So, what about the sin?

by Jeffrey Hoffman*

Read more in the “So, what about the…” series:
So, what about the Grace? | So, what about the Love? | So, what about the Sex?
So, what about the Bitterness?

“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” — Romans 5: 6-11, Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version)

Jeffrey Hoffman

Without fail, anytime I am speaking to a fundamentalist about the fact that being gay is a part of my life and not a “lifestyle choice,” the conversation turns to sin; specifically, to my sin. You see, fundamentalists — and many evangelicals — insist upon defining my sexual orientation as being merely a sexual activity they suppose that I engage in, not a personality trait, despite mountains of scientific evidence that their view is antiquated, pejorative, and false. So let me reiterate my position, based upon the reality of my own experience and the experience of countless other LGBT+ people that to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex – or whatever other label under this very expansive umbrella covering so many gender and sexual minorities is fitting as a descriptor for one’s own self – is to acknowledge an aspect of one’s own nature. Therefore, the only choice one has is whether to be honest and authentic about this core personal truth or not.

The fundamentalist inevitably calls upon me to repent from my “sinful lifestyle” in these conversations. Since I do not publicly speak about the details of my personal life, it is always curious to me how quickly my expressing the fact that I am gay aloud – a simple assertion that I am attracted emotionally, physically, and sexually to (some, not all) members of my own gender – leads to certain assumption on the fundamentalist’s part about my “lifestyle choice” and a further assumption that I am a sinner, “living in sin.”

Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.
— from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Sin is a word fraught with negativity and very often – no, nearly exclusively – deployed in a sexual context, with judgment, when we use it to speak of others; a vestige of our culture’s Puritan roots. So we can hardly blame people for being put off by it. On the other hand, since I am an orthodox, catholic, Anglican Christian, let me unequivocally state that an awareness of one’s own sin, no matter how uncomfortable that may be to the sinner, is fundamental  to an understanding  of the need for a Savior; that repentance from sin is necessary in order for the Holy Spirit to begin a good work in the life of a believer; and that justification is by grace through faith “and that not of ourselves, lest any man should boast.”

The Conversion of St. Paul; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Human beings sin. In the tradition of the Church, we are all fallen from our intended sinless state in the original design of the Creator and we will not regain that state until we are changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.” The Church also teaches that our sinfulness is responsible for our having broken the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ summary of those commandments – “the first and great commandment, and the second… like unto it.” Fundamentalism, with its roots in the evangelical movement pays lipservice to this truth, but then undermines it with its standards of outward perfection and its emphasis on the sensational conversion narratives of people who are saved from destructive lifestyles by their encounters with the Christ: St. Paul on the Road to Damascus, Saint Augustine, John Newton, or any number of evangelists in the modern age whose conversion to a life of faith from a life of unbelief seems to have been radical and at-once-complete in the official accounts (never-mind St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” Augustine’s on-going sex addiction, or any other actual reality that inconveniently impinges upon the dramatic instant sanctification narrative that is the stock-in-trade of the “rescue mission” approach to soteriology).

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” — I John 1: 8, Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version)

“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” — Romans 3:23, Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version)

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.  Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.  Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”  — I Timothy 1: 12-17, Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version)

We are all sinners. We all live in sinfulness. We are all in need of forgiveness and salvation. In light of Christ’s great summary of the law (Matthew 22: 36-40; Mark 12: 30-31; Luke 10: 27), anytime we fail to love God with all our hearts or to love our neighbors as ourselves, we sin. By this simple standard I sin when a murderous thought crosses my mind in angry reaction to the young woman who cuts me off to take the parking spot I was waiting patiently for; I sin when my brother says something that hurts me and I lash out in kind; I sin when I ignore the needs of my fellow human beings who suffer for lack of food or shelter or clothing; I sin when I fail to give a portion of my goods back to God’s work; I sin when I give my material possessions or my loved ones a higher priority than God in my life; and on the list goes. I sin when I fail to pray. Self-examination leads to some very severe conclusions about my own sinfulness in light of Jesus’ very clear summary of God’s law. And that is uncomfortable… for me, for you, for everyone. So we have a tendency to deflect. It’s a common psychological coping mechanism we have for avoiding uncomfortable truths about ourselves to focus instead on others’ issues. It is of no small consequence that our social mores and even our religious teachings give us cover for this sin of “motes and beams” judgmentalism. It’s the age-old adage of the naughty child, caught in the act of a transgression, to point fingers at another child: “but he did…” or “she did it first…”

