What is the Greatest Sin?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Let’s talk about sin. This gets at one of the most basic questions we can ask: What is wrong with humanity, and how can we fix it? What leads to all the hurt in our world? What is the root cause of our problems?

One popular way to define sin is separation from God. This brings out an important aspect of sin that is often overlooked: We can be separated from God, life, and love in two ways. One is by our doing hurtful things, and the other is by hurtful things done to us. In short, we all do hurtful things, and we all have been hurt. A full understanding of sin needs to take both of these into account.
That is, when the Bible speaks of “sin” (in the singular), this is a bigger concept than individual “sins” (note the plural). Biblically, sin equals all that can separate us from God, including damage being done to us.

Oftentimes this larger aspect of sin is overlooked in the discussion, and people only focus on individual sins defined as hurtful actions we do. This is of course part of it, but really only describes half of what is going on, and the two often work in tandem. People do hurtful things because they were hurt. That’s the spiral of sin.

An obvious example of this is how retribution leads to more retribution, each time the violence escalating. We see this in the Old Testament story of Lamech who declares “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” Already we can see the escalation where in response to being injured, Lamech kills. He continues, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).

What is critical to notice here is that this is presented by Lamech as virtuous. This is not something he is ashamed of, but something he is proud of. We still hear this same sentiment expressed by political leaders today who speak of retaliatory violence in terms of “justice.” That payback “justice” is often escalated where we respond to a small attack with a massive assault of “shock and awe.”

This illustrates why the sin of violence is the most deadly of all sins. It is deadly first of all because of the damage it causes. In some cases, as with the above examples, it literally results in death. In others, such as physical abuse, the trauma caused can leave lifelong scars that do far more damage than the physical wounds alone. This aspect of trauma gets at the second reason that the sin of violence is so deadly: The sin of violence masquerades as goodness. When people beat children, they do it “for their own good.” When a nation retaliates against another, they do so in the name of “justice.” Oftentimes it is claimed that this state violence (whether it is war, capital punishment, or torture) is enacting the will of God.

Consider that in churches that speak of “the problem of sin” the focus is almost always on individual sins, and virtually never on the sins of those in authority, let alone do they look inward at the sins of the religious system itself. The focus is exclusively on sins of “missing the mark” (like marital unfaithfulness), and not of sins like beating children, which are seen by those doing this as a virtue done “for your own good.” In fact, in the United States while it is illegal in most states to beat children in public schools, it is legal to beat children in private schools, and the vast majority of those schools who practice this are conservative evangelical ones. So while we are aware as a society how profoundly damaging it is to beat children, the people who are advocating this abuse are the ones who preach every Sunday against “sin”, and yet this rather huge sin is not only overlooked, it is proclaimed as a virtue. It is defended as a “Christian” value to uphold against the stream of culture. To call this a blind-spot in our understanding of sin would be an understatement.

Notice in the Gospels that when Jesus condemns and rebukes, his focus is always on the sins of those in religious authority. He is constantly confronting the Pharisees and religious leaders for how their following of the Law is leading to people being hurt, excluded, shut out from the grace and healing that they need. Notice too that the response that Jesus gives to sin is not punishment, but to heal and forgive and restore people. How is it that we evangelicals have managed to have the opposite emphasis? Our focus is almost entirely on individual missteps (usually focusing on sex), and we are silent to the sins of those in authority that are far more damaging than individual sin, both because they affect more people, and because they claim to be done in the name of God. Have we not read the Gospels? Have we failed to learn the lesson of how religion can be used to justify sin that Jesus points out page after page? Are we still just as blind to the Pharisees of our own time?

