Sin, Love, and Humanity

Exploring Christ's Call to See People as People

Foreword: Why this book? And why this way?

Every day in our society, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see another group being dehumanized. It may be women who are turned into seductresses; it may be men who are turned into predatory animals; it may be immigrants who are turned into monsters; it may be Republicans who are turned into heartless idiots; it may be Democrats who are turned into blind stooges; it may be black men who are turned into thugs; it may be police officers who are turned into bloodthirsty vigilantes; it may be protesters who are turned into social justice warriors.

Each of those classifications reduces people to something less than human. It turns people into caricatures, one-dimensional cartoons that bear little recognizable resemblance to the real-life, tangible person made in the image of God. It discards their needs, motivations, concerns, pasts, futures, fears, and hopes, and it replaces it with an image we can understand in a word and judge in a heartbeat.

This is not the way of Christ. This is not holiness. And it seems to have been amplified because of the distance and immediacy afforded us by social media. I think there are two key reasons for this:

  1. Although social media has, in one sense, brought the whole world closer together, the reality is that the internet has driven us further either into functional isolation or into ideological echo chambers. note Rather than encouraging us to build broader and deeper relationships, it has taught us to see people as bodiless avatars on our screen.
  2. In today’s information age, we are taking in and spitting out information faster than ever before, and this causes us to feel like we need to rush our judgments. We do not feel like we can take time to learn and understand something – we think we have to know and decide now.

The problem doesn’t exist exclusively because of social media, though. Humans have been dehumanizing one another since the beginning of time. We’ve participated in genocide, committed atrocities in war, subjugated and enslaved millions of people, sexually abused those under our authority, and much more. At some level, brokenness seems to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human.

As Christians, though, we believe that we are called to something better. We take seriously the challenge of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:48 to be perfect as God is perfect, as we do his command in John 8:11 to the woman caught in adultery, telling her to go and sin no more. We hold in hope and faith to the idea that we can be better people than we are today and that we can embody the Kingdom of God here and now – because, after all, we believe that the image of God is buried deep within each of us, an even more intrinsic part of our humanity than the brokenness we experience.

But what does this holiness, this image of God within us, look like? How does our understanding of holiness shape the way we think about sinfulness? And how does all of this affect the way we engage with the world in which we live?

The Bible is filled with laws, commandments, suggestions, and ideas about what it means to live a holy life, but the behaviors listed in the pages of Scripture sometimes seem to contradict themselves. Even when they’re consistent, they are so detailed as to be nearly impossible to live out – people have written books about their efforts to follow the biblical codes, efforts that inevitably become more comical than holy. note

There must be some kind of underlying principle in the pages of Scripture that connects the various biblical definitions of sin – something that can help us narrow down the guidelines so we can understand God’s heart for us. God didn’t establish arbitrary rules and would not give us moral direction based on whims or simple preferences. No, the narrative of Scripture tells us that God is concerned for our well-being and has directed us into what’s best for us – individually, but also as a community of people.

But what could that underlying principle be? This is an important question. Not only does it help us make sense of the Bible and understand the heart of God, but it also helps us wrestle with modern questions that may not have clear-cut answers within the ancient text of Scripture – issues like addressing racial injustice in our society, handling the ethical and moral failures of spiritual leaders, approaching the inclusion and leadership of LGBT Christians in the church, and so on.

Why are we talking about sin?

Those questions are the reason I began writing this short book. As Christians, how we define sin determines how we engage the world, and I have been wrestling with how to translate the definitions of sin given to us in the Bible into the cultural paradigm of our world today. We cannot be witnesses to the saving message of Jesus Christ unless we grapple with what we are saved from and what we are saved to do.

In the chapters that follow, I present a model in which sin is defined as the attitudes and actions of stripping an individual or group of their inherent personhood. I use the words “dehumanization” and “objectification” frequently as a shorthand for those attitudes and actions.

My approach is not to comprehensively defend this model; rather, I hope it is a helpful and challenging way for us to look at our own sinfulness. I hope it becomes the foundation for a renewed conversation about what it means to be human and to value the humanity of those around us.

Chapters 1 and 2 develop the outline of the model, and the rest of this short book is devoted to exploring how the model makes sense of sins described in the Bible, sins we’ve seen throughout history, and sins we see in our own lives every day.

A Note on Sin and Holiness

One of the most common words translated as “sin” in the New Testament is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” ref This could be described as aiming to achieve holiness, but missing it. Looking at sin in this way specifically frames sinfulness in light of holiness, so in order to understand sin, we have to understand what it means to be holy – to discuss what it means to miss the mark, we first have to know what the mark looks like. Thankfully, we can look to Jesus, the center of our Christian faith, to provide this foundation for us.

For Judaism at the time of Jesus, the Jewish Law was the standard, the barometer, of holiness. ref So in Matthew 22 (and parallel accounts in the other Gospels), when the religious leader asked Jesus to name the most important of the commandments, the man was asking Jesus to interpret which law(s) carried the most weight in interpreting other laws.

But Jesus did not respond in the way the man expected. Instead of establishing a new hierarchy of religious legislation, he drew his listeners’ attention to a thread of morality connecting all the Law, summing it all up in two simple statements: love God, and love your neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he said (Matthew 22:40).

For Jesus, the sum of holiness was loving God and loving the people around you. For Christians today, this is not a profound revelation – this idea has been a bedrock of our faith and identity since Jesus spoke the words – but it is important that we state its centrality to our understanding of sin. If such love is the benchmark of holiness, then the absence of that love is the presence of sin.

Two final points are worth mentioning here:

First, Christianity has a long history of wrestling with how to embody the type of love described in Scripture. Some have seen biblical love as an irresistible response to God’s magnificence; others have focused on an abstract “love the sinner, hate the sin” dichotomy; still others have considered it to be an open embrace of personal happiness and fulfillment. The diversity in our pictures of biblical love has made it difficult, perhaps impossible, to actually practice the priorities Jesus gave us. Because of this ambiguity, I have devoted the next chapter to developing an understanding of biblical love.

Second, although Jesus described two aspects of holiness – loving God and loving others – our conversation in this book will primarily focus on the latter aspect, addressing our interpersonal relationships with one another. It is far easier for us to draw real-life application out of an interpersonal model, so this approach will allow us to develop a theoretical model and then use it in our daily lives, rather than working mostly in philosophical abstractions. In addition, Jesus’ own ministry focused most heavily on meeting people’s needs (healing, feeding, and so on) than it did on drawing them into a spiritual relationship with God (although he certainly did both), so it seems prudent for me to follow the priorities Jesus established.

The Format of this Book

Despite the fact that I’m publishing this on my blog, this book is not just a series of posts. My intent truly is to present it as a short, digital book. The chapters are not a quick read and, while you could potentially read through it all at once, I think it is probably more approachable in smaller chunks that allow you to chew on the concepts for a while before moving on.

In its original publication, therefore, I am posting each chapter a few days (maybe up to a week) apart from one another, which will give my active blog subscribers time to read and engage before the next chapter is posted. If you’d like to sign up to receive emails when each new post is published, you can do so here.

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