The Bible has much to say about human choices, intentions and failures, but much of the language the Bible uses seems archaic to modern ears. Unfortunately, this makes many think that the Bible’s teachings are, therefore, also archaic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most common of these in English Bibles is that familiar word “sin.” It has a bad press. Here’s Brennan Manning’s familiar critique:
“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’
‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let Me in either.”
It’s a painful story because it highlights the familiar -but wholly erroneous- association between personal purity as the entry ticket to hallowed ground.
So what is sin?
“Sin” is translated from the word chata (Hebrew: חָטָא). Chata means “to fail” or “to miss [the mark/a goal].” It’s a metaphor derived from the context of archery, or something involving a target. For example, when the Tribe of Benjamin trained a battalion of sling-shotters, they could not “miss” – chata (Judges 20:16).
Proverbs 19:2 talks about chata-ing (or “missing/losing”) your way. In the Old Testament (OT), sin is most basically a failure to fulfil a goal or to arrive.
That’s a very helpful starting point.
All sin boils down to a failure to love God the most and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). That’s why Jesus Christ said these were the greatest commandments, and it’s why half of the Ten Commandments cautioned the Israelites against failing to love God and the other half cautioned them against failing to love their neighbours. There is a deep connection between the failure to love God and the failure to love people, and when we sin against people, we sin against God.
So it does come down, as Terry Pratchett put it, to a very practical issue:
“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.”
― Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum
Sin Is Deceptive
In the Bible, when people sin they often either don’t know it or they think they are somehow succeeding – like Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites or King Saul hunting David in the wilderness. This is significant because it portrays sin as deceptive. Sin is not just failing to do what is right. It is also about redefining what is right or wrong on our own terms over and against God’s.
Remember that proverb about “Woe to the one who moves boundary stones”?
And that deceptive quality is also addictive.
“No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.”
― George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
Where Does Sin Come From?
The first mention of sin in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4:7: “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”
In the previous chapter, Cain and Abel’s parents, Adam and Eve, “missed the mark” by choosing to disobey God. This is presented as the Bible’s “origin story,” as a parable of every human facing the same choices and the same challenges. Sin, like a wild animal, is crouching at the door, eager to consume us.
Our tendencies toward failure and self-deception run deep. Even our urges and desires seem bent on pushing our own goals against God’s goals. And the battle continues. As Bonhoeffer put it:
“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Sin in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) to describe sin as a power or force that rules humans and compels us to do things we don’t want to do (Romans 6:6; 7:15-16).
Sin is a failure to be human – and to be fully human is to be fully in love with God and others. It is our inability to rightly decide if we are succeeding or failing in God’s eyes. And it is a deep, selfish impulse that drives much of our behaviour.
It always strikes me that, truly, sin is that trapped feeling at the back of the Eagles’ song, Hotel California, rather than the glitzy “pink champagne” stuff in the foreground. Here’s the lyric :
“Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
‘Relax,’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave …”
― The Eagles, Hotel California
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- When you think of “sin,” what first comes to mind? Why?
- Do you think it’s true that a lot of people these days dismiss the Bible because it seems archaic or out-of-touch? If so, how have you seen this to be the case?
- In what ways is sin a “failure” or a “miss”? Explain.
- In what ways is sin best represented by not loving God or other people? Explain.
- In what ways is sin “redefining right and wrong”? Explain.
- Read Romans 7:15. Sin appears very early in the Bible and runs deep. In what ways would you agree that sin runs deep in the world and in all of our lives?
- Read 1 Peter 2:22-24. How is Jesus Christ the answer to the problem of sin?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.