We Are Incomprehensibly Sinful

We Are Incomprehensibly Sinful

“You are poor, worthless, vile, and polluted.”  —Jonathan Edwards

Well, yes. Jonathan Edwards and his ilk, as well as untold thousands of fundamentalist preachers in more modern times, have delighted in pointing out the abysmally sinful nature of our hearts.

And they are right!

The problem is that they don’t proceed to the next step.

I dare say that we are immeasurably more sinful, more evil, more in love with darkness than most of us care to imagine. But don’t feel discouraged: Read through the end of this essay to see glorious light dispatching the darkness of our depravity. The essence of this short commentary is good news—really good news!

Really, really bad

In teaching Bible study classes to teens as well as to adults, we occasionally were asked the question, “Is it a sin to _____?” That is intrinsically a less-than-useful question, no matter how one fills in the blank. The question itself arises from misunderstanding of sin and of life and of God himself.

It is important to rid ourselves of the pervasive error that sin is largely a transgressing of various rules or commandments. There is no heavenly list of things that are sinful vs. things that are not sinful. It is so much more than that. God did not sit around heaven and think to himself, “Hmmmm, I need to give these people some Rules, so I can see whether or not they are willing to obey me.” No—he offered people rules of conduct (e.g., those in the Torah) because he knew that people who lived according to those principles would be happier, healthier, and less destructive toward their friends and families as well as toward themselves.

A given action isn’t inherently sinful because it’s against one of God’s commandments; God devised commandments, rather, in order to highlight behavior that is inherently destructive. One helpful way to define sin: it is anything that is hurtful to yourself or to others, and/or that leads toward darkness and death, and/or that pulls you or someone else away from God, away from Life.

To ask “What are the things I do or do not do that are sinful?” is like my asking, were I to be set down suddenly into the middle of a city in western China, “What are the things I do that are not Chinesey?” A silly question, no? Everything about me would be contrary to Chineseness! The way I talk, the way I walk and hold my body, my gestures, my thought processes, my clothing, my tastes in art and music, my attitudes toward people around me, the way I look at people, my opinions on just about anything—my entire being would be foreign! Likewise, in the present age we fallen human beings are at our core not citizens of God’s city. Almost everything about us would be foreign and offensive if we were plopped down into the middle of the City of God in our fallen state. Quite rare would be the thought, the sentence, the desire, the gesture, the act of imagination, etc., that is not contaminated by self-centeredness and a host of other shortcomings that have no legitimate place in the City of God.

Yes, we perform individual deeds that are deemed sinful because they clearly are destructive, and it is perfectly appropriate to call those actions sin. But our very beings are permeated with inadequacies, with failings, with destructiveness, with darkness, with brokenness. On the one hand, I love and am deeply moved by the confession in the Book of Common Prayer:

We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Yet sins committed by our actions or by our inaction are often trivial compared with the profound evil that pervades our entire beings. When measured against what God intended us to be, we miss the mark in virtually every aspect of our lives.

It’s not simply a question of actions or of opportunities missed, or of deeds/thoughts that clearly hurt others. According to the broad definition of sin as “missing the mark,” even our normal human capabilities (or rather, lack thereof) are sin. We can glimpse what God intended for humans by observing rare individuals who transcend common limitations in certain areas: savants like Stephen Wiltshire, who can glance at a scene once (e.g., the entire city of Rome) and then spend several days drawing it perfectly from memory; musical geniuses like Mozart and Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns; scientific geniuses such as Galileo and Copernicus and Einstein; artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo and Rembrandt; almost impossibly unselfish individuals like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa. In these individuals we catch a glimpse of God’s intentions for all humans.

God intended that we should be immeasurably more capable than we are, but we miserably miss the mark. So in this sense our limitations, our ignorance, our defects—even our illnesses—are sin. Sin is what doesn’t belong in God’s City, what is foreign to God’s intention for his creation, what pulls us away from our Creator and toward darkness. It might be helpful if we could eliminate all use of the word sin and replace it with a term less loaded with historical baggage. Yes, sin certainly includes purposeful transgressions of God’s laws, intentional acts of cruelty, etc. But those are not the only things for which Jesus died.

Through Jesus, God was reconciling the entire creation to himself. Everything that needs to be reconciled, everything that is out of whack—from the Nazi holocaust, to the squashing of toads by cars on highways, to the tendency of hawks to eat squirrels, to littering on the sidewalk, to the everyday common cold, to cancer, to the existence of birth defects, to fear, to anxiety—is something for which Jesus died. From the seemingly inconsequential but painful fillip to the most gruesome genocide, they are contrary to God’s loving designs for his creation. And they are all covered by God’s limitless grace.


At this point, if you are like many with whom I have shared these thoughts, you may be offended—your objection possibly running along the lines of, “That’s absurd and repugnant! You’re saying that it’s a sin even to be sick? That is SO unfair! That can’t be right. How can God fault us for being sick, or for being born with physical or mental limitations, or for. . .”

