Sin and separation

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.)


4 thoughts on “Sin and separation

  1. I think for children it is often helpful to switch to the positive rather than the negative aspect of God’s nature. When my kids were young, rather than focusin on on sin and what it is and how we shouldn’t do this, that or the other, I tended to focus on the fact that God loves us and wants us to be happy, and he knows if we do all of these things that please Him, that we will be happiest of all, and, God will be happy as well.

    When I finally did get around to talking to them about sin, I made sure to stress that “sin” is rebellion against God and our “sins” are the physical manifestations of that rebellion. It was a while before we went there, but every person to their own pace.

  2. That’s been my intuition, too.

    I remember that the literal meaning of sin (hamartia) is missing the mark — and it’s easy to think, oh, that’s about moral failures, but I think it’s just as likely (if not more so) to be about missing God’s intention for us, forsaking his way, abandoning our own design, and like you said the various moral failures are symptoms, not causes.

  3. I’m feeling fuzzy on where in the Bible it says that sin separates us from God. (I know where it is in our traditional gospel presentations.) I’m just musing on how we want our kids to know that nothing they could do would separate them from us (“sever our relationship or break my love for her”), but we believe that God is different…. I’m with you about feeling uncomfortable with pulling God’s emotions into the mix. I don’t personally subscribe to the doctrine of God’s “impassibility,” that he isn’t affected by us; on the other hand, like you said, I think it’s really dangerous to speak for God and say what he’s feeling, especially to a child who will think what we say is TRUTH, and in truth, we don’t know what God is feeling–we’re theorizing. This is a tough issue for me in parenting too. My parents feel that they majored on God’s love, and not sin or God’s sadness or anger in training us. I was shocked when I heard that–my actual experience was that my picture of God was much more shaped by their emotional responses to me. That scares me as a parent, because my emotional responses are far from perfect or reflecting God’s heart consistently. Groan.

    I am reading a book called Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery. In the chapter I am in the middle of, he is talking about children struggling with perfectionism and comparing themselves to their parents, who they view as effortlessly perfect and knowing everything. His recommendation is learning something new yourself and letting your kids see that process. I wonder if I could apply that spiritually. I mean, could I let my kids see more of my questions, doubts, not knowing, relating to God as a child? Would that help them not make God in my image? Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking musings.

  4. That’s an interesting question, Christen, and I love that you mentioned it — just where does that idea / doctrine come from?

    What mainly comes to mind is that after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve feel ashamed and hide from God — and what also comes to mind is that God comes after them and deals with the mess they made. They are sent out of the Garden — rather like a time-out, perhaps. We separate our kids from us when they disobey — not in the sense that we stop loving them, and likewise sin’s separation doesn’t stop God loving us.

    So why do we separate our kids? And why does sin separate us from God without separating us from his love? And does God really love everyone anyway? Reformed theology still makes me suspect the answer is no, but that doesn’t seem right.

    It seems to have something to do with justice. With upholding the law, which is not arbitrary but rooted in God’s own nature.

    I think of all the beautiful Reformed hymns about love and justice meeting: “Let us wonder — grace and justice join and point to mercy’s store; when through faith in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more…”

    What if we look at other ways of phrasing it — sin is a barrier to a right status with God?

    The question seems to be, what does “separation” actually mean in this case.

    I think you and I are using “God is different” differently — I was emphasizing that God doesn’t get irrationally angry or sad when we do good and right things; you seem to be talking about God separating from us when we do evil even though we don’t separate from our kids when they do evil.

    What you said about your parents’ intentions / recollections vs. your own experience strikes a nerve with me, too; that’s the same kind of thing that terrifies me. Did you see this one in my recent spate of status haiku: Petulant sulking / infuriates a parent / but God still cuddles. I hope / aim to point out such differences to Amy — that while I fall short in my responses to her, God does not. Maybe making that distinction explicit will be helpful to her some time.

    I’m going to have to make a list of the books you’ve recommended so far.

    I like your idea of letting your kids see you learn something new.

    Doing the Advent calendar was even a challenge — do I include THAT verse? Can I paraphrase it? I would like to try to just present bare Scripture to Amy, and not try to color it for her one way or another, because I know enough not to trust all of my interpretations… and yet, I just plain don’t like some parts, or worry about how she will hear them, and so on. I would feel more comfortable (hypothetically) being honest and open with her about spiritual gray areas at 14 than at 4. At least until she shows interest; I don’t want to introduce her to confusion that she doesn’t feel yet.

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