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.
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
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.