I’ve been thinking about what exactly sin is, lately, and struggling to find a good definition for it. Working in secular academia, especially in medical science, I’ve noticed a major definition for “sin” revolving around a preoccupation with physical wellness: that if something damages your health or the health of those around you, it’s wrong and you should either not do it or make some sort of atonement for it. In my own life, growing up as a perfectionist, I tended to operate with the attitude that a social mistake or an academic failure was a sin – getting a B on a test or being ignorant of something I thought I should have known could send me into a tailspin for days, until I could somehow work my way back to “perfection.”
Obviously, I don’t think either of those are the Christian understanding of sin. And I’m left feeling like there’s something lacking with the simple definition of sin as “disobedience to God,” as true as that is. There are just so many situations in which God hasn’t given explicit instructions, but in which one choice may be completely or partially sinful nonetheless.
One thought I had recently was of defining sin teleologically; that is, that maybe some things are sinful because they are contrary to our design as human creatures. It would explain why something like drunkenness is always considered sinful in a traditional Christian morality, while in our modern culture it is considered ok unless your drunk behavior endangers or hurts someone else: it runs contrary to our purpose as human beings to surrender control of our beings to anything other than God (see Eph. 5:18). This also has been helping me understand a lot of the reasoning behind historical Christian sexual ethics, including the prohibition of contraceptives, because I think they are based on this teleological reasoning as well. Things are sinful if they violate the created purpose of the human person committing the act, or of the act itself. So, in this test case, what is the purpose of the act of sex? What is the purpose of the human person with regards to sex? Those are the questions to ask when wondering why something specific is (or was historically) considered sinful by Christianity – and I think different answers to those questions will necessarily lead to divergent ethical systems.
That teleological question also opens wide the door of self-examination and conviction, while also giving me a way to evaluate feelings of guilt to determine if there is really a sin issue at play. When I forget to make dinner plans, for instance, that is a mistake that I have to apologize to my family for (especially if we’re out of leftovers!), and find a way to work around, but it’s not a sin – it’s simply a weakness inherent in being a non-omniscient creature! On the other hand, when I lose my patience with my boys and snap at them about some small irritant, that is something I both have to apologize for and repent of before God, because it is a symptom of my fallen and sinful state. It is contrary to the purpose and design with which He created me, and someday, when God has fully sanctified me, that impatience will be gone; the forgetfulness about daily chores may not be 😉
I suppose if this becomes my working definition for sin, my new point of argument/difference with people has to move up to what exactly they think human beings are: what is our purpose, what is our design? Are we intended for certain things, or not? If our ethics is founded on our teleology, we’ll have to examine much more deeply what the Bible actually teaches about who we are and who we’re meant to be – which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.