This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg topic — whether sin consists mainly in our moral / ethical failures, or mainly in our separation from God.
In my therapy with Joe, when we talked about sin, he urged me to think more about the separation aspect — the “prone to wander,” the “all we like sheep have gone astray,” and especially the “My people have committed two sins — they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and they have hewn their own cisterns — broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (“Come Thou Fount,” Isaiah / Handel’s Messiah, and Jeremiah 2).
When we do look at moral failures, it’s helpful to remember that the Law, the setting out of moral perfection, is not arbitrary. Its statutes reflect God’s own nature, mirrored in us who were created in his image, and thus keeping or failing to keep them is not so much about meeting an arbitrary standard but being in or out of alignment with God’s nature and his design of our beings.
So the question that provoked this post is, “How do we teach our kids about sin?”
I get uneasy hearing anything like “Doing X makes God sad.” I’m not quite sure why. Partly, I think I’m not sure at what age kids can think about sin in a way that isn’t neurotic or confusing. I know Amy doesn’t quite understand that when her behavior makes me sad or angry, it’s not about mere preference, and it doesn’t sever our relationship or break my love for her. It seems to me that it would be even more dismaying and confusing to add God’s emotions into the mix, especially since I’d be the mediator speaking for him.
(This is a challenging area of parenting for me lately. It’s just plain true that one person’s behavior effects their relationship with other people. Some things Amy does do make me angry or sad, just like some things I do make her angry or sad. I want her to be able to tolerate this fact that people react to one another. I also want her to be able to think beyond that fact when she chooses her behavior. I want her to think not just about how a choice will make others react, but whether a choice is good and right. Sometimes an action is worth doing even if it risks anger or sadness. Now, this is different with God; doing something right and good will never make him angry or sad — his anger and sadness are always righteous and never mistaken, but that’s not true of my feelings or of other people’s.)
I don’t have a problem with telling kids that doing X is against God’s commands and is therefore wrong. And I really approve of explanations that focus on why X is wrong — how it hurts ourselves, or others, or is against the way he is and the way he made us. I guess I just don’t want them focusing on how X makes God feel.
The Bible of course has a lot to say about sin. There are lots of lists of particular behaviors and attitudes. Some of them focus directly on God, and others focus on relationships — just like in the Ten Commandments, the first four are focused on God and the last six are more about dealings with other people. There are also lots of indications that, broadly speaking, the whole problem with sin is the separation from God (and from others).
That Jeremiah 2 quotation above is a good example. Call it rebellion, rejection, lack of knowledge, idolatry, unbelief, pride, fear, or whatever, this is the heart of sin: turning away from the God who is the wellspring of our life, and trying to find life in any other thing including ourselves apart from him.
All the particular moral failures we could name are reflections, consequences, symptoms, of this separation.
And it’s circular — the separation and the moral failure feed one another.
And failing to understand this foundation, this separation at the heart of sin, can lead to a too-superficial view of sin — can make it seem possible to keep the rules well enough to stay on God’s good side. Or it can lead to a too-burdensome view of sin — can make the list of rules ever longer and more arduous and more arbitrary and oppressive.
“It’s your kindness that leads us to repentance,” and it is the vision of the glorious holy enthroned God that leads Isaiah to cry “Woe is me” and to be cleansed by the altar coal, and so it should be with us — fix our eyes on God, and train our hearts to notice when we’re wandering, when we’re back digging in our pathetic cisterns, form the habit of relationship-focused repentance, rather than bend our will and energy to keeping the rules. (Romans 2:4 via Leslie Phillips.)