The word “sin” has always made me cringe. Sin is such a tricky concept that I failed to fully understand most of my life. My inherited—and former—understanding of sin equates it to something of a clear-cut “moral crime,” but such a simplistic definition falls terribly short of the truth and does not encompass the entire role of sin in the narrative of the Bible.
So what is that role? Last year during our Return to Eden sermon series, someone asked Barry why God placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden when He would have known that humans would choose to eat from the tree and introduce sin into the world. What a provocative question! If we reframe it in the spirit of our current What If… Easter series, it would be this: What if sin had never come into the picture?
To tackle that question, let’s get a better grasp of what sin is. I have come to understand sin less as a moral crime and more as a state of disconnection from God. If you desire to dig in a little deeper, I have appreciated Barry’s perspective on sin from his sermon on the Tree of Life. He identified the first sinful choice made by Adam and Eve in the garden as not trusting God enough to eat from the Tree of Life—instead deciding to define good and bad for themselves. In last weekend's sermon, he also explained that all sin is a rejection of the blessings of God.
Another facet of my new understanding of sin is that it’s definitely not always clear cut, and much of the time it’s not even intentional. God describes sin in Genesis 4:7 as crouching at the door, eager to control you, and a good chunk of the Levitical law covers instructions for how to deal with unintentional sin. Sure, sometimes we are well aware that we’ve given into temptation. Other times, sin that doesn’t even belong to us creates destruction in our lives. Even the earth suffers for the sins of its people, as revealed in Isaiah 24.
No matter whether it’s our sin, their sin, intentional or unintentional sin, all of it negatively impacts our hearts and damages our capacity to give and receive love. Sin takes residence in our hearts, crowding out space for God’s spirit to reside. Without that spirit, we may not even realize that we’re turning away from God or why—it’s just the result of sin on our human nature. And it goes directly against the grain of God’s desire to abide in life-giving, loving relationship with us.
To help us recognize and reconcile sin, God offered us the law and extremely detailed instructions for “getting right” again. God’s intention was to help us overcome our human nature to turn away from Him out of shame, guilt, despair or any other reason. Through this law, God offered a multitude of options for returning to Him. Ultimately, however, the combination of the law and human nature also led to some unfortunate consequences.
Ironically, the people broke the first commandment by essentially idolizing the law and becoming sin-obsessed. The obsession manifested in many different ways—and we still witness this in our modern day. Some people became trapped by the need to live by the letter of the law, feeling as though they’d be completely ruined if they stepped outside the lines. Some got totally caught up in trying to rank the severity of sin despite warnings that all sin is fatally destructive at its core. And yet others became so overwhelmed by the requirements of the law that they felt helpless to maintain it—and maybe even compelled to rebel against it. I’m certain I haven’t even covered all the bases of this obsession. No matter how the obsession with sin manifests, it leads to the same result of hardening the human heart and crowding out space for God and the love He has to offer.
The law wasn’t failsafe. When people became sin-obsessed and idolized the law, sin used the law for the purposes of evil when God intended it for good. Israel has built many altars to take away sin, but these very altars became places for sinning! (Hosea 8:11) Under the power of sin, the law was used as a tool to keep humanity trapped in endless cycles of sin, wickedness and evil. God also employed fear as a tool to snap the people out of their sin trance. When that didn’t work, God sent the prophets to clearly spell out the problem for the people. None of it was enough. Humanity needed help.
And we got it. We got our help in such a wonderful way. Jesus came onto the scene so inconspicuously, but brilliantly. He was captivating—people dropped everything to follow him and see what would happen. He loved each person he met so well. This man, this friend, is amazing in ways too numerous to count—but here are a few.
Jesus healed. People who spent so much of their lives without being able to see or to walk opened their eyes and took the first steps into the rest of their lives. He drove out demons and freed innocent people who had been held captive by evil.
He forgave sins. He showed us, right there in the Lord’s prayer, that we have the power to forgive sins. Not only can we forgive sins, but our act of forgiveness is imperative since it frees us of the resentments that block our own hearts. He risked his own life to share with us the authority of extending forgiveness so that we can all be right with God.
He fought for us. Jesus revealed that the character of our God is one who releases the caged birds so they won’t be harmed before he flips the tables of corruption for us.
And Jesus taught us. We learned from Tim’s sermon that Jesus didn’t have to teach, but God’s love is unfailing—and God was determined to share with us the path to the abundant life that was intended for us. The law failed to lead us there. Fear failed. The prophets couldn’t turn the people from sin. But Jesus—Jesus was victorious.
Because of sin, we needed Jesus. But what if sin had never entered the picture in the first place? What if we had never needed Jesus? Don’t you still want Jesus? I’ll raise my hand. Yes! I want Jesus in my life whether or not I need him.
Jesus came to me when I needed healing. He forgave me for the times when I chose the path of disgrace. He’s showing me ways that I can serve and fight with him to cover the broken places of the world with his perfect love. And he’s still teaching all of us.
Could it be that Jesus is teaching us now that his Father flipped the tables by using sin to reveal to us the awesome force of mutual love? How would we know that a blessing is good is if blessings were all we ever knew? How could we be grateful to God if we had remained unaware of lack? If Adam and Eve had only eaten from the Tree of Life as God commanded, how would we ever know the transforming power of God’s grace? If we hadn’t been given the freedom to turn from God, how would we ever know that our experience of His love intensifies when we return? Isn’t it better that we participate with God in the world, not out of obedience, but because it’s our own desire?
I believe this was God’s plan all along. He allowed our human nature to cause our fall into sin so that we could freely choose to come back to him with the confident hope from our understanding that love is exponentially more powerful when it’s shared. God desires for us to choose a life in the Kingdom of Heaven as His beloved children. He revealed his plan to us through his son Jesus, who was such a perfect expression of His unfailing love that we are glad we needed him and grateful for the opportunity to become the people God created us to be.
Yes, I need Jesus. But more enthusiastically, I love Jesus and my life with him in it.
Related Bible passages: Romans 7:4-25; Jeremiah 5:20-25; Hosea 6:1-6; Mark 11:25-26; Luke 7:47-50; John 8: 34-37; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21