Or you might be thinking, “I can’t conceive of God’s grace covering something like Hitler’s or Stalin’s or Genghis Khan’s murders of millions of people!”

And yet sin is whatever is not of God, whatever leads away from God, away from his perfection, away from the joys of his City, from tiny white lies to horrific genocides. And in scripture we are told that Jesus is “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Sin should not be equated with accusation from God. Sin, rather, is that which can and will never be found in God’s eternal City.

The good news

In any discussion of sin, however, accusations from God tend to loom large. Most of us obsess about culpability. So let’s go there right now, with some great news: There is no black book! That belief has caused enormous problems within Christian circles from the beginning. In Romans 4:8, Paul’s wording (if you look at the Greek) says in effect that God is not keeping a record of sins. Paul says in Romans 3:25 that God’s righteousness was demonstrated by the fact that he had overlooked humankind’s sins. God was in Christ, reconciling the entire world to himself (II Corinthians 5:19). God’s plan is to have mercy on all human beings (Romans 11:32). You are forgiven and redeemed, along with all creation. Your sins are covered by God’s infinite grace. You are not guilty. Period. The message of the gospel is not that you are lost in sin and condemned, but that by bowing the knee to Jesus you can be reconciled to God. Rather, it is that you are reconciled to God, and by entering into that reconciliation you can experience a glorious new life through the power of the Holy Spirit (see II Corinthians 5:17 ff.).

The primary reason why we love to codify what is and what is not sin, I think, is so we can deceive ourselves into believing we can avoid sin. And the impulse feeding that desire is failure to understand God’s grace.

Most people tend to believe God is highly invested in our being right, in our behaving according to certain Rules. But the rules God has occasionally given us have little to do with helping us be less sinful, since God knows (he is not stupid!) that we are permeated with sin down to the center of our beings. He provides instructions like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount in order to help us order our society and do minimal harm to each other, not in some unrealistic hope that we can minimize our individual sinfulness. Even if we appear to succeed in following everything in the Ten Commandments and in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re still going to be deeply broken, destructive people. That’s our nature in this fallen age.

We can’t genuinely relate to God in a free, deeply personal way until we are aware of the depth and breadth of our sin. The greater our awareness of our depravity, in fact, the greater our joy, the greater our ability to bathe in our Lord’s love and forgiveness. Only by remaining conscious of our sinfulness can we begin to grasp the reality of the fact that God’s acceptance of us, his willingness to befriend us, is not based on how good we are. A preacher I knew in Texas many years ago said in a private conversation, “There are days when I believe I sin only once or twice.” What a sad statement! He had no clue about the nature of sin. His unconscious assumption was that, by being very good, he could gain greater approval from God. He equated sin with failing to follow God’s commandments. He had no concept of the pervasiveness of darkness, of unbelief, of self-centeredness within every segment of his existence—which meant that he also had no understanding of the pervasiveness of God’s love.

We can freely acknowledge our sin because, and only because, it’s all covered! Before God even created this world, the Lamb was slain—God committed to bearing within himself all the sin, the pain, the suffering, the illness, the wickedness of this world. No matter how grievous your sin, it cannot, it will not fall outside of the breadth and depth of God’s love that experiences it and bears it and finally swallows it up within his infinite grace.

It’s a virtuous circle. Only by clearly understanding the fullness of God’s love and grace can we dare to acknowledge how deeply sinful we are. And only through such acknowledgment can we increasingly grasp and rejoice in the fullness of his love.

I am not advocating the kind of groveling and indulging in self-hatred that for centuries has accompanied traditional beliefs in “total depravity.” Such practices and attitudes are extremely destructive, often leading people to obsess about their sinfulness. If I may make a rather pedestrian analogy, it’s sort of like the itch that is always present in the middle of my back. If I stop to think about it, it’s there. If my attention isn’t occupied with other things, I notice it. But for the most part, I don’t notice it because I’m distracted by more important matters. Similarly, a healthy spiritual life is one that is always aware of the immense darkness and selfishness and inadequacies in our heartsbut just barely, as out of the corner of an eye. The primary purpose of this awareness is to provide the seed that grows into ever-increasing joy at the realization of how very much he loves us! It reveals just enough shadow to show us where to stand in order to turn our faces to the light.

If you bristle at the suggestion that you are totally filled with, permeated by, sin, that almost everything about you is contaminated with sin, then you probably have not yet comprehensively grasped God’s grace. The more we grow in the Spirit, the more we are able to freely acknowledge the depths of our depravity, while simultaneously proclaiming with joy, “Yes, it’s true that I am saturated with sin—but it’s all covered, and I am not guilty, and I am an adopted child of the King. I am infinitely loved! I am free! Isn’t that wonderful?!”

All the wickedness in this world that man might work or think
Is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal in the sea.

—William Langland, Piers Plowman, passus V