why we don't need the word sin anymore
I’ve been thinking this for a while. Every time I voice it out loud in a group of Christians, it’s like I’ve suggested that maybe we should all take up torturing puppies. There is a slight fear in the eyes of my peers, like I’ve said something dangerous. Something that shouldn’t be said, or heard, or felt, or acknowledged.
The word sin has become a cartoonish caricature of itself, and it is no longer useful. (And that’s not my fault, so please get off my jock.) The emotional baggage from the verbiage has become too great for us to carry anymore. And in the words of the Brilliance, leave what’s heavy behind.
We all have this. Emotional baggage from the word sin. It’s because sin is a punishing word. Sin is a shame word, sin is an accusatory word. It’s like calling someone racist. All conversation stops, and now it’s just two people arguing about how bad or not bad they are. But calling someone racist doesn’t have anything to do with how evil or not evil that person is. Calling out racism isn’t about assessing someone’s character. Calling out racism is about ending racism.
But the person you’re calling racist cannot hear that. All they hear is, “You’re bad, in some profoundly and unsettling way, you’re not like the rest of us, and the rest of the world needs to see you for what you are – defective. Evil. Disgusting. Embarrassing.” That’s the same kind of reaction that the word sin produces.
I’m not saying that we should do away with the word racist, because we definitely shouldn’t. I don't even think we should completely throw out the word sin. However, I do think we need to revisit the religious trauma that the word sin has invoked.
This isn’t about sparing peoples’ feelings, or avoiding personal responsibility, or even understanding theology.
Think about all the times you’ve heard the word sin used. In songs, in poetry, in pictures, in movies, in sermons, in the bible, in the silence that follows after a child has been hit by their parent. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all felt it. So why do I want to take the word away? Is this another example of political correctness running wild?
No. It isn’t. (Side note : If I ever have to hear another person say “I’m not politically correct” in a proud sort of way, I am going to barf on them.) The word sin has been used as judge, jury, and executioner. As a result, we all now have trauma responses to the word sin. Even people who don’t believe.
When I say “trauma response,” I am speaking specifically to a set of behaviours or reactions that your body has learned to employ in any threatening situation as a means of survival.
It goes like this. Say you do something wrong. Somebody, another Christian (with or without authority in your life) sits you down and tells you that you’ve sinned. Your mind automatically makes the connection from sin à bad, and without even knowing it you start employing strategies for how you can remain within the group. If you perceive that you are bad, and the group is good, that’s a problem. How can you continue to get your basic needs met, how can you make sure that you are not cast out?
Being cast from the group – especially within a religious context – is a huge threat. It can wreak havoc upon your identity, your relationships, your physical well-being, and sometimes even your livelihood. It makes sense that your lizard brain would want to neutralize the threat as fast as it can.
And what we’ve learned to do – to ensure survival in the Christian context – is to express guilt and shame. So that we can stay within the circle. We can ensure that we will continue to receive love and protection and money and shelter. Our bodies process this guilt and shame as vigilance (being extra alert,) anxiety, confusion, dissociation, sadness, agitation, and even physical arousal. Think of how often physically pleasurable things (chocolate, sex, etc.) are described as sinful. That is because the marketing industry knows something that we don’t : every single one of us has a trauma response to the word sin.
And I can’t help thinking about Jesus and what word he would use if he were here. I know that in his geographical, political and historical context, he used words in a way that were culturally relevant and brilliant. That being the case, I do not think sin is the word he would use in our context.
What is this word actually doing for us? Is it helping us be better Christians? Is it helping us to draw closer to the love of God? It is helping us accept the outcast, the downtrodden, and the people who need us the most? I don’t think it is. And I don’t think it has for a long, long time.
The triune God has never said that dedication and adherence to one word is required. Or even desired. We are freer than we imagine.
Now, if that makes me a heretic, so be it. Most Christians call me that anyway. But I really think the word sin is used to push people away from God. Last time I checked, the party line was that we don’t want that. Maybe that’s not how the word sin was intended to be used, but that it is how it is being used. We don’t do ourselves any favours by separating our realism from our idealism.
Throwing the word sin around is a very easy way to check out of the messy, beautiful, and heartbreaking work of real relationships, real community. It’s a barrier. It’s lazy.
I don’t exactly know what the solution is. I never know what the solution is. To anything. I just know that doing things the way we've always done them isn’t the answer. I know that our God is a God of restoration, and not punishment. (Quote all the Old Testament at me that you want. I’ll just direct you to Nikayla Reize.)
I know that reframing the conversation is essential.
So I’m breaking up with sin. It’s not about being offended or not offended. It’s about what’s useful. It’s about what’s true. It’s about what’s beautiful.