Since 9/11 the word ‘evil’ has regained some popular usage in our culture, and the painfully essential revelations about the abuse of children and women by men with power in religious, business, political, and entertainment spheres have reinforced our awareness that evil is real and has to be faced. Such language helps us to name an action and begin to deal with it in a just and proper way. The lynching of an African-American man by the Ku Klux Klan, the slaughter of Jews by Nazis, or the sexual abuse of a child is not merely “bad” or even “criminal”; these are examples of evil and calling them such helps us censor those who advocate for, defend, or perform such atrocities, while also arriving at just punishments for these terrible acts. To minimize evil behavior is to diminish justice and give cover to wickedness.
I’ve noticed, however, that while ‘evil’ has gone mainstream, ‘sin’ remains a word banished to the back of the bus by the culturati. Why do people who don’t mind using the word evil feel uncomfortable with the word ‘sin’? I suspect that it signifies to them a kind of judgmentalism or prudishness that seems unfashionable or bigoted and repressive. I also suspect that there is much more to it than that; ‘sin’ reminds us all of God, while our current use of evil finds a way to exclude him. We tend to use evil to refer to violations against our fellow-humans—as the examples above indicate – and goes much deeper than even those sociopathic horrors. Sin, however, is a word that has to do with our violations against God, attitudes, actions, and inactions that beset us all, but which we don’t like to admit and which we masterfully coverup.
Sin implies violations committed specifically against God, and that leaves our cultural gatekeepers unsettled. One way around this is to tone down the notion of sin; another way is to tone down the idea of God’s holiness in favor of God’s being “love.” God’s love is holy and his holiness is loving, but for many, these attributes appear to be mutually exclusive. Starting from that misguided notion, many downplay anything that smacks of sin’s being an offense against God; after all, “God is love,” and love doesn’t get bent out of shape over offenses.
Now if a person’s view of God/god is that he/she/it doesn’t really care about sin, that violations of God’s will are no big deal, that “to err is human and to forgive is divine,” then they will always diminish the magnitude of sin—and at the same time diminish the high price sin extracts from us, the deep penalty sin incurs. Minimizing sin, in turn, diminishes the eternal nature of God’s justice, as well as the breadth of God’s mercy. Great sin can be met only by great justice or a great salvation; sin that isn’t so bad after all calls forth neither amazing grace nor fearful punishment. This shallow view of sin means one can easily fall prey to giving cover for wickedness, excusing one’s own fallen condition and actions, and, in the end, dismiss and/or diminish the magnificence of Jesus and his loving sacrifice for us. The irony of arguing that since God is love sin isn’t all that troublesome and forgiveness not all that costly, is that it is exactly the love of God that is made less important by the attempt to exalt it. To exalt love, we must view sin clearly.
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