Because it’s so central to Christianity, and because of the concerns so many have about “salvation,” the concept of “sin” deserves fresh consideration. What does scripture say about it? Does that match up with how it is often thought and spoken about within Mormonism? How have our views of it been affected by readings of scripture and thoughts about the Atonement that focus on laws and punishments for breaking them, which, in many ways leaves the view of a loving God practically out of the picture except for providing Jesus Christ to overcome the demands of justice? Does this emphasis on law distort the real harm and effects on us that come from sin? Are there better ways to think about all of it? A few passages of scripture come to the fore as being especially in need of different readings, such as ones that speak of “no unclean thing” being able to “enter the kingdom of heaven,” of God not being able to “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” that “the wages of sin is death,” and admonitions to “sin no more” yet “unto the soul who sinneth shall the former sins return.”
In this episode, Adam Miller and Julie de Azevedo-Hanks join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for a fresh look at sin and the ways our thinking about it can and often does become distorted. What are the panelists thoughts about the true nature of sin?
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2016)
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2013)
Adam S. Miller, Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016)
Adam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (2015)
Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012)
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperCollins, 2015), paperback
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” April 2013 General Conference address
What a lovely discussion!
Late in the discussion, Dan raised a metaphor of how a king or feudal lord would mete out rewards and punishments depending upon whether people obey their laws. As I listened to this part, it occurs to me that what we think of god as king or ruler, informs how we think of sin. It’s great that this discussion follows your discussion on the nature of god, for they are profoundly related.
Adam mentioned D&C 19, of how Eternal Punishment is not meant to be eternal in the “last forever” sense, but rather, that Eternal means “God’s”. Let me expand this for a moment. D&C 88 suggests that God is subject to the laws of his kingdom, and in this universe, such laws are natural laws. In fact, as we observe the movements of the cosmos, we see god (his natural laws) moving in glory and strength. So if God’s laws are natural laws, then God’s punishments are natural punishments.
This isn’t complicated. If we continue in the state of disregard of natural law, the inevitable outcome is death. Living in harmony with natural law, we create and extend life. Evolution is the manifestation of this principle — that which favors survival of a life-form evolves to greater life forms. That which persists in destructive behavior leads to death of species. There seems to be a universal natural law. And why should that not be the case? All things bear witness of Christ — the eternal god principle and God’s eternal, natural laws.
Dan brought our earthly perspective of sin in to sharp focus by comparing god to the feudal ruler. Mankind’s laws are not the same as God’s laws. Mankind’s rewards are not like God’s rewards of Life. Mankind may deal out death in consequence to disobeying arbitrary and capricious law, but in so doing, mankind is violating the higher laws of mercy and Love. When we view “Sin” as being that which merits shame via unworthiness, we are condemning the sinner rather than the very act of sin that creates life.
This is an important paradox. We cannot avoid sin. To embrace the message of the Garden of Eden, we must realize that Adam and Eve were faced with a dilemma: to choose “being fruitful and multiplying” versus “not partaking of the fruit”. They could not obey both “rules”. Thus, it is not “sin” that condemns us, but the inability to act. I think sometimes in our Church, we would prefer to remain in the Garden of Eden, ever not taking any chances to sin so that we can be “perfect”. The problem is that in so doing, we will live forever in our sins of omission — we will never “learn through our own experience to distinguish good and evil.”
In the process of acting, we will necessarily make mistakes — we will miss the mark. Confucius said, “In archery we have something of pattern for the enlightened person. When missing the mark, the enlightened person looks to himself.” We joke about Dieter Uchtdorf’s pilot stories, but his makes a point — our life is always deviating from the perfectly true Course — the Way — and our job is to look inside ourselves for ongoing improvement. Sin, therefore, is a necessary consequence of taking action — it’s the mistakes we make along the Way. Repentance is the act of looking within ourselves to get better at following the Way. Without sin, there is no repentance. Without repentance, there is no learning or progression. Without progression, there is no eternal life.
Twice in the temple we learn that the Plan of God is for us to “learn through our own experience to distinguish good and evil”. “our own experience” necessarily means sin. “learning” is the process of repentance. We would do well to embrace sin, not to persist in it, but to be grateful that we are given learning opportunities.
since I cannot edit these things, may i suggest that in the last sentence, to “embrace sin”, does not me that we deliberately sin. But rather, we own our sin, we recognize it as what it is, we embrace the IDEA that we have sinned, thus giving us the opportunity to improve.
