“Sometimes, the grandeur with which we regard our sin is really pride,” my priest said. The statement struck me as very different from the way I’m accustomed to thinking about sin, and I’ve been mulling it over since I heard it. I offer these thoughts tentatively, with a sort of over-arching question mark, since they come entirely from what my mind did with twelve words over the course of a week, and not from research or discussion or even long, careful thought.
Sometimes, when Christians talk about our own sinfulness, we can sound like humanity’s sin is a huge monster – the final boss in a video game – so vast and powerful that God Himself had to come and crush it to death. But, maybe it’s the other way around; maybe humanity had become so small and mean and shrunken in our souls through sin that Christ had to come to fill us up through taking our sins to the cross. Maybe, just as much as all our good deeds are filthy rags, all our bad deeds are internal vacuums; instead of being the mighty, armed foes of God, we just…well…sucked.
There’s some support for the idea of sin being small or pathetic built into our language. Meanness, along with the idea of cruelty, conveys a sense of smallness, shabbiness, or inferiority. Making actions from the small, shabby place in the heart is being mean. This smallness is an unwillingness to see beyond a certain distance (the edge of ourselves) which prompts us toward selfish actions. If I look at sin this way – as a something that shrinks me instead of as a huge monster – it takes on a different texture. It looks boring and unappealing rather than threatening and overwhelming.
In holding the view that sin as a vast, mighty power that penetrates even our best deeds, I wonder if we’ve gotten so focused on not being proud of our good actions that we’ve let ourselves build a kind of backward pride in our bad ones. When we say, “Look – here’s what I raised up against God and He showed Himself powerful enough to destroy even that!” on the one hand, we’re glorifying God, but we’re also sneaking in a bizarre little complement about our own strength. There’s a little flavor of “When it comes to the work of my hands, it took the omnipotent God Himself to undo it!”
What if, instead of always seeing the temptation to sin pulling at us as a massive roaring lion we must smite with awesome power, we switch on a light of divine understanding and find that it’s sometimes one of those annoying housecats incessantly meowing at the door? The smaller we shrivel through sin, the bigger and bigger that housecat looks. And, if we keep shrinking, it might become like a massive, roaring lion to us. But, if put in perspective, the temptation remains a housecat; it’s us that are getting smaller and weaker. Which means that, often, praying for deliverance is exactly what we need to do, because we too weak to deliver ourselves. But, occasionally, the right response to temptation may be to laugh at it and say, “Why on earth would I want to do a silly thing like that” and just walk away. What if sin (at least before it takes hold of our habits) is a distinctly underwhelming and pathetic action?
Now, let me be clear about two things I don’t mean. For one, Christians sometimes make sin an abyss from which no action – be it watching cartoons or washing the dishes – can escape. I hope this contemplation doesn’t make it sound like even repentance is a sinful action because it may produce pride; my goal is to mark off a potentially dangerous trail, not add guilt to those of us who’ve walked it. Another thing I’m not saying is that sin isn’t a big deal. Sin is lethal. There’s no biblical way around that. I’m not being flippant about the necessity of God’s forgiveness, since that is a mighty and vital thing. I’m just calling for moderation for those of us who have taken on an immoderate view of sin as powerful, not arguing flippantly for our freedom to do whatever we want because sin doesn’t matter.
While it’s important to understand the gravity of sin, that weight must not be mistaken for grandeur. By sinning, I turn myself inward and, were there powerful enough gravity at my core, I would compress and become very small. And those around me would be torn at by my destruction. Sin has gravity, not grandeur.