AN AMERICAN psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, wrote a book in 1973 entitled, “Whatever Happened to Sin?” He observed that modern society had abandoned the word “sin” from its popular vocabulary. Behaviour that once was attributed to human sinfulness was now being seen as nothing more than the result of some physical or psychological illness. As a secular psychiatrist, Menninger was alarmed that even pastors were doing the same thing. Hence his book.
Perhaps we might feel that in the church we still talk about sin. And that is good. But how seriously do we take sin?
Recently I watched a newsclip of the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Singapore. Among the showbiz personalities on stage who were trying to get the crowd into a frenzy was a man who wore a T-shirt that said, I (LOVE) SIN. I assumed that SIN there was short form for Singapore (like the abbreviated form used in our baggage tags when we fly into Singapore). But I suspect that it was also a sly pun that allowed a hedonistic lifestyle message to hide behind what seemed on the surface to be a show of nationalistic pride. It is interesting that if this is a trend, then sin is back in the social vocabulary but now it is a celebrated word. It is cool.
Such secular trends can influence the church. Are we serious about sin? Why is it that when cancer is diagnosed in a person, it is dealt with immediately, aggressively and urgently? We take cancer very seriously because it is a deadly disease, and if not dealt with decisively, it will destroy us. But how is it that our response to sin and sinfulness often lacks the same urgency and seriousness? Cancer can destroy the body but sin destroys the entire person. It is like a cancer of the soul, far more deadly than the other kinds of cancer. Should we not be deadly serious about sin?
The early church took sin very seriously and came up with a list of deadly sins. The adjective “deadly” speaks volumes about how the church viewed human sinfulness and its devastating effects on us. The Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus is said to have come up with a list of 8 deadly sins in the 4th century. Later in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great modified the list to 7 deadly sins. This was possibly because of pastoral reasons. There are 7 days in the week and each day was used by Christians to reflect on one of the deadly sins.
The list is as follows: Pride (Sunday), Envy (Monday), Anger (Tuesday), Apathy (Wednesday), Greed (Thursday), Gluttony (Friday, hence the tradition of fasting or abstinence on Fridays in the Church), and Lust (Saturday). In the spiritual traditions of the church, much experience and wisdom have been accumulated over the years regarding these sins – what they are, how they infect the soul, what forms they take, how they mask themselves as (false) piety, how they are related to one another, and how they are to be dealt with, including the practice of the opposite virtues (humility, kindness, patience, diligence, generosity, abstinence and chastity).
Unfortunately much of this wisdom remains untapped by modern-day Christians. Part of the reason may be a lack of taking sin seriously. There may be other reasons too. Prosperity theology is one. If people enter the church in self-centred pursuit of the good life, pain-free and comfortable, if they enter the Christian life primarily as consumers looking for material blessings rather than as sinners desperately and urgently looking for a cure for their sinfulness, is it not surprising that sin is not taken seriously? While the biblical gospel addresses the key problems of sin and death in the human condition, why is it that much of the audience-driven preaching of the Gospel today is about everything else except these two problems?
If there is one thing God hates, it is sin. He takes it very seriously, because it goes against all that God is. It separates people from God and from one another. It is a deadly condition with extremely serious consequences. One has to look at the cross of Christ to see how deadly sin is. It is for our sins that Christ died on the cross (1 Cor. 15:3). Every time we look at the cross, we must be reminded of how deadly sin is.
The season of Lent is a good time to have an extended and extensive spiritual checkup. We must see how infected we are with the deadly disease of sin. Self-flattery has to go for it prevents the detection and the disposal of sin (Ps. 36:2) How much of pride is still left intact in our lives? Are there traces of it in the best of our intentions, plans, words and actions? How about the other sins? Why not use Lent to find fault – not with others, as people often do, but with ourselves? As the Lord said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3). And if we do notice the log, then with God’s grace, we must take it out (Mt. 7:5).
There is much that we can learn from classic Christian literature on how to deal with our sinfulness, and especially the deadly sins. But in order to do this well, we must first have the right attitude towards sin. We must be serious about it.
When a person is going through treatment for cancer, the signs are often clearly there. There is often aggressive surgery. If chemotherapy is part of the treatment, the person usually loses his hair. It is often easy to notice a cancer patient who is undergoing treatment. The signs are there and they tell us that it is a deadly disease, and that the patient and his doctors are taking the illness seriously. The signs reveal that drastic actions are being taken to deal with the disease.
Could the same thing be said of sin, the cancer of the soul? Are we taking it seriously? Are there signs that we are “under treatment”, that drastic measures are being taken to deal with the deadly condition? Are we serious about sin?