Defining sin for adolescents

I’m on our church’s confirmation retreat. For the last three years, we’ve framed our retreat around a discussion of the three questions you get asked when you join the United Methodist Church in tandem with three verses Ephesians 4:14-16. The first question asks us whether we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins,” while Ephesians 4:14 in the NIV talks about humanity being “like infants tossed back and forth between the waves.” So I’ve gone with the metaphor of sin as a “sea of wrath.” This year, a kid was asking but what about sins that the Bible doesn’t talk about, how do we tell what they are? We had just read Galatians 5:19-21 about the works of the flesh. So I said sin is doing things that create “drama” in the negative teenage sense of the word, because I think that’s a much better way of understanding it than “not following the rules.”

Most Christians in the evangelical world that I come from define sin in entirely vertical terms as “disobedience to God’s will.” This is the way we learn about it in the popular Four Spiritual Laws that define the problem of sin in terms that do not involve the existence of other people. Sin is doing what God told you not to and the reason not to do it is because it makes Him mad. The reason I find this approach inadequate especially for teenagers is because they’re in the process of discovering that adult authority figures really can make rules and engage in disciplinary measures that are unfair and arbitrary. We make God look like a mean middle school gym teacher who loves nothing more than blowing his whistle.

Furthermore, the rule-following approach to sin seems consistently to lead to works-righteousness. I really think many evangelicals need to use words like “obedience” and “sacrifice” because they need to earn something by not sinning, even though one of the many rules you’re supposed to follow is to “profess” that you’re justified by faith alone. This hypothesis developed for me through meditating on Matthew 9:13 where Jesus tells the Pharisees to go find our what it means that God desires mercy not sacrifice. Many of us prefer sacrifice to mercy because mercy doesn’t generate credit.

Paul talks about the difference between a “spirit of bondage” and a “spirit of adoption,” seeing God as an arbitrary master versus a loving father. Under a spirit of bondage, you do what your master says because He’s the master and you want Him to see that you’re more zealous and loyal than any of His other slaves; under a spirit of adoption, you have actually come to believe that your Heavenly Father isn’t a mean middle school gym teacher but has a purely benevolent will that He actually wants you to ask questions about and try to understand better.

In any case, here’s how I think about sin as creating “drama.” God is constantly seeking to bring His creation into harmony and equilibrium. When we do things that sabotage this harmony like dumping poison in a lake or starting a rumor about another kid at school, then “drama” results. I think this is what the Greek word orge that we translate as “wrath” means. It’s the violence of a violated creation. Is it God’s wrath? Yes, because God is always everywhere throughout creation, as the agent of its harmony (and hence its violence against disharmony). But I think anytime the Bible “psychologizes” this wrath as an “emotion” that belongs to God, it does so as a kind of short-hand similar to how demons are depicted as little red men with horns to allegorically represent the spiritual forces of wickedness, like the commercialization of sex or the proliferation of violence through video games and movies.

I’ve written before how the word for devil in Greek (diabolos) combines the words for throw (ballo) and amidst (dia). What does the devil do? He throws us into chaos. He creates drama in communities, families, and friendships. Is this “drama king” a real person or an anthropomorphism to explain the strange phenomenon within the universe that seems to wage war against God’s harmony? I don’t think that it matters. Just call it the devil or Satan (the Hebrew version of the same word).

In any case, what we need in salvation is to be rescued from the sea of wrath that we are always creating with our sin. We need a means of processing our drama and restoring peace. That’s what the body of Christ provides us with: an island of mercy, a stable community where people have been empowered to harmonize with one another and God. I just think this is a more faithful representation of the problem of sin and its solution than “You’d better do what coach says or he’ll blow the whistle and make you do push-ups.”

13 thoughts on “Defining sin for adolescents

  1. Sometimes when drama is created, there is more to the story than everyone else knows. I know I have been involved in drama and I certainly did not go into it wanting that. I will not speak of the specific details, but always remember there are two sides to every story.

  2. I will suggest another take, “you had better do what the coach is saying because it is good for you”. In other words, God wants us to obey Him because He has set forth rules in the universe that if obeyed produce good “fruit” and if not obeyed they produce bad “fruit”. It’s like telling our kids not to play in the street, it’s not because He wants to spoil their fun, but He loves them and wants them to live to play again another day. When we are enlightened to the fact that this is how much God loves us, we hopefully are obliged to reciprocate by yielding lordship to this amazing loving God – not to mention the fact that He sent His Son to die for all those times we didn’t listen to His instruction.

  3. “A kid was asking but what about sins that the Bible doesn’t talk about, how do we tell what they are?…Most Christians in the evangelical world that I come from define sin in entirely vertical terms as “disobedience to God’s will.” This is the way we learn about it in the popular Four Spiritual Laws that define the problem of sin in terms that do not involve the existence of other people.”

    I like your approach to an extent, and I agree with you strongly that the Four Spiritual Laws approach is not an effective answer. I believe that all offence is in relationships. We are called upon to love others as ourselves, but to do this well we must, in fact, love ourselves. The way to love ourselves is to love God, not by effort but responsively, in grasping his love for us. Then we can respond to his love, love ourselves as he loves us, and love others as ourselves. This is it–all of it!

    I develop this in three blog posts beginning with,
    http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/does-behavior-matter/. Have a great day! ~Tim

  4. As always, I’d fudge the details here and there, but Morgan, you’re one of my favorite preachers for making the text come alive in real, pictorial, and visceral fashion that strikes at the heart.

  5. I was surprised by how useful of a metaphor “drama” could be. One caution that comes to mind: be careful how you could cause more expressive persons to see that as a bad thing about themselves.

    One other question…since it’s sort of one of my key issues on the nature of God: By your quote, “Yes, because God is always everywhere throughout creation, as the agent of its harmony (and hence its violence against disharmony)” are you suggesting that God does in fact cause violence and harm to God’s children? I know it’s biblical and everything….I just reject it as contrary to the revelation of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    • It’s a tricky line to walk. We have to be faithful to some account of God’s wrath. We can’t pretend that it isn’t in scripture. The best I can do is to say that there is a friction that results when we violate God’s harmony. It’s violence in the same way that gravity does violence to me when I jump out of a second story window.

      Another way of narrating it if we’re going to stick with the psychologized anthropomorphic way of talking about God is to say that God gets mad when His children are hurt out of solidarity. This is consistent w how Jesus lashed out at Pharisees when they attacked the sinners he was hanging out with. I don’t think God is forced to accept unrepentant bullies and rapists and haters into eternal communion with Him and the people they hurt. It’s His call but the nihilistic view of the 0 or 100 grading scale from the Four Spiritual Laws does not ultimately square with what the Bible says.

  6. Great post. I see sin as doing something I would not confess openly to all the world.
    But people’s consciences being as they are, your definition makes more sense.
    A life in the light and a life of peace.
    But we are discussing sins of commission here, drama and hidden things.
    What of sins of omission?

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