This sermon was delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2013…
I’ve been in construction all my life, and a few years ago I spent most of my summer working in Bismarck. Which means that I spent three nights a week in a hotel room. When you’re pulling twelve-hour days out in the heat, when you get in you don’t have the strength to do anything except ‘veg out’.
As I would flip through the TV stations, I noticed how many televangelists are still on the air. Most, if not all, of the time I disagreed with the salvation teachings that these ministers were espousing, but once in a while I’d watch one anyway.
Sin is still a popular topic among televangelists, apparently, as it ought to be for any preacher. But if you watch these guys, most of their sermons go something like this: America is doing this, or the Liberals are doing that … And I remember thinking to myself, well buddy, what are you doing? I’m beginning to think that maybe we preachers ought to preach about sin first within the context of what we’re doing wrong, instead of what everybody else is doing wrong. From there you can go on and lovingly point out the sin you see in others, but I’m thinking that we ought to start with ourselves. If other now-infamous preachers had taken that approach, people might not have treated them so harshly when they messed up.
So this morning I want to talk about sin, about what it is and what it isn’t, and to ponder some of the effects that it has on our lives. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer, shall we?
‘Sin’ is a word that the religious world has bandied about since the beginning. At least Western religion has bandied it about, because Western religion has always believed in absolute right and wrong. Eastern religions rely more on moral relativism rather than moral absolutes, and they lean more toward and ‘enlightenment and ignorance’ viewpoint rather than a ‘righteousness and sin’ viewpoint. Moral relativism may or may not work in the eastern world depending on what checks and balances it has, but it has been a spectacular failure in the western world. We should have seen that coming; Jesus did say, in Matthew 12:33, that a tree is known by its fruit.
So what is a sin? The Catholic Church has attempted over the years to quantify and label sin so the idea is easier to understand. While I applaud their need to understand and avoid evil, I think it’s difficult to define something that is very often fluid in nature.
My assertion, as many have heard me say before, that sin is a nothing. It’s a non-entity, a ‘no-see-um’. The epistle of 1 John uses the analogy of darkness and light to define good and evil, and I think that’s probably the best way to define it. Darkness isn’t anything. It can’t be measured and it has no characteristics of its own. Darkness just exists by default wherever there doesn’t happen to be any light. Light, on the other hand, does exist in its own right. It has a wavelength that can be measured, it moves at discernible speeds, and it can be broken into a prism. Every time it rains and you see a rainbow, you see proof positive of personality and character of light.
Light IS. Darkness is NOT. Darkness is just the absence of light; we give darkness a name because we need a way to describe it, but our need to describe it doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing there to describe.
I think that way about sin. Sin is just the absence of righteousness. Sin exists wherever righteousness is not. You don’t have to work at being sinful; you just will be whenever you’re not working at being righteous.
I think this is really the only way to look at it. We have to think of sin as a void, as a non-entity. Because if we think of it as an entity in its own right, then we forsake our own religion and we become Eastern philosophers. Eastern philosophy believes that good and evil are two halves of the same coin, and that the universe maintains a balance between them. Problem with that is, we’ve all to some degree had to live out the consequences of compromising with evil. It stinks. It ain’t fun.
If you don’t think of sin as a state of nothingness, then you have to ask yourself a pesky question: Did God create sin? Scripture says God created everything, in Colossians 1:16. Satan may have been the first sinner, but did God create the IDEA of sin? Wouldn’t that make God more than a little malignant?
I think the simple answer to that is that nobody made sin any more than anyone made darkness. You don’t have to create a nothing. God made light and righteousness, and darkness and sin live live wherever light and righteousness are not.
Righteousness has identifiable characteristics. Turn with me to Galatians 5, starting in verse 22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Righteousness loves. Righteousness is joyful. Righteousness promotes peace and is endlessly patient. It’s kind, good, loyal, gentle, and is capable of controlling its own responses.