“It’s regrettable that St. Augustine’s influence and the negative appraisal of sexuality, based on his own struggles to be chaste has so impacted negatively with Christian tradition.quote attributed to the Rev’d Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., Ph.D., T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology and professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University

17th century anonymous Calvinist print

The great theological battle between Pelagius and Augustine in the early fifth century is far removed from our consciousness in popular American Christianity, yet its outcome has shaped our Christian narrative about sin and salvation for nearly two millennia. Augustine posited the view of “original sin,” that damns everyone to hell from birth. Pelagius believed that human beings were sinful, but that we are sinners because we break God’s laws, not because we are inherently evil (or totally depraved, as Calvin would later say). Recent years have seen scholars revisiting these debates in an effort to better understand them. It is interesting that Pelagius’s primary works have nearly all been destroyed and we only know what he had to say based on what others, mainly Augustine, had to say about him. It is important to note that his status as an alleged heretic was by no means a unanimous view of the Church leadership, but it became the prevailing view of history due to Augustine’s efforts. Vanquished, Pelagius was banished from Rome and lived out his days in exile, most likely in Palestine.  Because I am no expert in fourth and fifth century patristics, I am not going to take a position in the Pelagian controversy at this point in time — as an Anglican, I tend to a view that there is value in what both men had to say to us about sin  — but I do want to call attention to the fact that, because of his victory, much of our teaching on human sexuality in the church has been shaped by Augustine, who was a self-professed sex addict (in modern terms).

St. Augustine of Hippo
by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century

Augustine came to the view, based on his own experience and supported in his reading of the writings of St. Paul, that all sex is sinful, even that between married partners. Many addicts find they can only overcome their addictions by absolutely abstaining from the substance or behavior to which they are addicted. As a proscription for the rest of society, however, such measures are unnecessarily severe and in Augustine’s case, I believe there is sufficient evidence that, blinded by his own struggles, he inflicted his own personal solution for those struggles upon all of Western Christendom creating a centuries-long anxiety about sexuality that has reached fever pitch in modern American evangelicalism. The end result of this anxiety manifests itself in the practicality of Calvinist attitudes about sexuality even in marriage: the dominant view seems to have been that sex is a necessary evil that a married couple engaged in upon rare occasion in order to keep the blood-lines going and the property in the family.

Nevertheless, Genesis 1 indicates that God intended for human beings to have sexual relationships for companionship as well as for procreation. In a strict reading of scripture, God first created a woman because “it is not good for a man to be alone.” It was only in the Second Chapter of Genesis, that God commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply.” So I think it is fair to say that we are realizing in the twenty-first century that Augustine’s view is certainly not a healthy attitude about human sexuality in the context of the marriage relationship. To be thus guilt-ridden is for a husband and wife to deprive one another of one of God’s clear purposes for sexuality: deep, intimate companionship. Whether we have actually codified this view in our doctrinal statements (my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has done a lot of work over the past few decades to reaffirm this view of sexuality in the liturgy for the sacrament of marriage), we have adopted it within our cultural meta-narrative on the purpose for marriage. When St. Paul tells of his preference for everyone to remain single and celibate as he is, he is careful to mention to us that it is a personal preference that the Holy Spirit has given him permission to state. Celibacy is a worthy calling, surely, but it is an impossible standard for many — in fact most — people to maintain in a state of psychological health.

Many theologians have pointed to the fact that whether one reads Scripture with a strictly literal view or one gleans meaning from a metaphorical reading in light of the historical context — and a good hermeneutic would require an etymological, historical, and sociological approach to the right application of Scripture, as well as an understanding of Church tradition in the light of our growing scientific knowledge of human psychology — it is very clear that the Apostle Paul did not have anything to say about the idea of two women or two men loving each other in the context of a lifetime commitment as we see so many LGBT+ people doing today. I will let another address this topic in greater detail, but I want to also mention that Scripture is virtually silent on the issue of transgenderism — whether by virtue of “gender dysphoria” or because of intersex physiology — with the exception that the Ethiopian eunuch (trans Christians see the ancient category of gender known as eunuchs as being akin to transgenderism in our time) was blessed and baptized by St. Phillip. The end result of our Calvinist-Augustinian preoccupation with “sexual sin” is on ready display at the supermarket checkout counter: a casual glance at the latest lurid headlines reveals our obscene obsession with other people’s sexuality. Deflection. We sin in all our human relationships, even our heterosexual marriages!

