The idea of “sin” is normal in our culture. Sinner is a word used by some sad, mistaken people to make others feel bad about who they are and the things they do. It’s a word worn by some as a badge of honor, showing that they live their lives “to the fullest.” Others know it, but it has no bearing on them or their lives.
We hear the word sin in movies like Original Sin and Seven and songs like I Write Sins Not Tragedies by Panic! At The Disco. Even Las Vegas is known as Sin City and capitalizes on that reputation.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, chances are you hear the word “sin” a lot, and might not really know what it means. I was raised in a Christian church and have always been interested in Christian theology, and have just recently started to form an understanding of what sin is. I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that we only use one word regularly for “sin” but it has many different meanings.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting with one of my best friends, who is in school to become a minister, and another woman, an ordained minister who was in town to speak at a conference about Jesus. In the course of our conversation the idea of sin came up, and the minister brought up the 32nd Psalm in the Bible.
That one conversation was integral in shifting the way I see the world and the way I see God. Here’s what we talked about:
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.King David, Psalm 32:1-2 ESV, emphasis mine
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
This song, known as a psalm, is about being honest with God, and God responding with blessings and refuge. It was written by King David. People in the Bible don’t have last names, but I always want to give them one. David should be David Jesseson or something. Anyway…
David was a young musician and shepherd boy, probably middle school/high school age, when he was selected to be the King of Israel. He became king in 1010 B.C. and he was considered to be God’s chosen, a man after God’s own heart. He continued to write songs about his life and God well into his reign.
David, God’s chosen, had a life riddled with scandal and bad, bad decisions. Which, I think most of us could relate to if we were thrown into being royalty. His most well-known screw-up began when he spied in the night on a woman who was bathing to ritualistically cleanse herself after her period, a normal part of the life of a Hebrew woman at the time. David thought she was beautiful and sent someone to find out who she was.
After learning who she was and that her husband was away fighting in a war, he apparently decided that this woman belonged to him, and had her brought to his palace so he could sleep with her, then sent her back home. Many Christians refer to this as “David’s adultery,” but I don’t think that comes close to telling the whole story. Let’s call a spade a spade.
A king in ancient times summons a woman to his palace so he could sleep with her. Do you think consent was a part of the equation there? Highly unlikely. Was the power in this relationship lopsided? Absolutely. Whether or not the encounter was violent, by modern standards, he raped her.
After raping this woman, whose name was Bathsheba, he found out she had become pregnant. So, he sent for her husband to come home, hoping to quickly hide what he had done.
Plot twist, when her husband came back from the war, he refused to go home and be with his wife. He insisted upon solidarity with his fellow soldiers who were still fighting; he slept on the ground outside of the palace.
The next night, David invited him to have dinner so he could get him drunk, hoping he would go home to be with his wife. Instead, he went and set up his mat on the ground in front of the palace again. This guy was annoyingly principled.
The following morning, David wrote a letter to the commander of his army. He told him to put the husband on the front-lines where the fighting was the worst, then pull every other soldier back so that the husband’s death would be guaranteed. The commander followed the king’s order and the husband was killed in battle. Covering up the rape didn’t work, so David added murder to his rap sheet.
After Bathsheba observed the normal period of mourning for her husband, David had her brought to the palace and made her one of his wives (in addition to his concubines). I can’t even imagine what she was going through, and to top it off, her baby died shortly after birth.
Pretty messed up, right? It’s like an episode of Scandal.
Here’s the thing about David: in his writing, it’s obvious that he was very practiced in messing up, and he knew it, but he was also very practiced in coming clean to God. Over and over he talks about the ways he has let God down and recognizes that he needs God to help him. He owns up to his mistakes and tries not to repeat them. He learns.
If you want to read a Psalm that David wrote after his friend confronted him about the rape, murder, and cover-up, look up Psalm 51. It’s pretty intense. Scholars aren’t sure what situation David is writing about in Psalm 32, some think it might be about the situation with Bathsheba and her husband, but the words are striking either way. His word choice was very intentional, honest, and if you know anything about Hebrew poetry, it’s really beautiful. If you get a chance, look up the whole Psalm and read it. I especially like the Message version.
In this song, David writes about three different ways he messes up. Not three specific things he’s done, but three methods of screwing up, if you will. Three kinds of sinning to put it in Christian-y terms. We really only have one word for sin in English, but in this song, David uses three different Hebrew words.
He talks about transgression, which means intentionally doing something wrong. Rebelliously breaking rules. Stomping on someone’s foot because you’re angry and you think you’re entitled to hurt them.*
Sin is used specifically to mean missing the mark. You’re not intending to lose your temper and act out of anger, but you slip up and stomp on someone’s foot. *
Iniquities refer to things that are crooked, bent, or distorted. I like to think of these as things learned or inherited from parents or culture; nurture and nature. Some people might call them “generational curses.” You’re stomping on people’s feet because you have big feet and no one ever taught you to watch where you’re stepping. So, you stomp on feet like your mother, and your mother’s mother.*
Growing up crooked was the picture that I was left with after this coffee-shop conversation about sin. The minister presented the concept that this crookedness of iniquities can be compared to a seed that has fallen into the soil on the face of a steep cliff. It somehow manages to grow, but can’t grow straight up due to the terrain. So, it grows crooked, through no fault of its own.
Immediately my own life phased into focus a bit more. I saw the things in my life that I did intentionally, knowing they were wrong, the things I tried not to do, but struggled with, and knew that there must be things I was doing that I didn’t realize were wrong. If I saw these things in my own life, they had to be true of other people too.
I had a whole new understanding of empathy and love. God is with us and forgives us for the bad things we know we do, and the things we don’t understand we’re doing.
David basically says: “You’re very blessed when God lifts the burden/debt of your intentional rebellion, when God covers the price/punishment for your habitual wrongdoing, when God does not count the harm you’ve caused unintentionally, because you grew up crooked, against you, and when you don’t hide who you are and what you’ve done from God.”*
David continues to write about what it’s like when he hides things from God–the description sounds a lot like anxiety and depression if you ask me. Then he goes on to explain what a conversation with God looks like. He tells God how he messed up, and God lets David know that if he stays near to God, God will guide him, and protect him.
David says he acknowledged, did not cover, and confessed his mistakes, indicating that he won’t knowingly repeat them. He says “steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.” He is vulnerable with God, and God loves him. This is how their relationship works. It’s freeing and personal, much like a healthy parent/child relationship.
That idea I had built of a cold God, somewhere far away, judging everyone in frustrated silence has been fading away since long before that conversation, but the conversation helped it along quite a bit.
Have you seen this video by Vintage Church?
My mom and I quote it all the time and laugh. “Now it’s time for me to tell you all what you’ve done wrong…” It’s absurd, and Jesus’ high-pitched voice is perfect.
Even though we laugh at this satire, it’s actually a bit too close for comfort sometimes. I think we buy into this perception of God because it’s hard not to. We think God is around to tell us what we’ve done wrong, and that’s about it. In reality, it’s in our best interest to tell God everything, and ask for help with the things we’re not doing right, intentionally or not. God designed us, so who better to consult when something isn’t working right? But, God is not about to force intimacy on us. God’s waiting patiently to hear us talk about it, and help us through it.
It’s so much easier to breathe when you see God in this light, don’t you think? Sin seems to have lost its power.
Until next time.