Sunday, February 10, 2013

Redefining sin

I heard about sin a lot when I was growing up. Lots of things were sins: stealing, disobeying Mom and Dad, going to the store on Sunday, swearing. And once adolescent hormones kicked in, when I thought of sin, I thought of sex more than anything else. Mormons place sexual sins "second only to the shedding of innocent blood" on the hierarchy of sin badness, and it's not just doing the deed itself that makes you a colossal sinner. Thinking about it, causing others to think about it, touching yourself, or fooling around with someone else that you aren't married to, even if you don't have intercourse, all make you almost as bad as a murderer.

That was one hell of a weight I carried as a teenage girl.

There was the psychological harm of the constant guilt over having and acting upon normal human feelings and urges, but what I think was even more detrimental was how so much emphasis on (avoiding) sex took away from focusing on other areas personal growth. When I heard talks in church about overcoming sin, I immediately thought about how I could be less lusty. When I prayed, it was always about asking God to help me develop the self-control to not masturbate, and I felt worthless and weak because no matter how hard I tried, I could never go more than a few weeks.

What I didn't think about, because I was so concerned with avoiding the Very Worst Sin in the World, were things like: how could I be a nicer person? How could I show love to the people around me? What passions and interests would I like to develop and contribute to the world.

An interesting thing happened once I quit trying to deny and suppress my sexuality, once I decided that neither masturbation nor non-marital sexual relationships were sins. My sexuality dropped way into the background of my life. By no means did it disappear; it's definitely still there, but accepting my sexuality as a positive and joyful aspect of myself transmuted it from this horrible, looming Thing that metastasized onto every part of my life, to only one of a myriad facets of who I am. "Giving up" on "overcoming" sexual "sin" freed me work on overcoming other sins, sins that unlike what I do in the privacy of my bedroom, have the potential to hurt other people and have consequences in the larger world.

What is sin, really? I don't believe in some sort of balancing scale that bad deeds tip in one direction, making God powerless to forgive unless a price is paid to tip it back. I do make a confession of sin every week during the liturgy. I join with the rest of the congregation to tell God: "We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." (BCP p. 360) That's it. A sin is an act or a thought that cuts you off from God, which to me means somethings that cuts you off from authentic living, cuts you off from love.

Nowadays, when I think of sin, I think of things like not treating other people well, thinking I'm better than other people, losing patience with my children, not having enough empathy or understanding for someone else's point of view. Not loving my neighbor as myself, which I am guilty of every day. I pray for forgiveness, mostly from myself, to escape the paralysis of guilt, and I pray for the capacity to love better, not so I can be "saved" from any external hell, but to save myself from the internal hell caused by discord with the human beings around me.

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