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.”