Just what is sin?
Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’
We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.
The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.
There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.
There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere, is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.
Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)