Consider too the story of Paul: We read in 1 Timothy that Paul came to regard himself as “the greatest of all sinners” (1:15). When we read Paul speak of the struggle with sin in Romans 7 we are likely to imagine a struggle with women or booze, but this was not what Paul’s struggle with sin looked like. Paul tells us that his background was that of a Pharisee, and that he was, as far as keeping the Law was concerned, “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Now, let that sink in: We often attribute to Paul the idea that no one can keep the Law. But Paul plainly tells us that he was able to keep it perfectly. Yet at the same time he can describe himself as the “greatest of sinners.” So what did Paul see as his sin? Paul tells us “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Paul’s great sin, as he saw it, was the sin of violence committed in the name of God. Paul as a Pharisee had seen the Jesus movement as heretical and had attempted to use violence to stop them, thinking he was doing this for God. His conversion therefore was not a conversion from one religion to another (Paul continued to see himself as a Jew), nor was it a conversion of a prodigal returning to religion. No, Paul’s conversion was a conversion from religious violence.

The greatest sin, according to the New Testament, is the sin of violence, and in particular violence that calls itself good.

Now I am not wanting to downplay individual sin. For example, adultery can have devastating consequences to a marriage. What I do want to draw attention to however are the sins that go under the radar by cloaking themselves in a mantle of righteousness.

In the end, what we need is a bigger understanding of sin: One that takes into account the reality of both individual and systemic sin, one that takes into account the reality that we can both be hurt by the bad things we do as well as the bad things done to us, and finally one that recognizes that what we need is not to perpetuate hurt by causing deeper hurt in response, and acting as if this is good, but instead working to restore and mend and reconcile. This is at the very heart of what Jesus came to do. The gospel is all about God acting in Jesus to restore and mend and reconcile sinful humanity. If we call Jesus Lord, then it is our gospel task to join him in working towards that same end.

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At 10:20 AM, Blogger Menno Jones said...

I like your thoughts here. It resonates with how I understand the NT. However, I struggle with the OT. What do we say about God's violence? Not only in the OT but also in the NT.

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Menno,

Yes, that's a theme I've been discussing and working through quite a bit on this blog (and also the topic of my forthcoming book). If you peruse some past posts, particularly ones with the tags "violence" and "Bible" you'll find quite a bit of discussion on this. My aim with the above post was to take a step back for a moment and "get back to basics" a bit, to give a bit of foundation to that discussion.

Let me see if I can provide a bit of perspective, addressing your question, to hopefully provide some helpful context as you browse around the blog:

Before we ask the question of God's violence, I think we need to first ask the question of human violence, and in particular human acts of violence done in the name of God. The reason here is that we are not responsible for God's actions, but we are of course responsible for our own. So my first concern is people harming others and claiming that this is God's will.

Now we can observe in the Bible two things: First in the OT the claim is made frequently that God commanded people to kill other people. This in fact is a major theme in the OT, appearing quite frequently. Secondly, NOWHERE in the NT does God command any person to kill another, and in contrast it is explicitly condemned and repudiated and instead followers of Jesus are commanded to forgive and forsake this way of "virtuous violence."

That means that we have in the OT a particular understanding of how God works, where people kill for God. That's why many, perhaps most, Jews at the time expected Jesus as the messiah to bring about God's kingdom through the sword. We see this all through the gospels where the people expect this from Jesus and get really mad when he instead proclaims grace to enemy gentiles, and we see it in Paul's messianic expectations which is why he initially took the violent path he did.

That means that the NT vision is in contrast to the majority narrative of the OT. The NT in focusing on a message of salvation and love for Jews (the good guys) & Gentile (the hated bad guys) alike breaks with the way that salvation is repeatedly presented in the OT where salvation comes by Jews killing gentiles in God's name (or Gentiles killing Jews in God's name when the Jews were out of line).

