Why We Sin
I wrote the other day about the fact that our identity as human beings is an “image of God”. As I explain to my kids, we’re a lot like mirrors meant to reflect God. Only like a poorly focused telescope lens, our mirrors are pointed in all the wrong direction. So we don’t reflect God, but all sorts of other things instead. The Christian walk is the process of allowing God to pivot the mirrors back into their proper position so that we reflect his image properly.
In the Christian vernacular, the reason our mirrors are all out of alignment is because of sin. In the bible, the Greek word for sin is harmartia which is derived from an archery term. And it means to miss – like to miss a shot with an arrow. In the same way, the Hebrew word for sin is chet. It also comes from an archery term and means to miss or to not quite his the mark. Just like a mirror which misses the object it is meant to reflect. (I always think it is important to note that the damage of sin doesn’t just come from sinning – it also comes from being sinned against. See the Korean concept of Han, introduced to us by theologian Andrew Sung Park.)
The question I want to look at today is why we are so prone to be sucked in by sin. After all, if our true identity is that of the very image of God, then why is sin so tempting? To be clear, when I’m speaking of sin, I’m not primarily referring to rule breaking, not keeping the 10 commandments, or things that will make other Christians look askance at you. I’m using the word sin to reference our tendency to point ourselves at things which are not God. It could be a traditional sin like stealing or murder or it could be a sin of the heart like idolatry, greed or hatred. Or it could be self-destructive behavior like addiction, gluttony or co-dependence. In my estimation, it’s all sin – it all misses the mark of what we are created to reflect.
For our purposes, let’s pretend that we are one of those telescope lenses I spoke of earlier, with many smaller mirrors coming together to create a large lens. Each of those mirrors is supposed to reflect some part of God. Just as there are innumerable ways to sin, there are innumerable ways to reflect God. For example, there are self-worth, intimacy, abundance, purpose, courage, obedience, pleasure and peace. And let’s say that the larger lens, made up of all the little parts is Love itself. So when each part of the lens is properly focused, the lens will reflect back an image of Love.
Let’s go further and say that each little part – each mirror, if you will – is created to be drawn to what it is meant to reflect. There is an internal pressure, much like the little motor under each mirror, which draws the mirror into the proper position so it can reflect what it was created to reflect. So there is something in each of us which desires the Godly things we are made for – self-worth, intimacy, abundance, purpose, courage, obedience, pleasure and peace are our examples. Our desires for these things are Godly and are actually our primary drivers in life. Everything we do comes out of them.
Ideally, we would be born and in the process of growing up, our God-given needs/desires would direct us so that we would grow into ever sharper, more focused images of the Love which we are meant to reflect. However, there are two primary things which get in the way of this process playing out. The first is that we are surrounded by people who are improperly focused and instead of helping us, they hurt us. So from childhood on, our mirrors have been shoved out of focus due to the damage caused by other’s sin.
The second challenge, and the one I want to focus on today, is that we have this enemy. He’s our accuser and if you recall, his specialty is offering up false pictures and stories of real things. (I know that some people view Satan as a real, spiritual being and others believe its a personification of something in the human psyche. Whatever reality is, it’s irrelevant for the purposes of our discussion here. What I’m describing works either way.) He takes something God actually says – don’t eat the fruit – and offers an alternative explanation – an accusation – for the instruction: he doesn’t want you to be powerful like he is. He’s holding out on you. He sees Job’s faithfulness and says, “it’s only because you protect him” – he offers an alternative picture – an accusation – for what is.
Now, we all know (I hope) that “the devil made me do it” isn’t a legitimate explanation for our sin. But we are vulnerable to sin because the enemy, doing what he always does, offers us alternative versions of the Godly, real things we need. So we need self-worth and he offers arrogant pride. We’re drawn to it because it seems like a plausible way to meet this deep-seated need and drive we have for self-worth. We need intimacy and he offers sex without covenant love. Again, we fall for it because it seems to offer a plausible way to get a real need met. We are meant to be courageous so he offer recklessness. We need obedience – a direction to follow – so he offers legalism. We need pleasure, so he offers drugs or shopping or some other way to feel good. So on and so forth.
