By: John Shelby Spong
of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation
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Shifting and Assuming Responsibility
The concept of sin is not contained within catechisms learned in our churches, or in the theological vocabulary of our priests. Rather, I believe, each and every act of self-indulgence constitutes sin. Any time we put our own interests above that of others, so that we profit at their expense, we sin. Each time our words or actions cause a barrier to the loving relationship that could exist between others and God, we sin. Sin is never an offence committed by corporate, governmental or religious organizations; sin is entirely the result of choices by individuals. Every word or action that causes fear, or denies equality between majority and minority groups, every law passed that takes away the right of individuals to appeal any injustices committed against themselves, and any war that is fought solely based on greed or prejudice, is sin and has one or more humans as instigators.
The sin of Sodom, loudly declaimed by fundamentalists, was according to Ezekiel 16: 49 - 50 "She lived with her sisters in the lap of luxury - proud, gluttonous, and lazy. They ignored the oppressed and the poor. They put on airs and lived obscene lives." Though the entire city of Sodom was destroyed, it was not corporate sin God abhorred, nor the sins of government. It was the sins of the individual people within that city. Perhaps one might try and excuse conduct of individuals by suggesting the practice of utter selfishness was not forbidden in any way by the moral code of the day. But not even God could justify the obscenity of people who in their pride and haughtiness neglected those less able within their community. With famine and disease decimating the population of the world, with many not only within the international community but also in our own cities counted among the hungry and homeless, society in first world countries such as ours MAY also be condemned by God for committing Sodom's sin. We have not shared as God would direct us; our corporations continue to make profits the benchmark of their success. Each of us disciples needs to speak out against gain made at the expense of "sweat shop" labor in a third world country, and against the exploitation of young children forced to work to fill unconscionable contracts. We need to be responsible and Christ-directed in every step of our daily walk and decision-making.
"I" is the central letter of the word SIN, and "I" emphasizes the personal nature of sin - it is you and I who sin. Whether we sin by deliberate intent or by acts of omission, our actions and thoughts are sin. When we close our eyes to the needs of others we sin. When our thoughts, words or actions expose our fear or anxiety, possessiveness, greed, indolence, untrustworthiness, violence or indecisive thought processes, we reveal ourselves as walking without God's close presence. Even when our circumstances are devastating and pain and loss take their toll on us, if God is truly the centre of our lives certainty, quietude and stability will bear witness to God's presence. If we would change the world we need to be ready to start that change within ourselves. This is a joint process in which we intentionally need to be willing and attentive as we allow God's Spirit of love to effect changes in our attitudes and habits.
Sometimes as we witness injustice we are tempted to rush in and put the matter right in our own strength with our own resources rather than waiting on God. On other occasions when God calls us to take an active role, it may be one quite different to the role we have envisioned. There are also times we discover God has no need of us to win the battle at hand and, rather like those of Gideon's band who were declared superfluous by God just prior to battle, we are asked to stand still in faith, believing that the matter is under God's control. It is when we begin to chafe against such a direction and either complain or deliberately disobey that we sin. For those of us who have drawn close to God and know firsthand that God is able in every situation, sin can be our lack of faith in trying situations. We seek solutions using our own reasoning and capabilities, forgetting that God sees every situation more clearly than we can, and that God's knowledge far outstrips ours.
Self-abnegation is also sin, for when we deny or downplay the talents and gifts God has given us we refuse to acknowledge God's right and ability to create beauty and compassion in our personalities. Perhaps the next time someone tells us that their faith has grown as it has been invigorated by our faith, or a special person tells us how much they love us, we may be gracious enough to believe what they have experienced of us. Maybe one day we will hear that we have saved the life of another person, or restored their faith; at that point let us hear and understand they mean exactly what they have said. There, at that moment, let us praise God that Jesus has used us as a cup of love, overflowing with peace and mercy.
