When I was growing up, all the preachers I knew preached hard against sin. They constantly badgered their audiences and warned them of terrible coming judgment against their sinful behavior.
But what is sin? We discussed earlier that sin is the state of pain, suffering, alienation, and death in which we find ourselves. Though much suffering we face in life is caused by nature, disease, and accidents, it seems the greatest contributor by far to of our physical and mental pain is other people.
People commit offenses against other people, and these offenses are what we call ‘sin’.
Clear and Discreet Offenses
Some offenses are very clear, such as murder, theft, and sexual assault. These offenses are illegal in every society because society cannot exist without controls against them. Illegal offenses lead to consequences from the state.
But many offenses against others are not illegal, and sometimes they are not so clear: salesmen taking advantage of prospects; employers squeezing workers for extra profit; church members gossiping. These are offenses against others because they cause pain and suffering to them.
I submit that anything we do that diminishes, exploits, or disadvantages someone else is an offense—a sin; it is an offense even if the wronged person is not aware of the loss. In the animal world, the stronger prey on the weaker; it is the natural order of things. But we are not animals; harming others in any way is an offense.
However, in addition to being hurt by others we are often the source of our own pain and suffering. We hurt ourselves by nurturing poor self esteem, participating in self-destructive behavior, and making decisions that harm us. These are offenses against ourselves.
We do not deserve this pain and should stop hurting ourselves.
What Rules Should We Follow to Avoid Offenses?
There are no lists of rules to follow because offenses are not infractions of rules; instead offenses have to do with the way we relate to each other. But Jesus points to two wonderful principles that address all offenses: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. These preempt all rules about offenses.
As we respond to the love of the Father, and begin to love ourselves properly, we can begin to love others as we love ourselves. Our offenses toward others will decline as we seek their good like we seek our own good. We might adopt helpful practices and personal habits to guide us, but we can never rely on lists of rules. Neither can we dictate appropriate behavior for other persons.
How Should We Respond to the Offenses of Others?
What should we do when we feel hurt or victimized by another person? Our first inclination might be to pursue retribution or revenge, but part of our growth as followers of Jesus is to put those feelings aside and choose a better response.
When Jesus taught his followers to pray in Matthew chapter 6, he focused on one specific point,
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
We each have hurt so many other people that we must forgive. Forgiving others helps us to forgive ourselves for offenses we cannot repair. And this is not just for friends and the general public; Jesus also says in chapter 5,
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This does not mean those who break the law should not be punished by the state, but we should not pursue revenge.
Where Does Sin Originate?
As we try to forgive the offenses of others and avoid offenses against others, we sometimes wonder how we got into this mess to begin with. Some people assure us that it started with Adam and Eve in the garden; they call it original sin. We will talk about that next time.