What sin is – and isn’t

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“Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day to think about sin. How does thinking about sin make you feel? We often feel uncomfortable – like we’re going to be found out. I’m not sure that’s very helpful.

Right in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer – the one prayer that Jesus taught us – we say ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Jesus didn’t say ‘only include this line if you have to’. He knew we would have to. Sin is not a serious of bad choices that we could have avoided. Sin is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

That’s what St. Paul was so frustrated about in his letter to the church in Rome. He wants to do what is right – but he doesn’t do it. He wants to stop doing what is wrong, but somehow, he can’t help himself. It’s a pain.

I came across a very helpful definition of sin the other day. ‘Sin is an addiction to being less than ourselves’. We want to be the very best version of ourselves – to live out our God given potential to the full. But sin gets in the way – we get stuck in habits of thinking and habits of behaving that become so ingrained that we just don’t seem to be able to change them.

We know that when someone is caught up in an addiction, they lose the power to stop doing whatever they are doing. They need help. And we don’t condemn them for where they find themselves – we long to see them set free from this damaging way of living.

That is how God looks on us. His first response to our sin is not anger or disapproval, but longing – longing to help us be free. I learnt recently that the phrase ‘miserable sinner’ in the old prayer book meant something different when the book was first written – it meant a sinner in need of mercy. And the word we often translate as mercy could also be translated as compassion.

God looks at us with compassion. He longs to set us free from the sins we are addicted to, which stop us from being fully free. Those sins may not be the obvious ones that people talk about – sex and drugs and all that. They may be habits of overwork, or looking after everyone else’s need but not ours – or a tendency to judge others in our minds even if we don’t say anything – or a tendency to judge ourselves too harshly.

We will each have particular habits and compulsions. Sometimes we are aware of them. Sometimes they are hidden from us. Lent is a really good time to do some reflection on our lives – to think about our ingrained ways of thinking and acting, our relationships, our use of time, each part of our lives where are we becoming ‘less than ourselves’. I don’t think this is a miserable exercise. It can be very freeing to face up to the ways we are messed up. We don’t really have any secrets from God – so we might as well be open with him.

If we really face our messed-upness then we realise, like Paul, that we cannot do this on our own. ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will save me?’ he says. But then he exclaims ‘Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

There is a beautiful gift that comes from our sinfulness – grace. Sin brings us to our knees before God’s all forgiving love – and we discover there how precious is the free gift of forgiveness that he has for us.

Philip Yancey says that you can think about our connection with God as a piece of string. Every time we fall into sin, we cut the string. But when we come to God for healing and forgiveness, God greets us with forgiveness and grace, and knots the string. So over time, as we go on being forgiven, and the string keeps getting tied, the distance between us and God gets shorter.

So now you may like to accept God’s invitation to be open with him about your sinfulness, not feeling terrible, but letting go of a burden. After you have reflected, you may like to say these words of confession – and then hear said back to you the joyful words of forgiveness and freedom. And so we can be encouraged us to carry on with this journey of healing and renewal as we go on, day by day, on our journey through Lent.

Most merciful God,

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

we confess that we have sinned

in thought, word and deed.

We have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.

In your mercy, forgive what we have been,

help us to amend what we are,

and direct what we shall be;

that we may do justly, love mercy,

and walk humbly with you, our God.

May the God of love and power forgive us,

and free us from our sins,

heal and strengthen us by his Spirit,

and raise us to new life in Christ our Lord. 

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