Here we are again beginning another forty-day period of lent. For many, this is a time of self-reflection, a time when lives are re-examined and in which the soul is tested. Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has seen this has a time of self-imposed torture of one type or another in order to share in the sufferings of the Christ as if giving up chocolate for forty days could be compared with being beaten and then having nails driven through your wrists and feet. And in the end, it all comes down to sin. I mean, that was the whole reason why the messiah had to come in the first place, to be the sacrificial lamb for our sins. That’s what the church teaches.
But the concept of sin has existed long before the Christian church ever did. What exactly is sin anyway? How do we define sin? The Christian church sees sin as more of a way of being. But that is not how other religions see it. The dictionary says that sin is a transgression against religious or moral law, especially if deliberate. That seems pretty clear. A transgression is defined as violating a law, or exceeding limits. So, in modern Standard English, we would consider a sin to be a violation of some moral or religious law.
But that’s how WE define the word. And our definition comes from our common attitude. We don’t generally consider violations of municipal codes as sins. It isn’t a sin to park in a no parking zone, although I would bet that some would consider it a sin to park in a handicapped parking place if not disabled. But it isn’t the law that makes that a sin; it is the effect on another person who may be disabled and unable to park in that particular spot. Generally, we consider a sin to be a violation of one or more of God’s laws. And that leads us to wonder exactly what God’s laws are and that is where religion comes into play. The concept of sin existed long before English ever came to be, so our definition is only as valid as our own understanding of sin, which could be totally bogus, dude.
Our word sin comes from the Old English word, “synn” which share roots with Old Norse (synd) and Old German (sunde). The word most likely came from the participle of the Latin word,“sum”, to be, which finds its roots in a much more ancient language linguists call proto-Indo-European. The connection here is the idea of proof. Is there a transgression? There IS. It is proven. In other words, the verdict of a court, guilty.
The concept of sin found in the New Testament, Christian doctrine, is found in Greek, “harmartia”, which means to miss the mark, as in an arrow missing the bullseye. When Jesus talks of sin, he is speaking of us as failing to hit the mark, to live up to expectations. So sin would depend upon what that expectation might be. Jesus said, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So missing the mark would mean that you fall short of being God. So I guess we’re all pretty fucked. But then, that was what we wanted back in the garden. According to the myth, the serpent promised we would be like God if we ate the fruit. So Jesus is saying you live in a state of sin because you cannot be like God. Thus, sin isn’t something you DO, it is something you ARE. It is your very state of being. That’s why Paul can say we are all sinners. It’s not because we do bad stuff, or that we are bad people. It’s just that we are not God.
So then Jesus left us with two commandments. Only two. Love one another and to love God. So, by the English definition and by the Greek definition, you miss the mark, you violate the law when you fail to be loving and compassionate. By Catholic standards, that would mean that you are no longer in a state of grace. Grace is that which is given freely by God. So you are out of communion with the godhead at that point and up to that point that you realize that you are being non-loving. Love is that which connects you to the divine. And, by Catholic standards, being disconnected from the divine ultimately leads to sorrow and suffering, not so much as a punishment, but as a consequence. Thus, Newton’s Law comes into play, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is what the Buddhists and Hindus would say.
Buddhism and Hinduism have no real concept of sin. Buddhists have a very cause and effect universe, which they call Karma. Living a good life of moderation and compassion leads to good consequences. Living a selfish life will lead to bad consequences that cause sufferings. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right work, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Following this path leads to good karma and failing to follow this path (as in missing the mark?) leads to bad karma and unfortunate consequences.
Judaism sees sins literally as a violation of God’s commandments. The Hebrew word for sin, “avera”, means transgression. So in Jewish thought, you commit a sin when you fail to follow any of the myriad regulations regarding dress, diet, or ritual given by God to Moses, not just the Ten Commandments (which are really twenty). Being Jewish, you would then perform any number of rituals in order to seek forgiveness for that transgression. There is an overall belief that God will punish both the individual and the community for failing to follow one of the commandments. In ancient days, this consisted of animal sacrifice. Today other rituals are observed. Each year, Jews celebrate (if celebrate is the right word) the Day of Atonement by fasting and attending services.
Islam sees sin as anything that is not in the will of Allah. There are seventy major sins in Islam, including allowing your spouse to cheat on you. Islam, however, in spite of the long lists of possible violations, requires nothing more for atonement than a true feeling of regret for having failed to follow the will of Allah.
In the Ba há’í Faith, humans are considered to be naturally good, fundamentally spiritual beings. Human beings were created because of God's immeasurable love for us. However, the Bahá'í teachings compare the human heart to a mirror, which, if turned away from the light of the sun (i.e. God), is incapable of receiving God's love. It is only by turning unto God that the spiritual advancement can be made. In this sense, "sinning" is to follow the inclinations of one's own lower nature, to turn the mirror of one's heart away from God. So, by this definition, sin is anything that keeps you apart from God and self-improvement. So even something which one might consider generally positive, such as exercise, could be sinful if it were excessive, or if it distracted you from a closer connection to the divine.
Many people love those religions that give them a list of sins. It’s so much easier. There is no thinking required. Reflecting on whether or not your thoughts and actions lead you closer or further away from the divine requires a lot more work. It’s a lot easier to just think of sex outside of marriage as a sin and be done with it. It is not always easy to consider whether or not those sexual feelings come out of a desire to please and show love to your partner, or only to satisfy your own sexual longings without a care or thought to the feelings or desires of the one you love. There is a difference in making someone feel loved, cherished, and satisfied, and using someone as a means of self-gratification. So some people are just plain lazy. And besides, sin is a lot more fun when you can accuse others of it.
I think during lent, the bottom line here is: do we go about our lives mindlessly doing the same things over and over without thought to whether or not we are progressing as human individuals, or do we try to improve ourselves? And somehow we can only improve ourselves it seems, if we consider that we are not already perfect just the way we are. Even Jesus, as we see in this week’s gospel, had to go into the wilderness and confront his demons before he started his ministry.
I suppose any of us might see those things we do that keep us from being the sort of people we want to be as being a type of sin. By any definition, that would seem to fit the concept of sin. Either we are missing the mark according to our own expectations, or violating our own commandments. Faith, in the end, is an action based upon a belief. Well, do you believe what you believe? What, exactly, do you believe? If, during the next forty days, you can come up with some idea of that, then it has been a lent well spent.