One of the most profound statements of the angels who announced the coming of Jesus was that “Jesus will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
Recently, I had a conversation about sin with one of the student chaplains at the hospital where I work. He is a recent seminary graduate, fresh with a command of systematic theology. After a bit of back and forth on the nature of sin, my final question to him was, But just what is sin? Initially, he gave the typical dictionary and theological answers. Dictionary: An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law. Theology: Sin is “missing the mark,” and the “mark” is God’s moral law. The moral law has to do with purity or holiness, for God is Holy. He also noted that there were sins of commission and sins of omission. This is standard Sunday School fare, really.
When I challenged him to go deeper, about the effect of these individual sins, what they caused, he was able to quickly recognize the relational basis for sin. He said, what I had hoped he would conclude, “Ultimately, sin is broken relationships.”
It is quite disconcerting that most Western constructs of sin interpret sin in a very individualized manner with a focus on personal holiness (moral living). The scriptures most often misquoted to support this individualism come from the Old Testament: “Your sins have separated you from your God” (Is 59:2). (Though, clearly, this should be interpreted collectively, as in Israel). And especially, David, who said, “Against you [God] and you alone have I sinned” (Ps 51:4).
But is this true? Did David sin only against God. Is sin primarily a private affair between individuals and God? Undoubtedly, we have to say no to this. Undoubtedly, our sins against God are primarily relational sins against our own selves and others (which includes God, of course). David’s sins were against his own body and other people. Is not God, represented in David’s cry, the entirety of David’s relational world. Misinterpreting David’s assessment of his personal failings reduces the goal of life to personal moral sin avoidance or “personal holiness,” which further disembodies and detaches us from the material reality of our inherent interconnectedness.
Nevertheless, when we view sin primarily as broken relationships (or matters of justice), we must still begin with ourselves. We begin with the brokenness of self, which is a lack of understanding our own true belovedness–our innate relatedness to God and others. When we recognize our broken relationship with God, we realize our failure to understand and abide in God’s perfect love for us and respond to God with reciprocating love. Our broken relationships with ourselves and God leads us to regularly respond in selfish ways which leads to despair and a cycle of sinful behavior–of more broken relationships. Our shortsighted selfishness leads us to break relationships with others, primarily because of our own brokenness, but other’s brokenness as well.
The key to overcoming sin, then, to restoring our broken relationships, is to confront our own sinfulness, our own intra-relational brokenness. We do this by recognizing, receiving, and abiding in Christ as perfect love, sitting at the foot of the Cross, and reciprocating our received love towards God and others. This experience of God as perfect love inevitably will lead to us engaging in the joy-filled, blessed, but hard work of reconciling ourselves to others, of reconciling the whole world to Christ.
Thus, Jesus is the foundation of saving our broken relationships, of saving us from our sins. This is the work of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the restoration of the Garden of Eden, the bringing of justice on earth as it is in heaven. Thus, we are each called to live a cross-life, receiving and abiding in Christ’s perfect love for us, and bearing our own crosses for the world (see Figure 1).
(c) Paul Dordal, 2017