The word “sin” has been part of the English vocabulary for over one thousand years. Our word form today comes from the Middle English word sinne, which is itself from the Old English word syn.” There is some probability that “sin” can be traced by to the Latin word sont, which means “guilty.” The original meanings of “sin” were concerned mainly with religious matters, such as “an offense against religious or moral law,” or “breaking God’s laws,” or “a state of human nature that is estranged from God.”
Now, there is no argument that those phrases define the Christian view of sin theologically, for sin is primarily a theological term. However, what do those phrases say to people in a post-Christian world? Not much, I am afraid. Most people we know are decent people. They love their children, they are employed, they do not commit murder, and all the other heinous things that we say is wrong. They are good people, and surely their good lives and deeds should ensure them a place in God’s heaven. The idea of being offensive to God because of wrong doing is far from contemporary minds.
What does the Bible call sin? In the Old Testament we have three main words, two of which have the same root:
- Chata’ah – an offense and its punishment
- Chata – miss the mark
- Ashma – guilty of doing wrong
The New Testament has five major words:
- Hamartia – missing the target – failure to be what we might have been.
- Parabasis – stepping across – crossing the line from good to bad.
- Paraptoma – slipping across – slipping on ice – not as deliberate as parabas; “wrong words slip out.”
- Anomia – lawlessness – the human instinct to do what we please and defy both human laws and God’s laws.
- Opheilema – failure to pay what’s due – a failure in duty – this word used in the Model Prayer: failure to perfectly fulfill our duty to our fellow humans.
None of the words define a behavior; they define thought and attitude. We err in thinking of sin as primarily a behavior. There is behavioral sin, but before we behave we think and feel. Sin starts within us in our thinking and feeling selves. This is from the New Testament Letter of James:
But we are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires. Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15).
We think with what I call Mind-Talk. This is our inner conversation, the voice we hear when we think. It is where our emotions start and grow. Our Mind-Talk shapes our attitudes, our feelings, and our beliefs. Our Mind-Talk shapes the way we behave toward others. Whether we have anger, hurt, depression, guilt, worry, happiness, well-being, or contentment, etc., they are homegrown in our Mind-Talk. Our feelings start in our minds, and they grow in our minds. Then, as James notes, our thoughts give birth to behavior that is either good or bad.
The most frequent word in both Testaments that is translated as “sin” is the one that means “missing the mark.” It is the picture of shooting at a target with bow and arrow and missing the target. We miss the target when we fail to live up to our own moral code, when we love things and use people, when we fail to love and support family. For most of us, our Mind-Talk keeps reminding us that we are failures in so many ways. We feel estranged from other people, estranged from God, and even estranged from myself. Have you ever thought, “I just don’t feel like myself today.”?
Not everyone has behaviors that the Church has listed as “sinful.” Yet, these folk will feel at times they have failed morally or ethically. They have not been responsible when they were to have been responsible. Our failures have eternal consequences for we influence our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world.
If sin begins with our Mind-Talk, then an element of salvation (which can also mean healing) is to change our Mind-Talk. In his letter to the church at Phillip’, the apostle Paul wrote: “The attitude [i.e. mindset] you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: . .” (2:5). Then in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote:
Your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God’s likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy (Ephesians 4:23-24).
What would happen if we began to define sin in terms of personal failure, whether morally, ethically, or professionally? What would it say about a personal relationship with God through the Christ? What would happen if we could change our Mind-Talk and think of ourselves as flawed people whom God loves? What would we be able to tell others about knowing the Christ.
The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews gives a long list of people of faith that includes a prostitute, a cheat, a murderer, and an adulterer, among others. At the end of the list, the writer says, “And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16b). This is a list of flawed people who trusted God and saw themselves as accepted by God, though they knew they were unacceptable. That is the Mind-Talk we all need.