Sin has no qualities of its own. CS Lewis once referred to Satan as ‘the ape of God’. His point was that Satan cannot create anything new; he can only mimic and blaspheme that which God has created. I agree with Lewis on that point. If you know anything about Anton LaVey’s orthodox church of Satan, NONE of their rituals or ceremonies are original. They’re just blasphemies and perversions of Christian ceremonies.
While evil has no personality of its own, it does take on anti-characteristics that twist and distort the manifestations of righteousness. Turn again to Galatians 5, but we’ll be starting a bit earlier this time, in verse 19: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lewdness are just the absence of self-control. Idolatry, sorcery, dissension, contentions, and heresy are the absence of faithfulness. Hatred, jealousy, angry outbursts, selfishness, envy and murder are the absence of kindness.
What we’ve discussed thus far is the philosophy behind sin. Philosophy’s easy. When I was growing up, my friends and I loved nothing better than to crack open a bottle of whisky and debate philosophy for hours. Philosophy is a pastime for eggheads; it has its place, but it’s no good if you can’t move beyond philosophy to practicality.
I think we ought to all look at sin in our lives, but not because we like to dwell on sin. Rather, our sins tell us what righteous attributes we haven’t perfected in our lives. Admittedly, this is a hard thing to do. When I look in the mirror and examine my faults, I always end up feeling like I’m going straight to hell. I just have to remind myself that this is what Christ came for: Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient to cover our weakness.
The flip side of that, though, is that if we don’t work at moving past our faults then God’s grace becomes dead to us. James flat-out says this in James 2:17. The irony of Christianity is that God readily covers all of our sins, but we are nevertheless commanded to put them to death.
So how do we identify sin in our lives?
Admittedly, a lot of what I’m about to say is subject to debate. Someone’s probably gonna disagree with me. That’s fine. When I’m being dogmatic about scripture, I’ll say so. The rest of the time, I’m just trying to spur thought. I don’t often see scriptural wisdom as a carved-in-stone, black-and-white thing. Rather, I see it as an evolution … and that evolution begins with debate, not by being handed trite altruisms.
That disclaimer having been given, I think the most glaringly obvious trait of sinful behavior is the refusal to take responsibility for its actions. Turn with me, if you would, to Genesis 3, beginning in verse 1: Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “
4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
11 And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”
12 Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
13 And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
And there you have it. The WOMAN made me do it. The SERPENT made me do it. God’s question was ‘did YOU eat from the tree?” and yet both Adam and Eve began by talking about what someone else made them do. I think this is fairly instinctive for human beings. When you shirk the blame, you avoid taking responsibility for your destructive behavior. Problem is, those consequences are yours whether you accept them or not.
I remember years ago, when I was living in upstate New York, not far from Lake Placid. I was project manager for a fairly high-end construction firm. In retrospect, that was a horrible job for me. I like to work with my hands; I like building buildings, not planning them. Paperwork drives me completely insane, and most of all I’m a terrible politician; I have no brain-mouth disconnect at all, and when you’re the guy jockeying hundreds of thousands of dollars around every single day … that’s bad.
But I forced myself to fit into that mold anyway, and doing so made me miserable beyond miserable. And in my youthful stupidity, all I really did about it was drink. By 2007 I was going through nearly a bottle of whisky every night. Didn’t even bother with a glass or ice; just set the bottle on the desk and sucked on it like my life depended on it.
Over the years, I spent tens of thousands of dollars partying my time away. I ruined a number of friendships and family relationships, and I spent countless days being either incoherent or sick. You hear me now? I DID THAT. That’s Christ in me talking. THEN it was, hey man, I got a rough job. You gotta do something to stay sane, dontcha?
During that lost decade or so, I never stood in the mirror and went ‘what on earth are you doing?’ I should have looked at myself and said ‘hey man, that’s YOU clutching that fifth of Wild Turkey like it’s a baby bottle. You, you alone, and no one else. Not your job, not your boss … you.
