Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

The greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.

Job 10 – Remembering Lent

Rededicating ourselves to God.

“I loathe my very life;
    therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
    and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.
I say to God: Do not declare me guilty,
    but tell me what charges you have against me.
Does it please you to oppress me,
    to spurn the work of your hands,
    while you smile on the plans of the wicked?
Do you have eyes of flesh?
    Do you see as a mortal sees?
Are your days like those of a mortal
    or your years like those of a strong man,
that you must search out my faults
    and probe after my sin—
though you know that I am not guilty
    and that no one can rescue me from your hand?

“Your hands shaped me and made me.
    Will you now turn and destroy me?
Remember that you molded me like clay.
    Will you now turn me to dust again?
10 Did you not pour me out like milk
    and curdle me like cheese,
11 clothe me with skin and flesh
    and knit me together with bones and sinews?
12 You gave me life and showed me kindness,
    and in your providence watched over my spirit.

13 “But this is what you concealed in your heart,
    and I know that this was in your mind:
14 If I sinned, you would be watching me
    and would not let my offense go unpunished.
15 If I am guilty—woe to me!
    Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head,
for I am full of shame
    and drowned in my affliction.
16 If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion
    and again display your awesome power against me.
17 You bring new witnesses against me
    and increase your anger toward me;
    your forces come against me wave upon wave.

18 “Why then did you bring me out of the womb?
    I wish I had died before any eye saw me.
19 If only I had never come into being,
    or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave!
20 Are not my few days almost over?
    Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy
21 before I go to the place of no return,
    to the land of gloom and utter darkness,
22 to the land of deepest night,
    of utter darkness and disorder,
    where even the light is like darkness.”

I’ve gotten a little side-tracked by some sub-themes in the readings these past few weeks and want to re-focus on the fact that we are still in Lent, since we’re about halfway through it.  Lent is a time we remember Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and prepare ourselves for his return on Easter.  I think calling out injustices, celebrating nature, and reaching out to those in mourning are all things he would want us to do, so the past few weeks worth of blog posts aren’t wasted, I just wanted to take the time to really focus on Lent itself again.

“If I am guilty–woe to me!” verse 15 declares, “Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction.”  I am not a fan of needless guilt – I think it is bad for our mental health and can prevent us from getting out there and doing some real good – but this passage does invite us to marvel at the omniscient and omnipotent nature of God.  God is always watching, is ever present.  Poor Job is speaking out in pain, but there is truth when he says that God could always “bring new witnesses against [him]” (v. 16).  He even asks God to “turn away from [him] so [he] can have a moment’s joy,” (v. 20) realizing that even in the depths of his misery God is watching.

I got to go the Ash Wednesday service kid-free, which meant I actually got to listen to the sermon for once, and the Pastor asked – “if you knew Jesus was coming tonight, what would you do to prepare?”  It’s an interesting question.  In all honesty my first thought was clean the house and make some cookies.  But beyond that, it brings the reality that God is always watching, is ever present, into a more concrete reference.  There are definitely some moments where I wish God had maybe looked away and not noticed my petty gossip, losing my cool with the girls, or all the single-use containers I still buy.  But that is the beautiful thing about Lent: we know Jesus is coming, in reality we do not know the day or hour, but symbolically he will return on Easter, and we can prepare ourselves for him.

So how do we do that?  Giving up something is a nod to Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and if that helps you focus more on Jesus, then great, do it!  Dawn Hutchings, a Lutheran pastor whose blog I follow, has an interesting idea of Giving up God for Lent.  I know, it sounds a little out there, and maybe it is for some people, but the idea is to give up the idol of God and surrender to the spirit of God – I definitely suggest reading it.  But preparing for Jesus can be lots of things beyond giving up something. I took on reading Job as my Lenten practice because I never liked the book, and thought that would be an appropriate practice of spiritual rigor.  I’m happy to say that I’ve gained a new appreciation for the book of Job, and I hope that the gratitude and openness of spirit it has brought me is an appropriate preparation for Jesus.  And all that leaves is to re-dedicate ourselves to God: confessing our sins, or, if “sin” is too much of a trigger word, confessing our shortcomings and vowing to try harder.  That’s all we need to do.  Though I have to admit, if Jesus was coming tonight, I’d probably still try to clean the house.

Genesis 03 – The Fall of Man

It’s a more compassionate story than you might remember.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

No doubt this is a sad story of betrayal and consequences, and perhaps it is because I am reading the Bible actively looking for examples of radical love, but even this story of the fall of all mankind, the original sin, is a far more compassionate one than I remember.  It also raises a lot of questions that I didn’t have before, so let’s go through it section by section and examine it.

