Most Christians tend to think of sin and salvation as issues primarily, if not entirely, about eternity. The Bible does not. Neither does real life. Toil, struggles, power structures, hierarchies and inequalities, family strife, enmity, and death – these are the everyday manifestations of human sin.
To help us better appreciate this, let’s just take a moment and quickly de-bunk one of the great misunderstandings of Christian theology: Contrary to popular belief, not all sin is the same.
I know that for many people who grew up in Church it is popular to think that every sin separates us from God – so a lie, for example, is just as bad in the eyes of God as murder. We justify our traditional beliefs in this regard by asserting that God is holy and cannot be in the presence of sin at all; so, even a little sin is too much sin in order to us to be united with God.
This, however, misses the point.
To describe things like the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, serial killings, and pedophilia in terms of rebellion against God while using the same description for things like gossip and foul language discounts the reality of sin’s impact on its victims.
But your sins have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
The point here in Isaiah is that the condition of our sinfulness [evidenced by use of ‘avah] – existing because we do not want to follow God, shadow God, or submit to the will and rule of God – separates us from God…not each individual sin.
Let me repeat: it is not our individual sins that separate us from God, it is our hearts.
We don’t love God, and so we are far away from Him.
If, however, we are reconciled to Christ than the barrier between him and us is removed and we enjoy fellowship with our Creator.
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
2 PETER 1.4
Now, if you’re curious as to why I believe this so strongly all it takes [apart from actual common sense and any conversation with another human being] is a quick look at the many punishments for different sins in the First Testament.
Different sins had different punishments. The bigger the sin, the bigger the punishment. The punishments were indicative of the severity of the sins. Therefore, not all sin is “equal.”
Some sins require more from us in order to be removed. For example, eating non-kosher food or violating rabbinical law was punished with 39 lashes; whereas to embarrass another Jew simply required a korban [a sin-offering], like a bull or a goat, be sacrificed on the altar in the Temple. Another example would be the fact that murder was susceptible to capital punishment; whereas involuntary manslaughter was met with mere banishment to a city of refuge and loss of property [though, the family of the deceased were still within their rights to kill the offender is ever they caught them outside of the safe-zone]. You see, Israelite priests treated sin in such a way that – as far as possible – things could be made right. They wanted to restore balance and order and harmony to the world and to the people. Some scholars have even suggested that the appropriate punishments for sin in the First Testament were meant as deterrents from further sin. Meaning, they made you do these things after you sinned so you wouldn’t sin in the same way any time soon. So, for example, if you lied to someone you were required to sacrifice a dove . And the irritation of going out and buying a dove, Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Waiting in line at the Temple to see the priest And then observing the sacrifice And then observing the priest eat the sacrifice and then clean it up And then finally being able to go home . Was such a bother. That you realized it simply isn’t worth it to lie ever again.
Think about it…if, today, every time you exaggerated you had to drive to Westwinds and make lunch for our pastors [assuming they were free] BEFORE you did anything else…how much more seriously would you take lying.
I wouldn’t even have the time to lie, let alone the money I’d need to make lunch every time I wanted to tell people how much I used to be able to bench-press.
Also, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Judaism understood there to be three separate levels of sin – intentional sin [the worst], accidental sin, and sins of ignorance [meaning, sins committed by non-Jews who’d recently converted and didn’t yet know the rules]. Intentional sins met the harshest punishments. Accidental sins met with some leniency. Sins of ignorance met with considerable leniency in the beginning. Furthermore, we might also consider Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as evidence that some things are more important to God than others:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
The Bible treats life like an ecosystem and sin like a brushfire. The more sin there is, the fast all of life is destroyed. The longer the sin goes unchecked, the more complete the destruction. Now, again, the basic sin is our failure to shadow God – to be authentically human. Like God – not God ourselves. Like God – not like something less than our Creator.
One major problem of sin consists in the fact that it is compounded over generations. Sticking with this metaphor, that means that we are all born into an ecosystem already on fire. Going back to our monkey metaphor – it means we are all born into a home where Mom and Dad have already adopted at least one large, livid, simian…and we’re scared of it. Growing up with on fire in a forest [or at home with a sin monkey] means that we’re all predisposed towards certain behaviors and attitudes. If both of your parents treated marriage like a college-elective, then – chances are – your own marriage will face tremendous strain. If your family has a history of alcohol abuse, then – chances are – you will become an alcoholic unless you are spectacularly careful.
The truth about sin is not only that it is harmful to you, but that its effects harm others around you – which, again, is why all sin is not the same. Some things hurt more. There’s probably much more we could say about all these categories, but my real aim here is simply to deconstruct the goofy idea that all sin is equal. All sin is evil, but not equal. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE it helps us understand that – in real life – bigger sins require greater efforts on our part to make things right.
One cannot simply ask for forgiveness from the person they cheated out of their life savings and think that everything is okay in the same way that one can simply ask for forgiveness for cheating them out of a stick of gum. The bigger the sin, the bigger the mess. The bigger the mess, the more effort is required to make it right. But – good news – that also means that there is greater grace available to us from God as we work alongside Him to make it right. He wants us to be reconciled with each other. He champions our efforts in this regard. He rewards us with character, hope, dignity, and favor as we endeavor to make things right.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everything we try and make right will end up sorted out right away – far from it! Some of us have done things that will take years of hard work, diligence, effort, penitence, and reparations to make right. Some of us will be ready to make things right well before the person we’ve sinned against is even ready to speak to us again. For example, if you’ve spent fifteen years ignoring your children and putting them in second-place behind your job or your ambitions or whatever…you cannot expect them to be instantly thrilled that their father now suddenly wants to be their buddy. Repairing that relationship will take time, possibly even more time than the time you took to screw it up. But don’t despair. Your efforts to make things right are actually worth something. It may be a 100- mile road you’re traveling, but even going an-inch-at-a-time you’ll get there. And, along the way, you can have confidence that the actions we take to reconcile with others please God and ingratiate us to Him.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com