“I don’t drink and I don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” I learned that little ditty from a Baptist friend who, in an earlier season of life, saw that as an apt and simple definition of sin and what to avoid on the way to becoming a good person.
It’s not too far from how I understood goodness and righteousness as a young person. To be good was to adhere to certain rules and behaviors: don’t drink or smoke; don’t cuss or go to the movies on Sundays; remain a virgin until marriage; be a good boy and play by the rules. It was a “works righteousness” understanding of Christianity, pure and simple; the correlative understanding of “sin” was limited to specific “bad” actions and behaviors.
What resulted? On good days, an arrogant sense of moral superiority, and a quick willingness to judge and condemn others in their actions. On bad ones, a load of self-accusatory guilt and condemnation, a “lowly worm” mentality, and a sense that I just needed to try harder to achieve goodness. In all days, I lived with a narrow sense of right and wrong that saw sin as the avoidance of actions that were alluring, guilty pleasures. Goodness and righteousness were negatively reinforced goals that seemed to take all the fun out of life but had an ultimate pay-off of some future, eternal reward. The Christian life was largely a list of “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and for heaven’s sake never, ever do that!”
All of that sounds outmoded, antiquated, and archaic; but I suspect many of us live out of a “works righteousness” mentality whether we are part of a faith community or not. What constitutes being “a good person” may vary, but the idea remains the same: goodness and respectability are our achievements and the result of our determined, hard work, rooted in avoiding specific behaviors and attitudes while embracing others. There still remains the concept among some that doing some things and avoiding others is the right way to live, even though those practices are considered by others to be prudish, conservative, old-fashioned. On the other hand the “good” life may be defined by others as never making judgments about the actions and attitudes of others, or being “politically correct” in language and behavior, or always being on the “enlightened and progressive” side of issues. Regardless of the measuring rod, the result can be a life marked by rules and boundaries that limit life instead of enhancing it, and all of it reduced to some superficial, shallow measurement of what truly matters.
Contrast this with Thomas Merton’s definition of sin as presented in Life and Holiness (Image Books, 1962):
Sin is the refusal of spiritual life, the rejection of the inner order and peace that come from our union with the divine will. In other words, sin is the refusal of God’s will and His love. It is not only a refusal to “do” this or that thing willed by God, or a determination to do what He forbids. It is more radically a refusal to be what we are, a rejection of our mysterious, contingent, spiritual reality hidden in the very mystery of God. Sin is our refusal to be what we were created to be – sons of God, images of God. Ultimately sin, while seeming to be an assertion of freedom, is a flight from the freedom and responsibility of divine sonship.” (Holiness of Life, 12-13)
Merton goes on to write:
The Fathers of the Church, particularly Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), believed that the “light” in man is his divine sonship, the Word living in him. They therefore taught that the whole of the Christian life was summed up in a service of God which was not only a matter of outward worship, but a “cherishing that which is divine in ourselves by means of unremitting charity” (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 1). (Holiness of Life, 16)
Divine Deep Peace (even in the midst of conflict). Stability. Coherence. Integrity. Meaning and Purpose. Connection. Communion. Wholeness of life. All these and more are contained in Merton’s “inner order and peace that come from union with the divine will.” This seems to me to be a measure of life and sin that is infinitely richer, deeper, and more profound. By Merton’s definition, sin is an intentional turning from deep life, true life, divine life; it is turning our back on the gift, promise, and possibility of being our most authentic and best selves known most deeply by the One who offers to reveal our true selves to us as we live in intimate connection and communion with God.
When I was copying Merton’s quotations, I was initially tempted to modify his words to be more inclusive (and politically correct?) by changing “sons of God” into “sons (and daughters) of God,” or “children of God.” Similarly I nearly changed Merton’s “divine sonship” to “holy relationship.” In the end I thought better of it and kept his original wording.
Why? I think something would have been lost in translation. There is something powerful and personally appealing in linking the mystery of our “divine sonship” with the Divine Sonship of Christ Jesus, who is “the exact image and likeness of God” (Colossians 1). To be “sons of God” is to realize a mystery: Jesus, the Son of God, is the model, form and frame for our own lives. As Irenaeus (130-202 AD) simply put it, “God became human so we might become divine.” Sin then is the refusal to become like Christ; it is an orientation and life direction away from Christ and our true, divine selves; sin is a turning from the promise and possibility that I can, by God’s gracious Spirit, become all that I see in Christ.
Through this lens we see sin as the rejection of the offer to real life and the possibility of being authentically, truly , and divinely human. In Genesis 1, we are created in God’s image; by that light we see that Jesus is simply and marvelously who we all are at our truest. Sin then is declining the invitation to be fully and completely human at our best, and deepest, and most complete.
Here is the great mystery, simply put: Jesus so completely knit his human life into the life of God that the Divine Life became indistinguishable from his own. He offers to teach that Way to any who hunger and thirst to learn such wonders. In the School of Jesus, turning from sin is turning to studying and becoming proficient in this living, true Divine Way learned from this Master Teacher. Here we learn the habits of His Heart; in the words of a 20th century hymn, in the School of Jesus “we practice (God’s) acceptance until we know by heart the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.”
When I think about that offer, sin loses its attraction and I see it for what it truly is – a barrier and obstacle standing in the way of a precious gift and a prized opportunity, and a cherished blessing only a fool would ignore or refuse. In that light, learning the Way of Jesus becomes no longer a gloomy death march of misery but a joyous adventure leading to life that really is Life.