I am here to confess the same old thing.
How can He still be listening?
How many times must He forgive;
Rescue me from the way I live?
      — Twila Paris

When we are honest with ourselves, with God, and with each other, we have to admit that we sin. Not only do we sin, but also we live in our sinfulness, returning again and again to the same bad habits, the same harsh words, the same disagreements, the same acts of imposing our egos and wills on others, the same thoughtless disregard for our God. If one is captive to anxious thoughts about sinfulness, this knowledge can be overwhelming and depressing. But if we let that anxiety rule our thoughts, we have not let the mercy and grace of our great Redeemer reach us. Consider this: the one who told us to forgive others “seventy times seven” has done, is doing just that for us. When we really begin to understand that our Heavenly Parent views us not with disgust and disdain but with the overwhelming love of a parent for his or her child; when we understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son to be this image of a God who goes out of His way to celebrate our safe return from our dissolute wanderings; when we understand that our Good Shepherd “seeks and saves that which was lost.;” then we begin to understand our responsibility as sinners saved by none other than His mercy to love others without condition, as He has loved us.

This fundamental truth is so important to Christian faith formation and Christian thought that the liturgy (order of worship) for the historical sacrament of the Church, Holy Communion, as it is ordered for Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and even Presbyterians, requires a confiteor or other public confession to be said by all the people assembled most of the time before Holy Communion (the Mass or the Eucharist)  is observed. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), the following confession is given as one of two that can be said in our Rite One Communion Service. It so tidily encapsulates these thoughts for me each and every time I approach the throne of grace:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

Other Christian thinkers and mystics have written on the topic of sin over the centuries. In closing I would like to consider what two of them have to say, because they point out another truth about sin: sin is not only a sad reality of human existence, but it is also a means of pointing us to the grace of Christ; a way for God to glorify us in our weakness.

In a letter to his young friend Jerome Weller composed in 1530, the reformer Martin Luther wrote “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.” I will return to this subject in my next post: So, what about grace?

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, England

The mysterious fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich (who lived her adult life walled into a church in Norwich, England), who is recognized as a saint in both the Anglican and Lutheran traditions had this to say about sin in her Shewings:

“God also showed that sin would be no shame but an honour to man, for just as for every sin there is an answering pain in reality, so for every sin bliss is given to the same soul. Just as different sins are punished by different pains according to their seriousness, so shall they be rewarded by different joys in heaven according to the pain and sorrow they have caused the soul on earth. For the soul that shall come to heaven is so precious to God, and the place itself so glorious, that the goodness of God never allows the soul which will come there to sin without giving it a reward for suffering that sin. The sin suffered is made known without end, and the soul is blissfully restored by exceeding glories.

In this sight my understanding was lifted up into heaven, and there God suggested to my mind David and others without number in the Old Law. In the New Law he brought to my mind first how Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Thomas of India, Jude, Saint John of Beverley and others, also without number, are known in the Church on earth with their sins, and how these sins are no shame to them but have been transformed to their glory. By this honour, our courteous Lord shows for them here, in part, something similar to what is done for them in fullness there, for there the token of sin is transformed into glory.” The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings Made to Dame Julian of Norwich, translated by M.L. de Maestro; Chapter 38 (New York: Doubleday, 1977)

For the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning or intersex Christian, as for every Christian, the very personal, most meaningful question about our sexuality and/or gender expression/repression/suppression must be “how does my expression/repression/suppression of my gender and/or sexuality exhibit my love for God and my love for my neighbor?” This is a personal question that each individual must ask in humility and openness to the Holy Spirit’s leading in her/his life. In my case, the Holy Spirit has led me — partly through the witness of my own faith community and partly through my own experience of my sinfulness in the light of grace — to conclude that sexuality expressed in the context of a lifetime commitment to fidelity and companionship is the best way for me to honor God, myself, and my beloved. Others have reached different conclusions. BJUnity is here to affirm and support YOU in whatever conclusions the Holy Spirit may lead you, oh Christian LGBT+ individual.

Take heart, dear ones. Jesus loves you. He loves you infinitely, completely, and unconditionally. All of your sins are forgiven.

And if you are using LGBT+ people as a punching bag to avoid dealing with your own sinfulness: STOP IT. NOW. Let Him do His work in you.

*The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s alone.

Read more in the “So, what about the…” series:
So, what about the Grace? | So, what about the Love? | So, what about the Sex?
So, what about the Bitterness?