Grappling with the Definition of Sin

Sin is any deliberate action, attitude, or thought that goes against God. You may think of sin as an obvious act, such as murder, adultery, or theft. Although that's true, sin is also wrongdoing that's far subtler and even unnoticeable at times, such as pride, envy, or even worry. Sin includes both things you shouldn't have done, but did (sins of commission) and things you should've done, but didn't (sins of omission).

The Bible is pretty outspoken on the yucky stuff that layers onto the hearts of all people. Check out these verses:

  • "I was sinful at birth, filled with sin from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5).
  • "There is no one righteous, not even one . . . there is no one who does good, not even one" (Psalm 14:1–3).
  • "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
  • "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt" (Jeremiah 17:9).

The Bible is positive when it comes to talking about God and his plans, but, it's continually the bearer of bad news when it comes to the hearts of humans. This bad news surfaces in two ways in people's lives.

Categorizing two types of sin

Though humans can commit thousands of particular sins, you can usually lump them all into one of two camps: sins of impulse and sins of the heart.

Sins of impulse are often what come to mind when you think about sin. The typical scenario is:

1. I see something.

2. I want it.

3. So I take it.

That impulsive desire to own, control, or destroy is what leads to adultery, murder, theft, addictions, or excessive anger or rage. Impulsive sins are usually brought on by emotion, and when you allow it, emotions can control you and take you on an irrational road trip.

Impulsive sins are often considered the worst type of sins, but a second kind of sin, although subtler, is even deadlier — these are called sins of the heart (or spiritual sins). Spiritual sins are the sins that don't show up on the outside of a person (such as a blatant action, like theft), but harbor themselves deep inside the heart. Selfishness, jealousy, envy, bitterness, hypocrisy, and deceit are all sins that can be masked on the outside, but carve a hole into one's soul the longer they're allowed to live inside of a person.

Christians often consider pride the most dangerous sin of them all. Ironically, today's society considers pride a positive trait ("take pride in yourself," "hometown pride," and so on). Although confidence in yourself and appreciation of your hometown aren't bad qualities, selfish pride is. It causes you to become consumed with your wants, your needs, your happiness, and your rights and to place them as more important than God and others. Pride also serves as a trigger for sins that seem initially like impulsive sins, such as lust, but are actually motivated by a spiritual condition. You can want something, not for animal-like reasons, but purely out of selfishness. Mine, mine, all mine.

A common saying that helps reinforce that pride is at the root of all sin is that "I" is at the center of "sin."

Jesus spent his entire ministry hovering between these two camps of sin (while remaining sinless himself). On one side were the impulsive sinners. The religious leaders labeled all prostitutes, dishonest tax collectors, drunkards, rabble-rousers, and so on as "sinners". On the other side were the spiritual sinners. This group was, ironically enough, composed primarily of the religious leaders of the day, called the Pharisees and the teachers of law. Although outwardly the Pharisees looked like they had their act together, Jesus referred to them as "whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but filled with dead man's bones" (Matthew 23:27). In other words, the Pharisees were concerned with looking holy rather than being holy. Their pride showed up in the legalistic attitude that they had as they scorned the people who were beneath them in the religious hierarchy. Not only did they not love others, but Jesus made it clear that they also didn't love God.

Like the Pharisees, the Church has often been more outspoken against impulsive sins and much less aggressive in dealing effectively with the more invisible, spiritual sins. However, Jesus did quite the opposite; take a read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and you see that Jesus always saved his sharp and direct words for the spiritual sinners of his day.

Weighing different sins

Throughout history, humans have always had their own ranking of sins. Certain heinous sins are too awful to talk about, and discussing other seemingly more minor sins may get you only a brief look of consternation or even a shoulder shrug. Parts of the Church have followed suit in categorizing sin, as Catholics classify sin as being either mortal (major) or venial (minor).

The Bible talks about the consequences of certain sins more than others, but it never gives any kind of ranking to them. Instead, the Bible focuses much of its attention on the fact that all sins, major or minor, stain the soul of a human and come under the same judgment of God. In God's eyes, a little white lie is as big of a stain before God as a mass murder. Anything not 100 percent sin-free is impure — 99.99 percent isn't good enough. According to James 2:10, even one itty-bitty sin over the course of a lifetime is too much.

Are you skeptical that God treats all sin the same? Well, consider the life of King David, the greatest leader in all Israel. When he was at his peak of popularity and success, he became prideful and self-absorbed, which ultimately led him to commit adultery and murder his mistress's husband. From a human standpoint, this guy was disgraceful and committed unforgivable acts. Yet one of the great ironies of the Bible is that God didn't write off David. In fact, after David repented of his sin, God still called David "a man after God's own heart."

Although the Bible makes it clear that all sin is an offense to God, individual sins impact people differently. The consequences that you must deal with if you're caught saying a little white lie are much different from the consequences of a mass murder.

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