First, let’s talk about the serpent.  Nowhere in this passage is the serpent called Satan, and I find that interesting.  According to other commentaries, it is made clear later in the Bible that the serpent is indeed an agent of Satan, so I’m going to reserve judgement on this omission until I’ve read more.  But it is interesting, and I wanted to point it out, in case it’s been a while since you have read this story, too, and maybe forgotten some of the details.

Next, in verses 1-6, Eve and the serpent talk, and she eats from the Tree of Knowledge.  Again, I’m going to pose a question that I do not have the answer to: Why will eating from the Tree of Knowledge cause death? Perhaps I’m succumbing to the same child-like curiosity Eve did in thinking, “if it looks pretty and smells nice why can’t I eat it?”  Basically that’s the same reasoning we are warned about as parents, and why I keep my bright purple bottle of Fantastik cleaning solution well out of the girls’ reach.  But the difference is I know Fantastik is poisonous and why, but I know nothing about the Tree of Knowledge and it’s fruit.  If anyone can provide any good insight into what makes the Tree of Knowledge so forbidden as to cause death, please do share!

Verse seven is where Adam and Eve realize their nakedness, and try feebly to cover it up.  Again, this reminds me of little kids.  Have you ever caught a child (or perhaps remember being a child) trying to fix a mistake beyond their abilities?  One time, mom had clean laundry in folded piles in the bathroom.  My sister and I were taking a bath and got splashy, as kids do.  I realized we had gotten some of the laundry wet and sudsy, so got out of the tub (all wet and sudsy myself) and tried to rearrange it to hide it.  Mom came in to check on us, and grab some of the laundry away at the same time.  Of course, she found the wet laundry right away and long story short, we got in trouble.  My husband remembers playing with matches when he was little and hearing his dad coming. Knowing he was in the wrong, he quickly blew it out and hid the matches.  His father, unbeknownst to a little and completely mystified Chris, smelled them, and Chris subsequently got in trouble for playing with matches.  Sewing the fig leaves together is so human, so identifiable in my own childhood and in my own children, that it kind of breaks my heart.

In verses 8-14 it just gets even more heartbreaking.  Look at the intimate communion we had with God: he would walk through the garden with us.  One of my favorite things to do when I visit my parents, still to this day, is to go on a garden walk with them.  They have a huge vegetable garden of 40 raised beds and every season it is a delight to see the little beet shoots coming up or peppers ripening, snap a fresh piece of asparagus off the stem or pick a handful of blueberries. I can just imagine walking through the garden with God in a similar manner, talking easily about the past day as the shadows begin to lengthen.

God calls, “where are you?” Like a human father of naughty children, he knows full well where Adam and Eve are, he’s giving them a chance to come repentantly to him.  And, like naughty children, both immediately shift the blame for their sin.  The woman made me do it.  The serpent told me to.  It just seems so pitiable, especially since God is walking through the garden on a nice evening to find his children, not running after them yelling in anger.  Is he disappointed? Of course! Mankind even gets a punishment in a few verses.  But does he still love us? Yes.

The rest of the chapter spells out our punishment.  All of it more or less makes sense to me except verse 16, where Eve is told “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”  I’ve read a few commentaries that suggest this means a woman’s willful disobedience to her husband, or trying to rule over her husband herself, are in direct conflict with God’s orders.  I don’t think a good marriage should have either party “ruling over” the other one in such a way, so I’m having trouble reconciling this one.  Especially since, at least according to this verse, Eve’s desire will be for her husband. Is it even part of the punishment, or is it part of the conciliatory statement?  Could this desire for her husband be matrimonial love, that maybe wasn’t originally part of the plan? I really don’t know.  Again, if anyone has found a good explanation they wish to share, I would love to read it!

Let me end with a little aside: Many will find this a very sympathetic, perhaps overly sympathetic, reading of the fall of mankind. Some may even see this whole project as me trying to excuse all our guilt, rendering sin an obsolete concern.  That’s not what I’m doing.  We have a lot to answer for, I just think it may be different than what we sometimes get hung up on. The more I read the Bible, pray, and talk to others, the more I think the main goal is to love as much as possible, and when we lapse in compassion, that is when we sin.  We’re going to mess up.  I raise my voice to my kids and roll my eyes at my husband basically every single day.  That is not loving behavior, and I ask God forgiveness.  But with His help, I’m trying to be more compassionate every day.  If people say that I’m too sympathetic….well, that’s better than a lot of other things they could say about me, so I’ll take it.