a New Christianity

What is Sin?

What is sin? I can imagine a young boy or girl asking their parents this question after a church service or a Sunday school class. Thinking for a moment, the parent may answer something like this: “Sin is when you do something bad, like hit your sister, or when your mommy or daddy tell you do to something, and you don’t.” And this definition isn’t far off, from touching on the essential parts of the word, as found at dictionary.com: sin. So, it would seem an open and shut case. Or is it?

While “transgression, or violation of a religious or moral law”, seems to sum up our understanding of what we think of as ‘sin’, in a New Christianity, we need to take a closer look at this idea through the eyes of the God that is love. It will be helpful in our discussion to go back to the Greek word, which has been translated as sin, so many times in the New Testament. There are actually two words which have been translated in this way: hamartia, and hamartano. Hamartia actually comes from the root word hamartano, and these words are so closely related, that their definitions are almost identical.

Hamartano:

  1. to be without a share in
  2. to miss the mark
  3. to err, be mistaken
  4. to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong
  5. to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin

Think about dictionary entries for a moment. If you have not noticed, when a word is defined in a dictionary, the definitions are usually placed in order of frequency and importance. Frequency, of course, being how often a word is used in a specific context. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that of all the definitions of hamartano, the last and least, is sin.

Here are some examples of the definitions of hamartia. (Remember that hamartano is the root word of hamartia.)

To miss the mark: A girl and her alarm clock.
A girl is supposed to be at work at 5:00pm. She gets home from school, and being tired, she lays down for a nap. She is careful to set her alarm for 4:15, so as not to be late. But when the alarm goes off, she tells herself that one hit on the snooze button for another 8 minutes of rest can’t hurt. Instead of hitting the snooze button however, she hits the off button, instead. She wakes up at 5:20pm, when the Asst. Manager calls her to find out if she is coming in for work. She was aiming for the snooze button, but missed the mark; she is in hamartia.

To err, or be mistaken: A woman and her checkbook.
As a woman is balancing her checkbook, she reads a 7 as a 1 and figures a balance that is incorrect. Later, when her calculated balance doesn’t match her statement, she realizes that she made an error; she is in hamartia.

To wander from the path…to do or go wrong: The brother and the science project.
A brother starts out to help his sister with her science project. They argue, the argument turns into a fight, they end up hitting each other, and the sister winds up in tears, with nothing to show for her project. The brother started out on the right track, but wandered off the path. As if he were lost in the woods, he is in hamartia.

Now, looking at the love and forgiveness given us through Christ, we should take another look at our examples. As you can see by the definitions, these examples show us instances of hamartia. In the first example, the girl has overslept. We know that the girl should get more rest at night so she won’t need a nap. But just as importantly, she needs to make sure she knows her alarm clock well (she probably does), to try and avoid oversleeping. If being late has cost her the job, she should be honest and understanding about it, and look for a new job. However, most employers will forgive one or two late arrivals, as long as it isn’t frequent or habitual. In either case, by trying to do better and to be on time, she will make the situation right again.

In the second example, the woman has probably already found, and corrected her error. If she bounced any checks, she will need to pay for them, as well as any other fees which she incurs. Then, she should move on, trying to be more accurate in her record keeping and computations. Doing so, she will have made the situation right again.

In our last example, we find the brother trying to help with his sister’s science project. First, he should apologize for the fighting and arguing. Then, if his sister still wants his help, he should let his sister be in charge and help her to complete her project, her way. Doing so, he will have made the situation right again.

But wait, what about the first definition? There has to be more to sin then alarm clocks and checkbooks. And there is. Let’s take a look for a moment at the first definition of hamartia: to be without a share in.

In the piece Movin’ Out, with a Fresh Start, I wrote about the joy that the Father wants us to have. Along with this joy, He also wants us to have peace. This peace is not the absence of fighting in our lives, but rather the inner peace that comes from knowing that with Him, all things are possible. This peace is what makes it possible for us to keep the other aspects of our lives in proper perspective. I like to think of His joy, and His peace, as being cookies placed on a plate in the center of the table. They will never spoil, get old, or become stale. The plate is never empty (sort of like the cup, in the psalm). You are invited to have a seat, there at the table, and He wants you to help yourself to as many cookies as you would like to have.

Often it happens that we get caught up in the ways and things of the world, and we choose not to have one of His cookies, thinking that something from the world will somehow taste better. Thus it is, that we find ourselves without a share in the Father’s peace and joy. Thus it is, that we find ourselves in hamartia, because of our own decisions.

The church, which focuses narrowly on defining hamartia as sin (see the fifth definition) takes care to remind us that the “wages of sin is death”. That “all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God”. That “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”. But with a New Christianity, we realize that God would not condemn us to death for an error in balancing our checkbooks, or for accidentally turning off our alarm clocks, or even for hitting our brother or sister. We also realize that He would not seek to punish us further for cutting ourselves off from Him, or from His peace and joy. When we do cut ourselves off, we suffer much worse punishments, by our own hands, than He would ever want us to have to endure.

So then what is all the fuss about sin for? Good question. If we wander from the path, or make an error, then we should do our best to correct our error, make amends to those we may have harmed, and then move on down the path. This is how I put it in my piece called The Commandments and the Law:

“We have sinned … but we’re doing the best we can, so skip the guilt trip and get back to trying to be a better person. Yeshua died for our sins on the cross, and thus we are forgiven; if and when (and at that exact moment, that) we confess these sins. Therefore, we are NOW worthy to move forward on behalf of, and in service to God.”

As I explained in my examples above, an important part of confessing our sins involves trying to make the situation right. This is important to do. But once we have done our best to make the corrections, we need to think like the archer. If we missed the bullseye (or missed the mark), we need to string another arrow, take aim, and try again. This is the perspective that New Christianity gives us.

As I have already noted, there is a fifth definition to hamartano (the root word of hamartia) where we actually find the word sin. In part 2, of What is Sin?, we will look at this fifth definition, specifically, as we take a look at the driving force behind hamartano.

Grace and peace to you all,
Paul