I couple of years ago, as a sixty year old, I began serious bike riding. Never doing anything half-way, I was pushing the limits of natural law, not the least of which is that when you fall as an older guy, you break stuff. So I fell. many times. (hey, it takes me a while to learn through my own experience). Each time I fall, I have a risk of dying. Some falls are so severe, that the long consequences will shorten life by virtue of adversely affecting mobility.
So what is my attitude toward falling? Do I get fearful and stop riding? Do I get angry at the bike or the road and blame them? Or do I say, Ok, what is there to learn from this? And by learning that after a rain, muddy bike paths tend to be slick — Now I have learned something. By embracing the sin — examining it, looking within myself as Confucius suggests, I’ve learned something! Hallelujah! This is good! I’m still alive, albeit with a broken rib — the natural consequence of my “sin” — but I can ride again. And, knock on wood, I haven’t fallen again on a slick bike path, because I have learned something. As well, my freedom has increased, because by examining what caused my fall, I am more confident on dry paths, and can gauge my speed on straight, dry paths while taking a rest on the curves and muddy paths. I have become better because I embraced my “sin”.
And on top of that, I have a story to tell for it.
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Really enjoyed this episode (as always).
I was actually struck by something, though, mentioned in one of Gina Colvin’s A Thoughtful Faith podcast episodes…it was an episode with a former bishop about dealing with young adults on the margins, and at some point in that podcast was mentioned something that related a great deal to what was discussed in this episode.
The former bishop mentioned that a lot of people saw repentance as a matter of spending a certain amount of time…and that this impression probably was gotten based on our legal metaphors for sin…you do a certain crime, that comes with a sentence of x.
But as was discussed both here and that other discussion, sin is really about producing consequences that people don’t (or shouldn’t) want, and resolving those consequences takes action/a change of heart and isn’t just about waiting a certain amount of time or whatever.
All of this being said, I like Adam Miller’s comments on dying to sin so that one can live more abundantly…I think there could have been more discussion on what it means to live a pre-converted life directed at death…vs what it means to live a converted life where one is not afraid of death because through baptism, one has already “gotten past that”
I want to throw out an angle for the scriptural frustration Dan expressed surrounding “no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God.” I’ve felt that frustration too.
But something clicked for me while listening.
I can’t hear the word “unclean” without Levitical bells going off. It seems half of Leviticus is devoted to ritual instructions for dealing with designations of what is clean and what is unclean. We are talking *ancient* Israelite religion! The word unclean, in scripture, carries a long cultural context regarding health, death, sex, etc. Touching a corpse, menstruation, ejaculation, all made you unclean for various lengths of time. Eating certain animals, shellfish, mixing of certain textiles, etc. All these things made you “unclean.” I don’t know that its entirely clear why ancient Israelites thought that way, but they did.
Leper’s too, obviously. “Unclean.” And if you touched a leper, that made you unclean as well.
Which is why Mark 1:40-45 is so powerful. A leper comes to Jesus saying Jesus can make him clean. And Jesus TOUCHES HIM! Contagion! Sores! Of course, now this means that Jesus himself is ritually impure, and socially unacceptable, according to scripture. Unclean, we might say. Except, what happened is “immediately the leprosy departed from him [the leper] and he was cleansed.”
If, in our conversations about sin, we use those scriptures about unclean things not being worthy to dwell with God, we should be quick to turn the conversation toward that cultural context. In one sense it is a metaphor that makes no more sense in a post enlightenment world in which we know that its okay to eat lobster, and okay to have a pork chop, and okay for a couple to be intimate during pregnancy and menstruation, etc.
But in another sense, this seemingly outdated metaphor of uncleanliness is still beautiful. Because it is a message of healing. Because of the continually health-giving power of Jesus’s life and message. Because some Gospel Doctrine argument implying that “no unclean thing can dwell with God” means that God can’t bear our imperfection doesn’t hold water, because Jesus already shattered that paradigm. He touched the leper. He went there, when no one else including his religion, would. He meets us, dwells with us, no matter where we are on our own personal spectrum of growth. It means that in some mysterious way the life and message of Jesus is always already reaching into our lives with its elixir and giving us new life, new eyes, new love, new understanding.
Love this thought 👍