Funny thing is, when someone does take responsibility for their actions, sin usually ends up taking a backseat. One morning in 2007 I woke up after whisky and cocaine bender, and sat up in bed and said hey, I am sicker than I‘ve ever been. I have to cut this mess out. The simple use of that word ‘I’ instead of ‘they’ made all the difference in the world.
Funny thing is, I wasn’t even a Christian then. Sin is sin, whether one is in Christ or not. Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘sin is not hurtful because it’s forbidden, it’s forbidden because it’s hurtful.’ Everything that God condemns as sin, He condemns because it’s bad for us. God is loving, as it says in 1 John 4:7, and He only wants the best for us.
Another characteristic of sin is that it keeps doing the same dumb thing over and over again, hoping that something different will happen this time. I remember when I was younger, I had this very post-modern, secular humanist view of romantic relationships. Immorality wasn’t something that particularly bothered me. And over the years, I wondered why every attachment I formed would fall to shreds in very short order.
I know now why I couldn’t find a stable relationship; immorality breeds heartache, and nothing more. (You young people, you teenagers… you’re hearing me now, right? I’ve made all the mistakes you’re tempted to make now, and lemme tell ya… you DON’T wanna do it!) Relationships only succeed if they are selfless. Your point of view should be ‘I am going to serve this person’s emotional needs as their boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, or spouse.’ It should be about what you give, not what you take. And when you introduce sex before you say ‘I do’… you’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you. You’re eating your dessert before your dinner, and guess what? It’s gonna spoil your dinner.
When you introduce immorality into a non-marital relationship, you poison the relationship. Immorality is not selfless, it’s selfish; it’s not about what you’re willing to give, it’s about what you think you can take. There’s an old saying: As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined. A relationship, even a marriage, that began in sin is going to be crippled. There’s no way around it. Can God heal those marital wounds that were caused by sin? Sure He can. But God only promises to HEAL THE WOUND. The SCAR you carry is your own burden. God cannot and will not violate our free will, and with free will comes the curse of living out the result of our choices. I am haunted every single day by the choices I made. I live with the guilt, and a lot of my negative behavior is born of emotional issues that I caused by my choices. Fortunately, the cycle’s been broken; I met and married my wife now in accordance with God’s standards, and it’s been amazing. Sinful foundations leads to bad marriages, but righteous ones lead to healthy marriages.
I just wish I hadn’t learned the hard way.
The last identifying mark of sin that I wanted to mention is this: Sin lives in perpetual self-denial. People whose lives are defined by sin cannot help but trivialize their behavior. Someone once said that an evil man doesn’t think he is ‘that bad’, but a good man knows that he is evil. There’s a lot of truth to that, I think. I remember when I was baptized back in 2007. I had a friend who kind of turned on me, to the point that I really stopped thinking of him as a friend. He eventually came around and apologized, and we were able to patch things up. I know now why it went like that; evil hates the presence of goodness, because where goodness is, evil looks even worse by comparison. John 3:19 says ‘And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.’
What I’ve never forgotten was an email that this friend sent me shortly after I became a Christian. “Why the major change?” he wrote. “The person you were before wasn’t that bad.” I was so tempted to respond ‘Are you completely INSANE?! You were with me when we got thrown out of bars and busted by the cops. You were there when we chugged gallons of booze and snorted piles of coke. You were there when we got into fights for hitting on other men’s wives and girlfriends. You were there when we passed out, threw up, drove drunk, and did God knows what else. What part of ANY of this is ‘not that bad?’
But his question to me betrayed our difference in paradigm. He was using the sliding scale by which the world judges wrongdoing. I had been led toward the absolute standard of God’s Word.
The terrifying this is that I still look in the mirror and accuse myself. My batting average for being able to rein my sins of attitude is about seventy-five percent. About one in four slanderous, coarse, or complaining thoughts that I think I’m going to spit out. James 3:10 says that ‘Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.’ Ephesians 5:4 says that ‘neither coarse talk, foolish jesting, or filthiness ought never to be named among Christians’. The letter to the Philippians is all about being content, not fretful and fussy.
