I am continuing my series on the spiritual life. Last time, I said that I wanted to go a little deeper and talk about how God, through Jesus, lead us to freedom and abundance of life by healing our hearts. To get there, I need to talk about two concepts that many people misunderstand: sin and atonement.
“Sin” is more than shame. “Atonement” is more than hate.
Many people understand the word ‘sin’ as a commitment to self-hatred, requiring us to see ourselves as wretched and vile. I understand that people have suffered a lot of shame related to the word ‘sin’. Similarly, the word ‘atonement’ has been heard as meaning that God hates you, and his hatred is so bad that he had to take it out on his son, and kill him instead of you. Please know that this does not reflect the rich Christian understanding of those words. If that is how you understand sin and atonement, I would love to hear from you and talk about it.
Big words for big realities
Why not just get rid of those words and come up with something else? For me, the reason is that there is no real substitute. The biblical word ‘sin’ captures something weighty and important. If we got rid of that word, we would have to find another one that covers the same scope. As Rob Bell tells us, we need big words to capture big realities, and ‘sin’ is one of these words. I want to leave aside the caricatures of ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’, and reflect on why I think they are words we need to describe the state of the world and our need for healing.
We need a word with a range wide enough to capture issues like oppression, murder, genocide, and mass violence, as well as smaller issues like petty jealousy, selfishness, and gossip. It needs to capture both the actions that hurt ourselves and others, and the impulse that lies behind those actions.
A big word for a big mess
‘Sin’ expresses the fact that the world is a mess. It’s a word that answers why every novel and movie is centred on conflict and struggle. It explains why almost every year of human history has had a war going on somewhere. ‘Sin’ captures why our best intentions can often go wrong, why peace plans fail again and again, why reform can do harm, why people with great educations and loving homes hurt others, and why power seems to corrupt even the best people. If you can think of a different word, please tell me!
A word that points to our need for healing
Whatever word we use, we still need inner healing, societal healing and planetary healing. Education, medicine, and more just social structures all play an important role in the healing. But Christianity claims that the deeper spiritual level in our hearts also needs healing. This deeper level is where Jesus wants to bring grace. In upcoming posts, I will talk about what Christianity says is going on at this deeper level, and how Jesus offers healing.