Christians have become pretty good at thinking of euphemisms for sin (our acts and our condition). It’s fairly common to hear from pulpits and in worship tunes about Jesus dealing with our brokenness, weakness, failures, mistakes, and so on, often in a therapeutic and medical mode. And I think, so far as it goes, that’s not all that bad.
People lament it, but terms like those can be helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, they speak an initially non-threatening or relatable language to people for whom the term “sin” has lost its sense. As Francis Spufford points out, for many, the word ‘sin’ connotes nothing more than chocolates you shouldn’t eat and lingerie.
Second, they can help broaden our conception of sin as both acts that we do and a condition that we’re in. Many have no idea what it is to be a sinner, but surveying their lives, their choices, the chaos without and within, they do know something is radically broken.
Also, I think they can help us understand that element of sin that makes us pitiable and “miserable.” Not all sin is experienced as this conscious, active rebellion. It feels like something we fall into, no matter how hard we run away or would like to avoid it. There’s something about the human condition in sin which makes it sorry and deserving of compassion. Sin is misery and wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). There is something broken about us.
What’s more, much that falls in this overall category of “sinful” behavior, thoughts, etc. which we speak of in euphemism, does have a non-culpable, psychological and medical component which should be dealt with as such. This should impact the way we pastor, counsel, and evaluate others in the Church. Some do struggle against heavier burdens. Telling someone to repent themselves out of a behavior linked to a chemical imbalance or childhood trauma is a recipe for pastoral malpractice. These things do need treatment, healing (human and divine).
But these euphemisms have their limits and so cannot replace or dominate our vocabulary for sin. This is so for at least a couple of reasons.
First, in Scripture, sin is defined theologically. Sin is sin because it is committed ultimately against and before God. This is the point of David’s bit of hyperbole when he says, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Taken flatly, it’s false. He stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed; he sinned against him. Jesus himself speaks of us sinning against our neighbors (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:4). All the same, David has cut to heart of it: primarily and ultimately, sin involves acts and a mindset hostile to God’s loving rule and his good law (1 John 3:4).
Recent euphemisms don’t quite capture this active sense of opposition, pride, hostility, and violation against God, his creatures, and his world.
Which leads to the second problem: most of these euphemisms (if used exclusively) downplay the agency and responsibility of persons. In general, they tend to move everything into the categories of the therapeutic and the medical, instead of the moral. But our condition cannot be reduced to these categories.
No, Scripture gives us a wide variety of terms like “transgression”, “iniquity”, “rebellion”, “idolatry”, “wickedness”, and, yes, “sin” straight-out. And there is something necessary about using these words to describe the myriad forms of human viciousness: hate, racism, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, cheating the poor, fornication, dishonoring our parents, lack of charity, insult, and so on.
We have collectively, and individually, ruined ourselves in setting ourselves in opposition to God’s goodness in these ways. In Adam, the moral break and rebellion preceded any other kind of brokenness which followed as a result.
What’s more, we actively make choices to set ourselves first before God and our neighbors daily. We choose what is easy or profitable or beneficial over what is right. And we rationalize it with just about any sort of defense that’s at hand–including the therapeutic.
And so we need to be able to name that and own it.
Indeed, there’s something healthy and morally empowering in hearing your sin named as sin. If you exclusively think of yourself in the realm of the therapeutic and medical, it’s hard for many to imagine repentance. You can’t repent of “brokenness” in the same way as you can of wickedness.
It can be bracing to hear someone say, “That is sin. You must turn to Christ and repent of it.” Of course, even to repent, we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, but the way we relate to these things changes. I am an active, moral agent, making real choices one way or the other. And that matters.
This is not even close to a comprehensive statement on these things. If I had time and space, it would be good to discuss differences between acts and conditions, corruption, etc. It would be also fruitful to explore the dimension of sin that Scripture names as bondage and enslavement. God has an enemy who tempts, enslaves, and binds people to sin. And I think that forms something of a third category between the therapeutic and the moral dimensions.
At the end of the day, though, I’m simply saying we should not be reductionists about sin. It is a multi-faceted reality and we should speak as diversely and complexly about it as Scripture does.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. Cornelius Plantinga’s discussion in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a good place to start thinking about this stuff.