Of course, we are very complex creatures, so this can play out in innumerable ways. But the point is that at its root, every form of sin offers a counterfeit way to get a legitimate, God-given need or desire met. And each time we fall for it, we end up with that mirror stuck pointing at something which is not God.
The farther out of focus we are, the easier it is for us to fall for one of these counterfeits. If one of our “mirrors” has been knocked completely out of alignment, the distance it must travel to sweep back into alignment is greatly increased. Which means that the journey from where we are to where God is has plenty of space for the enemy to insert one of his counterfeit answers to our needs. At the same time, that little motor driving us back towards God is working especially hard, meaning we want and need that good thing from God that we are seeking even more. So we’re more vulnerable to wanting the counterfeit to be the answer to our need. And if we’ve been knocked completely out of alignment, that part of ourselves may never have gotten so much as a glimpse of the real object we seek – what God offers. So we may not even be sure that there is a better answer to our needs than the counterfeit version the enemy offers us.
This is why people who have experienced trauma – which can knock us completely out of alignment – tend to be more prone to falling for the enemy’s temptations. Thus a child who grows up in a controlling environment where his right to self-determination is repeatedly violated may develop a will to dominate others. The need for self-control is valid, but the counterfeit answer he grasps onto causes harm to himself and everyone he encounters.
Let’s add in one more factor which not only makes us vulnerable to these counterfeit version of what we need, but causes us to cling to them. That is fear. The bible says, “perfect love casts out fear”. If we have fear, we can be certain that we are not in alignment with God. There’s no room for fear in perfect love. (Many people claim that fear can be a good thing that keeps us safe. A fear of death keeps us from walking in front of a speeding car, for example. However, I have no fear of death what-so-ever and I don’t go walking in front of speeding cars. Because I don’t desire the outcome of walking in front of a speeding car. It would hurt for one. I would leave my children motherless for another. That’s not fear; it’s a rational decision.)
But fear keeps us stuck. We have this deep, God given need and drive towards things like self-worth, intimacy, courage, pleasure, abundance, etc. But we end up clinging to a counterfeit answer to our needs out of fear. Often we can even see that our counterfeit answers are hurting us (and others), but can’t bring ourselves to let go because we are afraid that without them we will have nothing. Thus a person in a destructive relationship may remain there because they are afraid that if they do they will never experience the intimacy that they need. After all, something is better than nothing, right? So fear keeps us hanging onto things which are inadequate to our needs and harmful to ourselves and those around us.
What is needed to overcome sin is to figure out what legitimate need you are trying to get met through the sin and seek that in God. Beating yourself up, trying to be “good” or to fix yourself won’t work. Even if you manage to overcome one manifestation of sin, you’ll just transfer it to another. (This is why a person who stops drinking often becomes a dry drunk or takes up some other vice like gambling or shopping. They’ve dealt with the behavior, but the underlying need the behavior was trying to meet hasn’t been dealt with.)
I read this yesterday on facebook:
An African tribe does the most beautiful thing. When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done. The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected: “I AM GOOD.”
I don’t know if this is actually what some tribe in Africa does, but there’s deep wisdom here. When we sin, it means that we are out of alignment with our true identity – and are not pointing back to God. So often we respond to sin with condemnation and punishment. Such things can sometimes bring a particular sin or behavior to an end. But they cannot fix what caused us to fall into the sin to begin with. They simply substitute one counterfeit for another.
The only way through this obstacle course of sin and temptation is a determination not to settle for anything other than God. Jesus said, “seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be given to you.” Condemnation can’t fix sin. Neither can judgment. Trying harder can’t. Religion can’t. Fighting our needs and desires certainly can’t fix sin. God fixes sin. Pointing ourselves to God and nothing else fixes sin.