By Harris Franklin Rall
WHAT SIN IS AND DOES
I. OUR LESSENED SENSE OF SIN
EVEN in religious circles one does not hear very much talk about sin today, and there is certainly everywhere a lessened sense of sin. Some of the change is to the good, for not a little of the old sense of sin was morbid and self-centered. It was not so much contrition for an evil life as it was fear of consequences, of judgment and hell; and often the men who talked most about sin had little concern for evils about them that called loudly for remedy. They were concerned about sin in the abstract, not about sins in the concrete. There has been, indeed, a deepening sense of the sins of the group, the wrongs for which the social body is to blame. Such evils as slavery and war lived on for centuries with little protest and little sense of guilt on the part even of Christian men. Walter Rauschenbusch tells the story of a farmer who was arrested and fined for selling dirty milk. His coreligionists disciplined him, not for his unsocial practice by which he had endangered the lives of babies, but because in anger at his arrest he had let loose a "damn." Today there is a growing social sense of sin; more and more people are seeing that war and racial hate and unemployment and poverty are sins for which we are responsible and of which we must repent.
But the loss of the sense of personal sin is another matter, and it is not an advance. Whether we like this talk about sin or not, sin is a big fact in the world. The stories about it cover the front pages of our papers. The government recognizes its presence with police and courts and jails, and pays a crime bill that runs into billions. Our oppressive war costs are chargeable to the expense account of sin. And every last man of us knows it in his individual life. The right and good speak to me and I refuse them; that is sin. In my inner self there is a dualism, a lower self standing against the higher; that is sin. I turn to the good and something within me hinders me; that is sin.
Why is there a lessened sense of sin? There are two main reasons. One is a growing individualism which recognizes no authority, which knows no rule of life except its own interest and desire, which acknowledges no obligation except to itself. James Oppenheim has voiced this modern temper:
It is not usually so frank as this. It talks about self-expression, but it fails to see that every man is two selves, and that this very fact brings us under the law of obligation. Modern individualism is a denial of the moral order; back of it is the loss of the moral sense.
The second reason is the growing naturalism, or secularism, which means the loss of the sense of God and spiritual reality. It is the lusty paganism seen in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."
If you live in a world of two dimensions, on the plane of things and in the world of now, you will not, of course, worry about your sins or think about God. But neither will you dream dreams or have hopes of better things to be. There will be no high goal to command you, no vision to inspire you, no faith in God to give courage to fight on. It is this same naturalism, this loss of faith in a God and a goal that give life meaning and hope, that has brought on the sense of futility and hopelessness which curses our age. Our age may sink to despair, or once more rise to faith and to the struggle for which it calls, but it cannot go back to care-free paganism. Such a paganism, a happy animalism, never, in fact, existed. For men have always been ruled either by faith or fear. In the old paganism it was fear, fear of unknown but dread spirits on every hand, fear of the incalculable forces of nature, fear of a grave that held no hope. And for the modern man it is the fear of a life that has no meaning, of a future without hope, of a universe of blind forces that will engulf us all at last, yes, and that fear of each other that is driving nations into the race of armaments whose burdens are breaking the back of toil.
The Christian doctrine of sin has two sides. On the one it is a courageous facing of facts, without which there can be no cure of our ills, individual or social. Correct diagnosis must come before remedy. There has been a kind of liberalism in religion and politics which has seemed to think that all we needed to do was to hold up an ideal and map out a program, and the end was secured. Adopt a constitution and you had a democracy; pass a prohibitory law and you had a sober nation; establish a League of Nations and you had world peace. It left out of account man and sin; it shut its eyes to human ignorance and stupidity, to selfishness and greed, to the fires of hate and anger always smoldering just below the surface. Today men are growing more "realistic," and everywhere they see that first of all we must take human nature into account.
But there is a second side to Christian teaching, and that is one of hope. The fact is, Christianity does not ask men to "whine about their condition," or "lie awake and weep for their sins." Christianity believes in God and in the man that is to be. Its doctrine of sin is not one of pessimism or despair. It faces the fact of sin and hauls it out into the light in order that men may move beyond sin, that they may put it behind them, set their face to the future, and fix their faith in God. It speaks three words: good news, repent, believe. In the word with which Jesus began his work: "The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news."
