Your Idea of Sin Sucks

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I was hoping to visit a new church this past Sunday, and looked up an old church I use to attend when I first moved to the city several years ago. I was really disappointed to see that the founding pastor had left and that the church seemed to have gone in a different direction. I decided to browse through their website to try to get a feel for what the church was like now. The new pastor had a little welcome video, so I watched that. The guy is old school Baptist and used to teach at a prestigious — well, at least a well-respected, conservative — Bible college. And his video reflected exactly what you’d think. Lots of church language that punched all my sensitive buttons and made me rethink whether I wanted to visit this place afterall. What clinched it though, was when he talked about his desire as a pastor for “sin to grow sour in our mouths” … I just felt my spirit cringe. And that was it. I was done.

I can only imagine what their version of sin would be. And this is the relevant point. From time to time I get asked that basic question: What is sin? And if you’ve grown up in the church, or spent any amount of time in church at all, you’re probably likely to start with the Ten Commandments. And from there you’ll soon find yourself spinning out into dozens and dozens of other little commandments until you end up with a list of about 613 new rules. (In case that number doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s the number of commandments in the Hebrew Bible – what many in the church world like to call “Old Testament Law.”)  So much for Christian liberty and being free from “the Law.”

As a gay Christian with lots of gay, lesbian and transgender friends, I could only imagine what that pastor would tell us were sins in our lives that needed to be repented of. So yeah, the next thing I checked out was the section on their website about what they believe, and looked specifically for their statement on homosexuality. And sure enough, they take the old traditional stance that it’s sinful, part of the corrupt human nature, and can be cured — or at least controlled — by prayer, accountability, and counseling. In other words, an ex-gay program. #ChristianFail

To be honest, the very fact that he even was talking about sin in his introduction video kinda turned me off. Did I really want to be part of a church that focused on sin?

Sure, as a Christian I know that sin-consciousness occupies a big part in the teaching of the church. But in my opinion, sin is best addressed by focusing on love. We don’t need sermons or lectures on the things that are wrong with us or the things that we need to change to make us better people or more pleasing in God’s sight. Nobody needs fingers pointed in their faces — go and sin no more! The Church would be better served by helping us have a closer walk with God — and the sin part will take care of itself.

If we call ourselves Christians and are actually concerned about what commandments Jesus said we should follow, we’d quickly realize that there is only one law or rule we need to focus on. And that is the law of love. Jesus broke that into two parts, loving God, and loving each other. And, as a friend recently pointed out, he added a third part too: loving our enemies. Seems to me, everything is covered in that one overarching law. So if we can learn to love, sin won’t even be an issue.

So, what is the definition of sin anyway? The Biblical languages have several words for the various types and shades of sin, but I’d say they all boil down to anything that contradicts the law of love. As simple as that. That might be why Jesus never saw fit to hand down to us another set of tablets or lengthy lists of do’s and don’ts.

If you’re doing something or saying something or maybe even thinking something that is hateful or harmful to someone else, that is sin.

And frankly, when it comes to sinning against God, I think that pretty much covers doing anything harmful or hateful to each other. God is concerned about how we treat each other. And yes, I’m sure there are other acts that are offensive to God himself, that might be considered “sinning against God” — but truthfully, at this moment, I can’t think of one. Even our anger or shouting matches at God, our doubts or our “blasphemies,” don’t seem to trouble God that much. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.

Likewise, if we do something harmful or demeaning to ourselves, that is sin. It breaks the law of loving ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that image deserves some respect. Jesus said we were to love our neighbors as ourselves, but if we don’t love ourselves how can we love our neighbor? So inherent in his command to love others is the command to love ourselves. I guess that would be the fourth part of that single law of love. (The Church could sure stand to spend some time teaching on how to do this in a healthy way, instead of beating us up all the time. Just a thought.)

So then: Love God. Love each other. Love your enemies. Love yourself. Anything that contradicts that is sin.

With that basic definition in place, we no longer need a never-ending list of do’s and don’ts. We also no longer need someone telling us all about our sins — or really, things they find offensive about us, things they want us to change.