Finally, we sin every time we deny forgiveness to others, for when it is impossible for us to forgive others we have a responsibility to ask God to forgive them. At the same time we need to pray God will instill within us a willing nature that will encourage us to forgive these people. Perhaps we need to remember the seventy times seven yardstick for forgiveness should be applied to each remembrance of a particular injustice, or misguided biblical interpretation, that has impacted harmfully on our work situation, family or spiritual life. Dwelling on incidents that have caused pain, alienation or bitterness is self-indulgence, for we allow them to supplant God as the focal point of our lives.
Our new life in Christ is a gift intended to be breathed deeply and lived joyfully. When we truly live as we were meant, we love outrageously. "Live" and "love" have only one difference in spelling, that same letter "I." When it is removed and replaced by the letter "O" - representing the circle that encloses all humanity - we begin to live the way Jesus did, living love to the full. And in our living love we reflect the fact that God calls each of us "Beloved." As we begin this process of allowing God to substitute a divine nature for our human nature, we really need some guiding principles. In the same way as a person, choosing to be a non-smoker, needs to have a different focus or priority almost every moment, so we too need to tap into methods or ways to keep us on track.
Perhaps one of the most challenging ways lies at the centre of the book, In His Steps, written by Charles M. Shelton back in 1896. He poses the question, "What Would Jesus Do?" and the book is the account of the effects living out this question had, not only on the lives of those who chose to accept this challenge, but also on the communities in which they lived. I cannot think of a better litmus test than this one question, for it may be applied to very aspect of our lives. As we climbed from our beds today, what was our attitude to the day? Did we welcome it with joy as another opportunity to serve God, to enjoy the love of our partners, friends or families, or did we grump at the thought of having to disengage from the womb-like security of our beds?
As we chose our meals, did we select those foods we know Jesus would have suggested best fitted the needs of our bodies? Did we eat enough to satisfy our hunger, or did we continue to nibble on snacks deliberately designed with substances of addiction? As we met people on the street or in our workplaces, did we greet them with as much genuine concern as would Jesus? Have we put aside today enough time so we may be still in the presence of God and truly hear what our Creator would share with us? Have all our actions and thoughts been interlaced with love, or have we shown impatience, intolerance or a lack of compassion to those with whom we have dealt? Compassion is a grand word; it far surpasses pity, for pity can be an emotion experienced at a distance, whereas compassion involves us intimately in the situation at hand. Compassion is our passion united with that of another in an attempt to resolve problems not of our own making. Compassion is an emotion with which Jesus was familiar. It is the compassion love generates that Jesus experiences toward each of us even today.
Compassion will not allow us to spend our money or time selfishly, for with Christ's passion we are aware of the needs of others. It is a mark of today's society that as affluence increases it affects the lives of a decreasing number of people. The growing majority is left with diminishing resources, and therefore fewer ways to alleviate their individual circumstances or begin addressing the needs of their communities as a whole. It appears that governments prefer to fund involvement by our armed forces in the affairs of other nations rather than direct such funds to education, health or other social justice issues. It is literally "the widow's mite" that is holding open the doors of so many of our non-profit organizations. Only those with Christ's awareness of the plight of the poor, or those challenged intellectually or physically, or those whose bodies are wracked with disease or pain, will know the passion that proffers that other coat, a meal or shelter to Christ's beloved ones living in distress.
When we live fully and lovingly, using all God's gifts, including our inherent sexual orientation, we begin to realize the potential God had always planned for our lives. Our sexuality is as much an integral part of us as is each strand of our DNA. If we were to deny who we are and to mask our truth by submitting to the slavery that sexual practices unnatural to us involve, we would be claiming God made a mistake in creating our sexuality. Such a denial could not be made if we truly believe ourselves to be wholly and perfectly created by God. And such a denial would constitute another attempt to allow the "I" to supplant God as the creator of each and every part of our being in an attempt to rectify a sexuality we believe is flawed.
When we chose to remove the "I" from the place where it motivates our lives and place God at the centre of our being, when we substitute for the "I" central to the word sin the "O" of love, we find we have formed the word "son" and that is who we have become, equal sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ. As co-heirs, true sons and daughters of God our Creator, we know that Jesus has removed the price our sins would have incurred and we are free to enjoy the transformation of our lives from mortal to eternal.
Copyright © 2003 by the author