days ahead in this way in Joel 2:28, 29 (NASB): "Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the LORD your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame. "It will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. "Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.…"
John said about Joel's comment in John 7:39 (BSB), "He was speaking about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. For the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified."
Jesus said, in Luke 17: 20, 21 (NIV), "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Or the kingdom of God is within you.
The Law is written in our hearts, and the Kingdom of God is now. We enter the kingdom now through following Christ, and by accepting God's forgiveness. We have this innate sense of our actions being good or bad for ourselves or others. We don't need a list of laws or rules to tell us. All we need is love.
Jesus brought to us a new covenant (agreement between God and us). It is a covenant of love. Love fulfills the law. Love is the higher law. Love is what we judge ourselves and all laws by. Everything is legal for us, but everything may not be wise. We have to use love to judge whether we should do something or not.
The Law has been placed in the hearts of all mankind - not just Jews, not just Christians, but everyone, because the spirit of God is in us. Love guides us. We don't have to open a book to see what the law says. We don't have to instruct others on the Law, they already know. But we have to consider through the lens of love the effect that our actions have on others. To not do so leaves us guilty for our actions.
The Law, a written set of rules, even 613 of them, is not a substitute for love. Jesus ignored rules about the Sabbath to heal others and to pick grain to eat, saying God made these rules for man. God doesn't need rules. He needs for people to love each other.