The Golden Rule suddenly takes on a whole new importance in that light. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the same as “love your neighbor as yourself.” Likewise, the flipside of that is “don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to yourself.” Everything that falls under that definition is sin.

And frankly, that means someone pointing their finger at me, telling me that my love for another person is sinful, is an act of sin itself. It is contrary to the law of love. So, Is it a Sin? Is it a sin if I bad-mouth my boss? Or get wasted Saturday night? Is it a sin if I sleep with my boyfriend or girlfriend? What about watching porn? Does it violate the law of love — loving God, loving others, loving myself? Is it hateful or harmful? Then there’s your answer.

So, my two cents worth to those occupying pulpits across America and around the world is to focus on teaching us how to love God, love each other, and love ourselves better. And leave creating a new set of Stone Tablets to the One who can write them with his finger.

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves as Teaching Pastor at Expressions.Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Christian Perfection?

Holiness can sometimes look more like something out of “50 Shades of Grey” than something that came out of church.

 

BlacklightBDSMOkay. That did it. I was chewing on an idea for a post, feeling like I needed to write it “for the good of all humanity” (ego much?), and then got distracted by this latest tidbit on Facebook:  “It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity” (Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883).  I’ve made a half-hearted New Year’s resolution to not respond (or “correct”) every bit of stupid I run across on the interwebs, but sometimes you just gotta…

This one is just so typical of the Christian attitude that prevails in Western culture these days that it needs speaking out against.

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Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883)

It’s a philosophy that encourages comparing ourselves against others — and more dangerously, comparing others against some standard the we’ve set up as the true measure of a Christian. It’s bad enough we have all these white-washed churches lining up to throw stones at every “sinner” they encounter in the news, or start the paranoid screaming about how America is going to the dogs because of [fill in the blank]. People putting on their Sunday best — not just clothes for Sunday morning worship, but their Sunday best faces for the rest of the week where they can pretend moral superiority over others who do those “unholy” things, like go to bars, smoke cigarettes (or worse, weed!), or have sex outside of marriage. Hopefully, they’ve evolved past getting upset over tattoos or ear-piercings and choice of clothes, but who knows? In some places, those are still outward signs of inner holiness.

And all these little “standards” just act as tools to measure — judge! — other people. “He’s obviously not saved because he was out last night at the clubs — he even still smells like smoke.”  “She needs the Lord, because I heard her boyfriend slept over last night.”  “He’s dating a MAN! Lawd ha’ mercy!”  We can kinda laugh at these people. They’re living caricatures like you’d see Madea make fun of, or find in an old SNL sketch of the “Church Lady.”  They’ve made the church and Christianity a joke in the eyes of normal people.

Does it honestly need to be said yet again that the hallmark of Christianity — at least as defined by Jesus — is love? Love of God and love for each other.  Is it loving to judgmentally comment on a person’s clothes as a reflection of their relationship with God? Is it loving, or even truth, to turn up our nose at someone because they’re in an open relationship? Do we reflect the heart of God when we dismiss someone because they have a fondness for leather or BDSM in their personal life?  How much less so over stupid stuff like clothes, entertainment, if-what-how-often they drink or smoke, have piercings, their hairstyles, their sexual orientation, or … you name it.

All that stuff is just stupid. Holiness is the degree to which we reflect the heart of God. It has nothing to do with outward appearance, although it should certainly bear outward fruit. The heart of the Father — the fruit of the Spirit — is mostly inward stuff that works its way out in normal, everyday action: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. It’s how we think and how we act. Holiness is how we treat each other.  And frankly, if the guy who not two hours before was tied to a chair, wearing a leather mask, and getting mental and physical sexual release through being flogged (I’m deliberately painting an image that radically flies in the face of traditional views of “Christian perfection and holiness”) — if this guy stops to help me with a problem that is crushing me, or shares a kind word with me when I need it most, he IS being holy.  And you can keep your “saintly perfection” for yourself.