If there is any sense of violence in the NT, it is not of human violence in God's name, but of God's violence in the form of end time judgement. That's another ball of wax. However the place where we need to start is in recognizing that there is clearly a split between the OT and NT as far as how we humans "participate" in God's salvation by human acts of violence. From that I think we can begin to see a movement in the NT *away from* the majority view of the OT (I say "majority view" because the reality is that the OT does not have just one view, but multiple conflicting views, some promoting violence, others promoting compassion). The clue here is that we see the beginning of this movement towards a way of enemy love, and so while the NT makes a huge step in repudiating human violence in God's name, it retains some of that entrenched thinking which we see in various places (like in how the NT does not call for the abolition of slavery, how it does not repudiate dictatorship governments, and how it in some places continues to view God as acting violently). So there the question is how we can see where the NT was headed, rather than where they stopped.

hope that helps

At 11:38 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

In affirmation of the main thrust of your post, I connect your understanding of the nature of Sin as "violence" here with Jesus' description of the purpose/nature of the devil to "steal, kill and destroy" contrasted with His own purpose to bring us life in all its fullness (abundantly) in John 10:10. It seems to me (as to you) that this must be the overarching paradigm for how we understand all of the Scriptures' teaching. I find this understanding of God's will also expressed in the prayers of preparation for Communion and in the prayers of the Orthodox Eucharistic Liturgy. Part of one of these prayers reads:

". . . O Lord, since you do not remember evil but are long-suffering and of great mercy, you have not given me over to destruction for my lawlessness, but have ever awaited my conversion. . . . O Lover of men, you have said by your prophets: 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.' For you do not wish, O Master, that the work of your hands should perish, neither do you take pleasure in the destruction of men, but you desire that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. .. . Therefore, although I am unworthy both of heaven and of earth and of this passing life, having wholly yielded myself to sin and defiled your image, yet being your creature and of your making, I do not despair of my salvation in my wretchedness, but made bold by your infinite compassion, I draw near. . . . "

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

To clarify terms are you referring to spanking as child beating? If so, do you think it is possible to spank your child out of frustration and domination vs out of love regarding their humanity? To expand on that theme with regard to war, is it possible to engage in war seeing the other as less than human and something to be dominated vs seeing human beings with hopes, cares, ideas, and concerns equal to our own? What if behaviorally i do not engage in spanking or war but my heart burns with contempt and hate? Would that outward action be better? I think we need to be careful not to label outward behaviors as good or bad without recognizing how our heart is regarding the other while we are doing them.

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Aaron,

These are good questions, that get to some important and deep issues.

First, just to be clear, when I referred to "beating children" and "physical abuse" I was NOT referring to "spanking." Legally, child abuse is defined as hitting a child so as to leave physical wounds. Spanking with an open hand would not do that. Hitting a child with a belt or stick would.

From a psychological perspective, the issue is whether the physical attack results in psychological trauma. Because of the trauma that come from physical abuse, the issue is not merely physical, but the deeper emotional scars that are left behind which can deeply damage a person.

"do you think it is possible to spank your child out of frustration and domination vs out of love regarding their humanity?"

Pediatricians and other mental health experts are universally in agreement that spanking (which again is not abuse) is not the best way to disciple children. However, as you point out, the real issue is trauma. For example if I were to give my child a swat on the butt without any anger, she might cry because of the surprise, but not be at all traumatized. However if I instead screamed some mean thing at her in frustration like "WHAT"S WRONG WITH YOU?!" this could be more traumatizing, even though there is nothing physical happening. That's why we have the concept of emotional abuse. So the key issue is the resulting trauma.

Consequently, the issue is not really what our intentions are, but the impact it has on the other. Physical punishment (say being whipped), because of the shame, intimidation, fear, and so on can be deeply traumatizing. For centuries people were whipped (slaves, prisoners, children) and this was considered to be "for their own good." With this, even if one were to do it "without anger" it's hard to imagine that it would not lead to trauma. Try and watch the movie Thirteen Years A Slave, and imagine that the scene where the girl gets whipped could possibly be seen as anything but profoundly traumatizing.

"What if behaviorally i do not engage in spanking or war but my heart burns with contempt and hate? Would that outward action be better?"

Well, I would certainly rather have someone hate me than kill me (or even assault me) :) There is a huge difference here (namely that in the later I end up in the hospital or dead!). So actions are certainly much worse. I think that's pretty clear.

The reason it's important to look at our hearts is that what we have in our heart leads to actions (Jesus says this on the SOTM). So if we want to stop actions, we need to look at our hearts.