Over the years I’ve occasionally gone and drank a bit more than I should. My days of hard partying are long over, thank God, but if I don’t carefully monitor myself I can wander into debauchery without even realizing it.
Sins aren’t just actions or words, they’re also attitudes. I have struggled since the beginning of my walk with God to adopt a purely Christian perspective on people. My ability to look at others through God’s eyes wars constantly with my temptation to view everything through a cultural lens. What does God say about that? Romans 3:9 says ‘What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.’ God does promote or honor any culture except his own; I have a devil of a time looking at the concept His way.
I am not what I should be. I never will be. The question we should ask ourselves, though, is this: It’s not ‘am I what I should be?” It’s am I better than I was?’ Moving past sin isn’t a light switch, it’s a journey.
Back to this idea of sin being an empty void: The only way to fix a void is to put something in it. Turn with me to Matthew 12, starting in verse 43: “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”Jesus knew that you can’t just push away evil and then remain in a state of neutrality. You have to take that emptiness and fill it with righteousness. You have to take the evil that is you and replace it with Godliness. What did Peter say in Acts 2:38? He said ‘Reform and be immersed, each and every one of you, under the authority of Jesus the Savior to accomplish the removal of your sinful state, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ I realize that’s probably not the wording you’re used to, but that’s exactly what the original Greek says. The wording we generally use is based on the King James Tradition.
Peter, like Jesus, understood that sin can’t be beaten just by resolving not to sin. It has to pushed away with active righteousness. When God washes away our sins in baptism, he puts in Himself. One of my pet peeves is our habit of referring to the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’. The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’, He is a ‘He’. The Spirit, like The Father and Christ, is God and can be prayed to, worshipped, approached, and interacted with just the rest of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is not a vague cosmic influence like ‘The Force’ from Star Wars; He is God Inside Us. And He is what pushes away our sinful emptiness. I very often explicitly address prayers to the Spirit, because He is the closet facet of God to me. The Father is in Heaven, Jesus is at His right hand… but the Spirit is IN me!
If you don’t want to be lewd and impure, focus on practicing self-control. If you don’t want to deal in hatred and outbursts of wrath, instead focus on being kind. If you don’t want to fall for heresies, be faithful to God by diligently study His Word. In the end, if you don’t want your soul destroyed by hellfire then quit focusing on hell and think about actively getting to heaven. Don’t focus on an evil Nothing; work on creating a good Something. If you’re not going forward the only other direction go is backwards; there’s no sideways, and there’s no state of stasis.
I think a good way to accomplish this is by being more honest with one another. The Churches of Christ in particular – and I mean the church at large, not necessarily this congregation – is exasperatingly tight-lipped about sin. We’ll preach about it, but we won’t admit to it. What did James say? ‘Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another so you can be healed’. That’s James 5:16. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins we will be healed. It’s not ‘hey let’s debate scripture so I don’t have to talk about who I really am.’ It’s about applying scripture by saying ‘hey man, I need to talk about what I’m struggling with.’ This is why I really appreciate the men’s morning class, and I’m betting the ladies’ prayer group is just as cathartic. They’re good places to heal from sin, because they consist of open, uncensored discussion. We say in men’s class, ‘what’s said in men’s class STAYS in men’s class’… and thus my lips are sealed. Scripture never said you had to tell EVERYBODY, it just says to tell SOMEBODY. I’m not sharing any details, but lemme tell ya… the details I’ve heard are pretty raw, and that’s how it’s meant to be.
Confession is good for the soul. Both the Christian and the Secular man know this.
So let’s think about that as we leave today. We all have sin in our lives. Can’t help that. Even the best of us sins in every other thought, every other word, and every other action. But we also have God, and God has given us one another option. Don’t focus on what’s wrong; fix what’s wrong by focusing on what’s right.
It’s that simple.