Okay. All this venting really relies on my old-school interpretation of these ideas of “Christian holiness.” They are the “white-washed tombs full of decaying flesh and bones” — tidy and well-kept to some on the outside, but putrid and repugnant to any who dare get close enough for a closer inspection. It’s the stuff I heard in churches growing up and saw in the lives of my friends’ religious families. It is the stuff that has caused most genuinely-seeking individuals hungry for “realness” to turn away from all forms of institutional Christianity. It smells of fakeness and entrapment, of oppression and death.

Give me people who care enough to help me fix my car, or who make sure I have groceries in my cupboards. Give me people who check up on me if they haven’t seen me for a few days on Facebook. Give me people who encourage me, ask me out for coffee or a beer, who want to be part of my life. Give me people who will actually mention my name to God at random times during the day because they’re thinking of me and honestly want God to touch me. Give me that kind of holiness. Because that’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what many people I know — outside of the church — are looking for before they’ll take on the label “Christian” for themselves. Realness. Real love.

“It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity.” Despite my New Year’s intentions, I couldn’t help myself. I commented on that Facebook post: “huh. I thought it was love — loving God, loving others. Guess maybe I’m not holy enough.”  And maybe I’m not.

photo credit: “Blacklight BDSM” by Beo Beyond on Flickr. cc. 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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One word that makes all the difference

There I was, minding my own business, innocently browsing through endless Facebook posts from my infinite number of friends (never been more popular in my entire life!), and I noticed that one buddy in a moment of excitement and adoration wrote out the doxology as his status.

“Praise God to whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Only he got one word wrong — as some of you may have already noticed.  I grew up in church where we sang this almost every Sunday, so it jumped off the screen at me.  And it’s always those little windows of time when you see something old in a new light that spark fresh insights.  That one little word makes a huge difference.

From whom” not “to whom.”

Big deal; who cares?

Okay, call me knit-picky, but it effects how we view God, how we view our relationship to him — how we view life.  God deserves our praise, to be sure.  And my mom taught me at a young age the incredible power that is released into our lives when we praise God in the middle of our difficult circumstances.  There’s value in that; it’s honorable to send your blessings to God.  As that cranky old oatmeal commercial guy used to say, “it’s the right thing to do.”

But we miss a powerful point about the character of God and his amazing love for us if we get that one word wrong.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows”, James tells us.  God is a generous God, a giving God. One who pours out good stuff on us, just because he loves us.  And he doesn’t quit when we mess up.  He doesn’t change his mind.  Like that powerful revelation in Exodus when he proclaims his name to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love … (Ex 34:6).

That good stuff is for us. 
And if we miss that point, we’re missing out on some jaw-dropping grace, some amazing love, some unheard-of favor. 

Not because of who we are, or the fact that we’re constantly buttering him up with our praise.

Just because that’s who he is.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  That’s your heritage.  That’s your birthright.  We can love him all the more because of his love for us, because he is constantly pouring out blessings — even when we don’t see or feel them.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” That one little word can turn your whole day around.

Meditation over Morning Coffee: Grace & the Law (ongoing)

You know that principle of synchronicity? It’s the idea that a coincidence of events can somehow seem related in a meaningful way.

I’ve been re-invigorated lately by new perspectives on Grace — that whole simple yet staggeringly profound force of God’s favor given to us, completely undeserved and unearned by us. In fact, we CAN’T earn it. If we did, as soon as we begin trying to fulfill the Law to live up to religious standards, our very efforts neutralize grace. The Law, those old standards which we compared ourselves against, they’re all gone, they’re done away with. They were completely met, our obligations completely fulfilled by the work of Jesus himself. The Law has no say over us, no authority, and no power.

And now, this morning, grabbing a “quick read” in the Bible before heading out to church, another nugget on this incredible gift of removing the burden of the Law off our backs:

He who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Like a good cup of coffee, that nugget just slid down, giving me that warm, comfy feeling deep inside. Life is so much simpler with just one principle to follow.

Just something to think about over your morning coffee…