"I think we need to be careful not to label outward behaviors as good or bad without recognizing how our heart is regarding the other while we are doing them"

To reiterate what I said above, I'd say the real issue is not what our intent is, but rather the trauma the other experiences because of our actions. For example, imagine a teenager is bullying a little kid: That kid might feel terrified and humiliated, but the teenager doing it might say they were "just having some fun" and feel no remorse. That little kid is nonetheless still deeply hurt by their actions.

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great thoughts, thank you for the clarification! Also, I did not mean to communicate outward behavior is not important. I agree it's very important however, I would contend our heart underneath our actions is more important than the action itself. For example, if I'm a boss that sees the humanity of my employees, I may still have to fire an employee at some point. Even though being fired may be traumatic for the employee, it feels much different when you're fired by someone you know cares about you (recognizes you as a person) compared to someone who may see you only as an obstacle or problem. On the flip side, receiving a compliment from someone who doesn't really care about you feels much different than being complimented by someone who does. So the same action, whether negative or positive, can communicate totally different things based on how the heart underneath is regarding the other. I would amend your statement, "what we have in our heart leads to action" to say what we have in our heart we communicate regardless of our action.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

In one of the central events of the OT, the violence is ascribed to God himself. So did God kill the Egyptian firstborn, or not? (Ex 12:12, 29)

At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


That's an important and big question. I've written a lot about this, and the main thing to be aware of is that the Old Testament contains multiple conflicting perspectives, rather than just one. This includes conflicting accounts of what God "says" and "commands" where one prophet will declare that God says one thing, and another prophet will claim that God says the opposite. For more on this, I'd suggest reading this post:


At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Aaron,

I hear what you are saying, and it is certainly true that it makes a big difference when a person feels valued and respected. However, I'd still want to stress that what you are describing are still technically actions. Consider your boss example: The only way that an employee could know that the boss cares about them as a person is if the boss communicated this in some way to them, through their words or deeds. If the boss in contrast only felt this in their heart, but did not communicate it an any way, then the employee simply would not know this.

I don't know if you have kids or not, but something parents experience a lot is needing to communicate love to their children, even if they are not "feeling it" in their hearts. For example, a child comes in at 3am and is sick with a fever. The dad has hardly slept in months, and is not thrilled about having to get up and clean up vomit. However, they try to communicate comfort and concern for their child, even though they are feeling exhausted and frustrated and grossed out in their heart. The dad's actions show love (including what they communicate with words and looks and hugs), even if they don't "feel" it. In theology this is distinction between phileo (love you feel) and agape (love expressed in actions).

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, this is good. Your influences here are Hegel, Girard, Moltmann? So your answer is "no". Moses was wrong, Exodus is wrong, perhaps due to the limited revelation available to him at the time, despite his personal relationship w God, and something else conveniently killed the Egyptians in a way that God redeemed, or perhaps it didn't actually happen at all. Sure Jesus challenged the idea that Moses really saw God, but you can see why this answer is quite difficult. As is the alternative ("yes", God killed them.) I don't think this tension can be dismissed as imposing a post-enlightenment framework on the text. Surely the earliest thinking Christians would have also picked up on this tension within the official narrative of this central event, perhaps even moreso than those you describe in your other post?

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

"Your influences here are Hegel, Girard, Moltmann?"

Those have been big influences, particularly in my understanding of the cross. For violence in the Bible I would add Brueggemann & Raymund Schwagger.

"something else conveniently killed the Egyptians in a way that God redeemed, or perhaps it didn't actually happen at all."

For what it's worth, scholars say that based on overwhelming archeological evidence, the conquest narratives in Joshua are fiction. So the second of those is a real possibility. Also consider that we all see God thru our own lenses, and at the pre-scientific time of Moses any illness or natural disaster was attributed to God. Later in the also pre-scientific time of the NT it was instead attributed to the devil. Consider how their view shifted from saying that God did it to saying Satan did. Here we see one of the ways the Jewish faith radically changed from the time of the OT to the NT. It's critical to note those changes. The Bible is not a static text.

