When did sin become the “s” word that we dare not speak?
This was not always so. There was a time when most believed that sin – disobedience to God’s law, whether through rebellion or neglect (1 John 3:4, James 4:17) – was a big deal. Sinning was stigmatized, a warning to others of its danger, like a sign on a power box: “Danger: High Voltage.” We believed it was the cryptonite that could bring any Superman to his knees. Do we still believe that?
There are at least two devastating consequences of sin’s denial:
1. The denial of sin precludes the possibility of healing, leading to death.
In his sermon Original Sin, John Wesley urged: “Know your sickness, know your cure.” Salvation in Scripture is a solution to a problem. But if we think there is no problem, then we won’t seek a solution.
One of the most painful reality T.V. shows to watch is Intervention. In one episode, a young woman addicted to methamphetamine takes the drug regularly, admitting no downside to her habit. Yet she is blind to the way it is controlling her life, putting her job in jeopardy and straining her relationship with those who love her most. Recovery only came when her family staged an intervention and she was willing to admit: “I’m an addict, and I need help.”
Likewise, the Good News of Jesus’ death only makes sense if we first acknowledge the bad news of our sinful predicament. Each of us must come to the place where we acknowledge that we are the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15, NIV). Only when the illness is diagnosed and we accept Scripture’s dismal diagnosis will we be ready to seek the Great Physician for a remedy.
Sometimes death is presented only as what happens when we breathe our last. Yet sin is so poisonous that it begins to diminish the present vitality of those who deny its presence. In John 10:10, Jesus warns about the “thief” that has come to “steal, kill and destroy” (CEB). Sin gives us death on the installment plan, a progressive choking off of our life here-and-now. The end result is utter darkness, devoid of hope and without God (Matt. 25:30, Galatians 6:8). Conversely, to confess our sin is the first step toward the full recovery God wishes for each of us (1 John 1:9), a clean heart and a fresh start.
2. The denial of sin destroys community.
One of the devil’s biggest lies is often repeated: “No one else is getting hurt.” But is this true? Before the cheating spouse is unmasked, he or she may be convinced that an extramarital dalliance is harmless, not a sin but an innocent pleasure. Yet when the affair is exposed, the fallout is no less devastating. Like a priceless vase shattered into a hundred pieces, trust can only be painstakingly glued back together. Even then, the fissures are obvious, the beauty marred.
The epitome of beauty marred is Fantine, Victor Hugo’s pitiful character in Les Misérables. Her own indiscretion of conceiving a child out of wedlock is compounded by the sin of others who move beyond stigmatizing to self-righteous victimizing, chasing her from her factory job, forcing her to resort to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. In the 2012 film adaptation of the novel, Anne Hathaway sings “I dreamed a dream,” dripping with pathos:
“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…”
Fantine is alone and broken. Her own sin could have been forgiven and overcome if she had experienced the power of grace demonstrated through others. Instead, the blindness of her fellow employees to the sinfulness of their gossip and their subsequent shunning of one they judge to be disgraced dramatically fractures community. Whether it is the denial of sin by an individual or the tolerance of corporate sin by the community at-large, it is the community itself that is destroyed.
Only in this light does the radical action of Peter toward Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 make any sense. When they sold their land and secretly kept back part of the money for themselves, Peter confronted them. Since the couple had lied about what they had done, Peter became the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, pronouncing judgment: “You have not lied to people, but to God” (Acts 5:4, CEB). For the Christian community to sweep sin under the carpet would have guaranteed the church’s demise. Peter knew that the denial of sin destroys community.
In the 21st century, the Church faces many challenges. The culture in North America particularly seems to be growing intolerant of the “s” word. Yet Scripture and experience both remind us that only when we acknowledge our sin can God’s forgiveness flow. Isn’t it time we talk about the “s” word?
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