During a disagreement last week with one of our children, I was impressed by their attempt to broker peace: ‘If there was a word bigger than sorry, I’d use it!’ I smiled to myself a few days later when I heard the same dramatic line being delivered by their favourite character in the American sitcom that is given far too much screen time in our house. The statement adopted by this budding thespian of a child expresses quite effectively the limitations we sometimes encounter with language- those occasions when the words available to us just aren’t a good fit.
I was struck by this same limitation when I was reading an article last week about an interview with Tim Farron. Following on from his resignation as Lib Dem party leader, he was asked in the interview about the furore that blew up over his views on gay sex and whether it can be described as a ‘sin’. He talked about the meaning of the word ‘sin’, stating: “In the end, the difficulty is, if you’re a Christian, you’ve got a very clear idea of what sin is, and that is us falling short of the glory of God, and that is something we equally all of us share… But if you’re not a Christian, what does sin mean- it’s to be accused of something, it’s to be condemnatory. And so we’re talking different languages.”
I’ve been a Christian for 30 something years and I have an understanding and an acceptance of the concept of sin and my part in it. But this week, I’ve been trying to imagine how I would feel if someone came up to me and said ‘Katie, you’re a sinner’ or described some part of me as ‘sinful.’ I’d be offended and defensive. The word ‘sin’ sounds accusatory. It’s hard to imagine having a neutral conversation with someone after they’ve described you in that way. It’s a word that hurts our pride and if there’s any truth in what’s being said about us, one that taps into our shame. It made me realise what a potent mix of emotions you can stir up with that tiny word.
I saw a similar stirring of emotions at my grandad Lewis’ funeral. My Grandad was one of the most vibrant, evangelical Christians I’ve ever known. He was not a man weighed down by the idea of his sin but someone living life as one freed from that burden but just before he died, he asked for Psalm 51 to be read to him. He wanted to admit one final time that, like everyone else, he fell short of the glory of God. The same psalm was read at his funeral, the reader explaining why before reading: ‘Blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psalm 51:1-2). There was a family member at the service who was offended by the psalm. ‘Lewis wasn’t a sinner’, he said afterwards. I could see it from both sides. My faith tells me that none of us are perfect, including Grandad, and yet I could understand why this person was upset that we had linked Grandad to that psalm.
In reflecting on the word ‘sin’, I have been wondering whether it’s part of the reason I’m not very good at talking about my faith. Anyone who knows me will probably be aware I have a faith. I am very open about it. But those who know me will probably not have heard me trying to explain my faith in any detail. Part of the reason for this is that is very few ask me to. But on those rare occasions when I do try to articulate what it’s all about, I struggle with the words available to me. I feel like a dinosaur, like something from medieval times, if I talk about ‘sin’. I can hear the change in my own voice. I go from sounding like normal Katie to the mouthpiece of some outdated, outmoded religion.
And yet it’s essential to be able to explain what ‘sin’ means if we are to explain our faith. We cannot explain who Jesus is and why he offers forgiveness without first explaining the need for forgiveness. It’s important to remember that whatever word we select, once we get on to the subject of our failings, it’s not going to be comfortable. That’s not just a language thing. Few of want to dwell on our flaws. But the word ‘sin’ is a particularly loaded one, one that’s gathered all sorts of associations as it has made its way down to us through church history. If I have done my research correctly, there are over 40 different words for ‘sin’ in the Bible in its original languages. In those first teachings about the concept of ‘sin’ there was a much richer vocabulary available. We seem to have far fewer words.
The meaning of ‘sin’ in the Bible is a big and complex subject but broadly speaking, ‘sin’ refers to us straying outside of God’s boundaries. Our toddler is always running away from us at the moment, letting himself out of the house or garden if he has a chance and putting himself in danger. That picture, for me, is quite a good picture of what we do when we sin. We run away from God and almost always put ourselves in danger.
This was something I did in quite an extreme way for a chunk of my younger life. Aged 17, trying to live out my faith, I didn’t initially join in with the drinking, drugs and smoking that my school friends were starting to experiment with. I refused to sleep with my boyfriend, who then spent a summer cheating on me with a girl who did oblige, which made me something of a laughing stock at school. I didn’t really have any Christian friends and I ended up feeling lonely, isolated and unpopular. I remember lying in bed one night, telling God I was going to try some of these things for myself, promising to come back to him when I had done. It took me another decade to finally come back to him, although, looking back on it, he never left my side. In under a year, having decided to go my own way, I’d developed anorexia, I was buying cigarettes daily and I had begun to abuse alcohol. Underneath it all, I was suffering with depression and low self-esteem and I was trying to numb the pain.
Was I ‘sinning’? I was broken, I was empty and I was lonely and in my brokenness, I caused a lot of problems and heartache for those around me. On a biblical understanding, I was sinning, if sinning means wandering off and putting yourself in danger: I had made a very clear decision to move away from God. And what flowed from that decision was horrendous for all involved. But, even so, it seems an odd word to apply to someone who was so ill and confused. And so here is an example of where the language available to us as Christians doesn’t always communicate what we want to say. I saw a therapist during that time and I could see she thought my faith was part of my problems. She never said it but whenever I tried to explain my faith to her, she looked sad, as though it was words like ‘sin’ and the guilt they can bring that lay at the heart of my issues. And yet I knew what I meant and I knew my faith wasn’t the problem. As Tim Farron said, we were talking different languages.
Words like ‘sin’ can make people looking at Christians from outside the faith think Christians are judgemental and condemnatory when the reality is, they are probably, hopefully, not. If you watch the whole interview with Tim Farron here, I would be surprised if you concluded he was judgemental in the way some of the media presented him as being.
During those troubled years, I took my problems to my vicar so he could pray about them with me. I remember him telling me God saw me as a precious jewel. I don’t remember him talking about sin. On another occasion, he encouraged me to say the Jesus Prayer (or the Eastern Prayer of the Heart), an old monastic prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ It’s a prayer to be repeated, maybe on a walk or a run. But my vicar told me that I wasn’t to say ‘a sinner’- he wanted me to leave that bit out. He didn’t say why but I think he mustn’t have wanted to add to my burden of shame. And then an older lady at church prayed with me, at the height of my anorexia, when I weighed 7.5 stone and had been told I would be sectioned if I lost more weight. We were sitting in her conservatory at dusk and she said she could picture me on a beach, walking with Jesus, just him and me. And the bit I will never forget was that she said he enjoyed being with me. This was a revelation to an 18 year old who believed nobody, except maybe family, enjoyed being with her. That lovely lady did not speak about sin.
Sin is a word that needs careful use. It’s a subject we all have to face as we are all, in varying degrees, straying from the path God would like us to walk with him. But we need to be sure we are not judging or condemning and we need to be sure we don’t sound that way either through an insensitive use of language. Maybe if we got better at doing that, people like me, who don’t share their faith very often, might try to do so a bit more.
In John 8:11 Jesus said to the woman found in adultery, whom he effectively saved from being stoned to death: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.’ Jesus, who is the only person who can judge us, chose not to judge this woman. He spoke of her sin without condemnation. The beauty of Jesus is that he wants to rescue us when we stray into danger, he doesn’t want to make us feel worse. That’s what we need to get better at explaining.
I love this song. It talks of our mistakes but it never uses the word ‘sin’. I wish I could play it my 17 year old self and anyone else who’s wandered off: we are more than the choices that we’ve made, we are more than the sum of our past mistakes, we are more than the problems we create: we’ve been remade.