"you can see why this answer is quite difficult"

Yes, because it causes us to re-think our approach to scripture. However, what I see is a pervasive pattern of questioning the goodness of violence all through the Hebrew Bible, as well as in Jesus & Paul. So in questioning human violence in God's name, we are in-line with how Jews have engaged with their own Scripture for eons. This is not a new way to read, it has a long history grounded in the prophetic witness.

"Surely the earliest thinking Christians would have also picked up on this tension within the official narrative of this central event"

They did. Origen for example insisted that this must be an analogy because if it were history then God would be a "monster more horrible than the worst of men" That's the root motivation behind of allegorical reading which was how Christians interpreted the OT for centuries. This was abandoned with the advent of modern biblical criticism, and I can understand why from a scholarly perspective, but at the same time they lost the early church's protest against sanctified violence that was attached to it. Scholarship divorced from ethics in the name of "objectivity" is a bad way to read scripture as scripture.

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks this is helpful and thought provoking. I’ll be digging into your atonement work soon.

Also raising difficulty the question of how Moses got it so wrong given his special, F2F relationship. This should give us pause. I suppose the out is Jesus saying We > John > Moses when it comes to prophesy and revelation. And that is right and refreshing! But also hard to comprehend, and requires much faith. And courage to claim, especially to those of the other Abrahamic faiths…

The difficulties go further: Is there anything in the Exodus 12 text itself to suggest we should view it as allegorical? (I want to stick w Passover here to limit scope, so the “human violence done in God’s name” explanation also doesn’t apply here) What were the views within 2TJ? Among Jews now? I'll ask my Jewish friends though hard to figure out how w/o being quite offensive, right?

I’m not a slippery slope kind of guy, but boy, if this event is allegorical than it seems like anything can be. (To confirm, you view the resurrection as historical and not only allegorical?) And the danger then is that we can allegorize and overhaul any parts of scripture that don’t fit with our own conception of God, even if that conception is based on a Jesus hermeneutic. In this case we are saying Moses was wrong, we are right….that’s bold and tough to swallow, no?

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me clarify that I do not think an allegorical reading is a good way to deal with problems of violence in the OT. I was simply saying that the early church struggled with violence in the OT and that was the main way they dealt with it. I do not subscribe to an allegorical approach myself.

I think there are better ways, and that better way is one we see modeled in scripture itself: faithful questioning. We see this questioning of violence happening throughout the OT, and in Jesus & Paul in the NT too. In answer to your question "how to Jews read the Bible today?" The answer is also the way of faithful questioning (at least among Reform Jews). You can see this in the Talmud where instead of one answer, you get multiple competing views together. So the way they deal with troubling issues in the OT like violence and patriarchy and slavery is the idea that it is okay to question this, and that it is not a sign of doubt, but a sign of faithfulness to question. After all, Israel literally means "wrestles with God."

Yes, it takes courage to question, but we question in the name of compassion, and when we do that we are learning to read the Bible in the same way the Jewish prophets, as well as Jesus and Paul approached it. That's good company to be in.

At 1:49 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

Derek, I thoroughly enjoyed this article about sin as well as the following comments. I would like to suggest an alternative view of Revelation however. After an intensive re-look at this book for several months to see what I might find by laying aside preconceptions and allowing the Word to interpret itself, I was amazed to discover that the violence in this book has been false attributed to God. In fact, what Revelation really emphasizes (but we have almost totally missed) is the non-violent character of God in the hero of Revelation - the violently slaughtered Lamb.
I appreciate your thoughts on the problem of the first-born in Egypt. In this case as in many others I feel that many fail to look far enough for alternative explanations for these apparent violent acts. If one believes there really is a Satan who has enormous power that is largely restricted most of the time, then it follows that when someone forces away God's hand of protection from themselves or those around them, then God allows Satan access to bring harm and death even while being blamed for it Himself. I find that while not explaining all of the stories in the OT, this approach has potential to clear up a great deal of confusion, at least for me.


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