It is quite coincidental that I often find myself pondering the sins that I have been guilty of committing over the years and acknowledging that while I have asked forgiveness of higher authority, I still have difficulty "forgiving" myself. I'm self-abusive that way.
Having said that, I also wonder if some of the "sins" that weigh heavily on my conscience would actually be considered sins in the current day and age.
Lo and behold, and much to my surprise, a retired man-of-the-cloth friend has been thinking along the same lines. It must have something to do with our advanced age.
Rev. Bob recalls a rainy December day in 1964 when he ventured into his bank to purchase some mutual funds. The young woman behind the desk filled out his application then proceeded to ask a very personal question. The conversation went something like this: “What are the numbers of your sin?
“Well, I guess three or four, depending on whether you consider sneaking a second dessert is sinful. But why do you need to know about my personal behavior before selling me mutual funds?” he asked.
“Sir, I certainly do not need to know; I just needed your Social Insurance Number.” Her face had turned a bright red to match the colour of her woolen sweater, Bob recalls.
The confusion was understandable. The Federal Government had only just implemented an innovative tracking system in June of that year. Having one's very own SIN would forever identify them to Ottawa bureaucrats for purposes of taxation or CPP contributions and it took some getting used to.
“Sin” as a theological concept has lost its prominence and power in our contemporary world. In fact, we mutually agree that this is a great time to be a “sinner!” Consider these three realities offered by Bob:
-- With over three-quarters of us not attending church nor other places of worship, the idea of an angry, vengeful God seems only a relic from the cast-aside religion of our ancestors. Sinners are safe!
-- With sermons no longer filled with fearsome warnings of “Hellfire and Brimstone,” mainstream churchgoers leave Sunday services feeling reassured about God’s unconditional love, not frightened by his condemning wrath. Even Evangelical, more Fundamentalist, denominations balance a recognition of our universal sin nature with teachings about God’s grace, His promise of redemption through Jesus.
-- Society no longer condemns many kinds of behavior which, at one time, were quickly labeled as sinful. Today’s “sinner” will not be judged nor shunned by their community. At worst, they might encounter friends or neighbours who live by different values but who have learned never to insist others follow those same standards.
What then does that word “sin” really mean?
In its most basic form, a sin is moral wrongdoing, or in theological language, a transgression against God’s law. Unfortunately, “God’s law” may indeed leave the Deity’s infallible mouth, but inevitably lands into very human and fallible ears. In other words, mankind (and I do mean ”males”) has too often interpreted and bent God’s law to suit human purposes. This had led to horrible results such as the medieval Inquisition and the current atrocities of ISIS in the middle-East. This has also led to relatively trivial past edicts against supposed sins of movie-going, wearing makeup, card-playing, consuming alcohol, partaking in Sunday sports, eating meat on Friday and many other behaviors deemed at one time to be wrong. It was these trivial rules that were the first to go.
Prohibition failed in the 1920s. In the 1950s, Toronto’s Mayor Allan Lamport unlocked the theatres, pools and ballparks for citizens to enjoy on Sundays. Mainstream religious leaders relaxed rules around social drinking and buying lottery tickets. Evangelical movements moved beyond a preoccupation with lipstick, earrings, long hair on men and short skirts on women, to focus on far more important issues of serious sin and social justice.
Over the past 50 years or so, many of the proscriptions against non-trivial behavior, these serious sins, also began to crumble. Historically, it had been the power and influence of the institutional church that originally pressured governments to legislate moral laws into legal code. As the influence of religion waned in the 1960s, newer, secular voices led the way toward relaxation and ultimately abandonment of many of the legal constraints controlling human choice.
Behaviors once illegal and socially condemned, became allowable and socially accepted or at least tolerated. Laws permitting divorce were drastically broadened and, subsequently, remarriage made possible. Behavior, once unlawful----same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, abortion, medical-assisted death (and soon-to-be-legalized personal use of marijuana) has become permissible without penalty.
What remains of sin? Friend Bob suggests it may be preferable to let go of the word entirely because the term has become so distorted and contaminated as to be undefinable by society."Perhaps one can speak of wrong behavior instead. The Biblical Ten Commandments continue to provide an ethical foundation, condemning murder, theft, adultery and social injustice, while encouraging love, right living, charity and justice. Society still is guided by these principles even if rejecting their source."
In the church calendar, today, March 5th, is the first Sunday of Lent. While traditionally a time for “giving up” of some habit or food, it is also a time to reflect upon those guiding principles by which we live our lives. You may end up examining your own sin numbers -- real and imaginary.
And that is exactly what I have been doing -- examining...and feeling guilty for certain personal failings of the past 60 or so years. What do you do when God has forgiven you as you have asked ("God have mercy on me, a sinner"), but you cannot find it in your heart to forgive yourself?
Are the Christian teachings of my formative years a saving grace, or a guilt-trip yoke around my neck today. Good question. I'll get back to you on that!