II. WHAT Is SIN?
Sin is evil in man seen in the light of God. Three considerations will bring out its meaning.
1. Sin is the refusal of good; it is man's "No!" to the highest. We saw man's distinctive nature in the fact that he lives in two worlds, the actual and the possible, the "is'' and the "ought to be." Animals may be ferocious, cruel, bloodthirsty; they are not sinful. They have no higher level to which to rise and so cannot fall to the lower. It is here that glory and tragedy lie side by side for man. The higher world comes with its invitation and demand. It brings what we know is just and right and good, with which we must square our lives. Our common speech reveals this; the good man is one who is square, straight, upright, on the level—all figures of speech which mean that he comes up to a certain standard. This is not a matter of rules to be followed; it is our higher self waiting to be achieved. It is beauty, truth, faith, love, joy, peace. It is life in the rich relations of home, friendship, community, nation, God, the life in which give and receive are inseparably joined. The chance to rise is the glory of man.
But man can refuse to grow. He can say "No" to life. Sin is this refusal. It is, first, disloyalty to ourselves. My true self, the real man, is not the "is," but that which "is to be"; and I can refuse that. As Gilbert Chesterton once suggested: You don't pat a crocodile on the back and say: "Now, be a crocodile." A crocodile cannot do anything else. But you do put your hand on a man's shoulder and say, "Now, be a man," for he may be a man, or he may not. Further, sin is disloyalty to my fellow men. For this higher that is to be is not an individual affair; it is a common life, a common good that calls, and it demands a common faith and devotion. Sin is the betrayal of my fellow man. And, finally, it is disloyalty to God, the refusal of his will and purpose, of life in fellowship in him.
That does not mean that there comes some dramatic moment in each life when we realize all this and make final choice of evil instead of good, pausing at our Rubicon and then deliberately crossing over. More often it is indifference, inertia, an aimless drifting with the current of ease and pleasure. But this, too, is disloyalty. Here is the place where neutrality is iniquity, or, rather, where there can be no neutrality. "He that is not for us is against us." This sin of negation is no little matter. It is not the calculating opposition of the wicked few but the selfish indifference of the many that has always been the real obstacle in the path of the kingdom of God. The most tragic feature in the scene at the cross was not the satisfaction of the few leaders who had achieved their vindictive end, nor the callous soldiers doing their appointed task, but the crowd who simply "stood beholding." It is because of just such a refusal that Browning passes his judgment on "The Lost Leader":
2. Sin is selfishness. Goodness and sin, in the last analysis, are not so much a matter of outward conduct or particular choices, but rather an inner spirit or attitude. Probably no single word will do, but if we chose one word for goodness it would be good will, or love, and for sin selfishness. Selfishness is what lies behind disobedience, or disloyalty. We refuse God and the common good and the higher self because we prefer our own will and way. That is plain in the black sins of envy, deceit, hatred, greed, cruelty, lust, and murder; but the same principle is at work in the sins of mere inertia and indifference. Men do not choose evil because it is evil. When we find a man who deliberately seeks to inflict suffering on others for its own sake, we call him a monster, or we recognize with modern psychology that he is abnormal, not sane. What men are after in their sin is some sort of good or pleasure or satisfaction; but they seek it selfishly, putting the lower as against the higher, taking individual pleasure as supreme against God. They are like those "wretched souls/' those evil angels whom Dante found shut out from heaven and denied admission even to hell,
3. Sin is wrongdoing seen in relation to God. Here religion adds its third dimension to the concept of sin and reveals its deepest meaning. Sin is something moral, the doing of wrong, the failure of right, but it is more; it is all this as seen in the light of God, and thus seen in its full meaning. If we are to understand this, we must first rid ourselves of the picture of God as a jealous Euler sitting aloft and demanding his dues and honors, and of sin as the refusal which he punishes. Rather, God is he in whom all good has its being and source. Justice and love and truth are not abstractions; they live in God and God comes to us in them. In him are all the high possibilities of life to which we are to give ourselves. To him, therefore, we are to bring all hope and trust, all aspiration and devotion. His will is our life, our good, our goal. Sin, then, is not merely this evil choice or that refusal; it is the denial of God and of his high purpose for man. Only faith in God can give to life its full meaning and glory; and only in the light of that faith do we see what sin really means. In that sense we say: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight." It is Isaiah's vision of God which causes him to cry out: "I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." It is no morbid dwelling on man and his evil which brings Christianity's keen sense of sin; it is rather its high conception of a merciful and holy God and its lofty ideal for man.
III. THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
One of the results of modern science has been to make men conscious of an all-embracing order within which all happenings in nature take place. There is no chance, nothing haphazard in the universe. It means tragic consequences sometimes, usually because of human ignorance or wilfulness; but it means a world in which science and control of nature and growing human welfare are possible, since nature is orderly and trustworthy. It is curious that men have been so slow to recognize a like order in the moral universe and to appreciate its value. Without such a moral order there could be no sure building up of character in the individual or of a just and stable social structure. But that same order means that corresponding consequences follow upon wrongdoing. Men have not seen this because they thought of the consequences of sin in terms of punishment, and punishment they conceived after the human manner as something imposed from without. Then they sentimentalized their idea of God, and insisted that he was too "good" to inflict pain on his children. From that fool's paradise we are awakening today to the stark fact that sin is real, that its consequences are destruction, and that they follow as the night the day.
Let us begin, then, not with the idea of punishment, but with that of a moral order in which human life is lived. Because sin is negative, the denial of the good, we can best understand it by asking what good is. The good that we seek is life, not just existence but life at its fullest and best; and life is a matter of right relations. Every step forward in the evolution of life upon earth was an entrance into larger relations. For no being do so many and such varied and meaningful relations wait as for man. The doors that open into this richer life are three: truth, or insight into what our world means and holds; obedience, or loyalty to the demand that these relations make upon us; and love, the willingness to forsake the narrow and selfish life and give ourselves to the larger life to which we may belong, to home, friend, country, humanity, God.
Sin is disloyalty and selfishness, and these bar the road of life. Sin is the refusal of obedience, of self-surrender, of love, of the high and adventurous quest. But always it is that which divides and so disintegrates and destroys. The reason we do not see this more clearly is because we do not see sin carried to its full consequences; but the word of James remains true: "Sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death."
The examples of all this are as varied as life. They appear in the physical realm. Not only do the vices of the flesh affect the body, but where anger, jealousy, hatred, and fear rule, there we find anarchy in the kingdom of the soul, there body and mind both suffer. Sin is divisive and disintegrative in social relations as well as in the individual. It separates man from man, and destroys that rich life which is found in human association. Back of war, of poverty, of political corruption, of scourges like typhoid, tuberculosis, and venereal disease, back of our varied social ills, are to be found greed and pride and lust for power and selfish indifference to others; in a word, back of them all is sin. How plain it is when we make an honest study of such an enemy to man as war is! This is what sin means and does when it has a chance in human life.
The deepest consequences of sin are seen in man's inner life. God is the source of our life; in its refusal, in its selfishness, sin means isolation and so, once more, death. The very selfishness which grasps at life is a refusal of life. As Browning says in "A Death in the Desert":
Of all the consequences of sin the most tragic is gin itself. Man gets what he chooses. He turns from light, and the light that is in him becomes darkness. He refuses love, and isolation, emptiness, and loneliness are his lot. He says "No" to God, and God becomes ever less real while he loses the peace and courage and hope which have their source in him. From among his possible selves he chooses the lower and baser, and one day he realizes, as Stevenson has portrayed it in his drama of the soul, that Doctor Jekyll is gone and only the sinister, evil Mr. Hyde is left The nations of the earth, careless of justice, indifferent to obligation, turning from co-operation to rivalry, from common good to selfish interest, relying on force of arms, obtain the judgment on their sins by receiving what they desire: a world of mingled hate and fear and war that threatens to engulf all in a common doom. Here, as Browning points out in his "Easter Day," following the word of Revelation 22. 11, is the hell that is God's punishment for sin:
So sin is failure, salvation is life. Life is not easy; "I find it hard to be a Christian," writes Browning in this same poem. Jesus made that plain: the lamp must be lit, the loins girded about, we must sell all for the sake of the one pearl, of the treasure in the field. And when the hand is once on the plow, we must not look back. Sin means losing out. It may mean the refusal to surrender, or the choice of a lesser good, or failure in devotion and persistence. Its root may be folly or wilfulness or wickedness; but in any case it means losing the road, missing the mark, the failure to find life.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
FOR FURTHER READING