When it comes to sex, strings are always attached; let’s bind ourselves to Jesus

Sex is a perennial topic on my blog because of how obsessed with are with the subject and how bad Christians are at taking about it. It’s all black-and-white, perfect-or-not. I’m not sure I’m much better, but I at least want to start a dialogue.

The way Jesus defines healthy sex when he speaks about marriage is that it is best in an exclusive relationship, between two people, who are committed to each other. You can probably proof-text your way out of these basics, but I think, for me, the proof is in the pudding. It’s not about learning how to justify what I desire, but trying to get what God desires to transform my desires. Practically, I think sex works best when we are doing it the way Jesus advised.

But Jesus’ ideal standard is so often broken, that it is hard to not feel shame or exclusion from other Christians even when they may not be shaming or excluding you. People often will stop following Jesus when it comes to sex because they are hurt, lonely, isolated, confused, or looking for some real affection and connection. Sex is often the easiest cure to those things; but ultimately it may exacerbate them.

From what I’ve known and observed, here are three things I’ve learned about sex or sexual affection when it goes outside of Jesus’ definition.

Unhealthy sex can lead to indifference. Sometimes this guilt is so crippling, that the response is to become desensitized to the emotionality of sexual experiences. Our society is so sex-filled and porn is so accessible, it is hard to realize that a foot massage is not just a foot massage. Sex means something. But if we have enough unhealthy sex, I think we lose that it matters. I think we might just think it is about exchanging fluids.

Add to that the church’s unending guilt induction (to the point where it go no longer speak prophetically about how we have sex) and we might have people that refuse to think about sexual immorality and feel justified in their promiscuity. Moreover, sometimes people have been hurt by a marriage or a relationship that might be considered “holy” in the eyes of the church, that they do not allow their pain to be transformed by God, they merely transmit to the people around them in the form of “casual sex” (which I have come to learn is a reason to log onto OK Cupid).

The problem is that the people involved in a sexual encounter are not always indifferent. Sometimes they are looking for something more that stimulation, like a genuine relationship. Because that’s so often the case when commitment is not made clear, unhealthy sex can lead to confusion. Sex seems to happen before intentions are stated, or sometimes it seems to happen when those intentions are falsely stated.

This sounds obvious, but even a covenant in front of God and community, if held in isolation, may have similarly poorly communicated intentions. One person has expectations, and the other has none; the result is two people that are estranged, and confused—meanwhile they have shared among the most intimate things two people can share.

This might happen a lot in the midst of our hook up culture; sex is expected someone “puts out.” On the other hand, sometimes the expectation isn’t sex, but a relationship after the sex. When that doesn’t happen even more confusion occurs. This happens in anonymity a lot of the time, where it is concealed and forgotten about, but it can happen among friends and in community too.

Unhealthy sex leads to loneliness. When indifference meets confusion loneliness creeps in. Already, we live in a world that’s so connected, it’s hard to be alone; so isolated, it’s hard to be in community; so instant, we can never be patient. Unhealthy sex adds to all of those problems, and it does damage to our souls. It can even leave us feeling distant from God, not just because we think we are too “polluted” to talk to him, but because we don’t know ourselves and we can’t seem to know him either.

That loneliness and isolation is an incubator for our pain and suffering; for our anxiety and depression. Sometimes we lose so much affection and intimacy that the only way to receive is through more bad sex. The problem is that we then conflate sex and connection—so that every single encounter with a potential mate is sexual. We forget how to even have relationships. We think everyone has an ulterior motive.

I think there is hope to all of this though and it is found in real community. Even though the community is not perfect. It’s intentionality and goal of transformation combats the indifference of unhealthy sex. When everything matters, it’s hard to say that sex does not.

Because we have agreements that are basic to leadership, and honesty and transparency is the only way that a community maintains integrity, a healthy community also combats confusion. Our leaders and therapists (at Circle Counseling) are there to make the confusion of unhealthy sex clearer too. Light gets gentle shined on the areas we want to conceal, and the truth frees us.

And finally, even when we are isolated and lonely, the community keeps including you. No matter how you feel, the community is there to remind you that you are loved, not just by others, but by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

None of these things are easy, but I do think participating in a real community like Circle of Hope is a way to make things easier.

How King David goes beyond Taylor Swift’s shaking it off

The most powerful thing art can do is create a relationship with us. That’s why character development in TV shows and movies is compelling—we’ve been there before. That’s why observational humor is so popular and so successful—we can relate to the humor of regular life. That’s even why blog post like this works, when it uses anecdotes and images that you can relate to.

The most popular music today seems to be music that we can relate to. My friend Sean showed me the number one song in America at cell the other day, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” She’s made her fortune off of songs that are this relatable. The song is troubling in some ways, and maybe you can agree.

It’s not that complicated of a story. Taylor is heart-broken, and finds a fella with hella good hair to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It’s redundant. It’s low-context, meant for consumption. And the reason that it is so consumable and popular is because it’s relatable. She has a great voice and she’s talking about something that people understand. People get hurt in relationships and they don’t know what to do. Taylor Swift’s advice to them is simple: “shake it off.”

David has another way. His Psalms show us that degree of vulnerability too, but offer a solution other than shaking off.

Read Psalm 40 and see if we can relate to David.

David says he is waiting patiently for his savior, but it seems like he has no choice. The world around him isn’t working. He is stuck in a slimy pit. He is grimy. He can’t get out. God puts him on a solid foundation and he praises him. He sings him a new song—his old dirge is done. Now it’s a song of praise!

We can get into the context of David’s suffering. But isn’t it enough to hear the imagery? How often do we feel stuck and jammed up? How often do we need a new song to sing in the monotony of our lives? How often are we sick of our isolation, our depression, our stress and anxiety? David is using general lyrics here and we can relate to them profoundly.

David is so thrilled with the transformation that God does in his life, he promises not to withhold it. So far, we are getting a very basic Christian message, but I hope it is written in a way that compels you. We want something new, we want to get out of the slimy pit, Jesus gets us out, and we praise him for it. All he wants is for us to want him.

Now that we’ve been liberated, we want to share that good news with other people.

But the story does not end there. We always wish it did, I think. I think that’s kind of where we have programmed it to end. But there is more.

Much like David saying that the works of the Lord are unending, so is his sin and his trouble, like ours. He has been redeemed. He has been put on a solid rock. But his sins overwhelm him. He is blinded by it. Overtaken. He cannot bear it anymore, again.

You can feel his agony, and maybe you can relate to it, in part. Perhaps your despair isn’t as intense—but maybe it is. Maybe you really count your sins or troubles. I certainly can. Sometimes my ego is so big, I cannot take it anymore! I’ve created these systems around me to make my dwelling in the slime easier. Sometimes I can’t see anything but them. You might have something similar to David’s urgency for God to save him. “Come quickly,” may be your prayer.

David leaves his Psalm kind of where he started. As a poor and needy person who needs to be saved in a hurry. Isn’t that how we often feel? I know I do. Desperate for God, not patient for him to change me.

I was just having this fantasy this week. Frustrated at my lack of progress and inability to grow past my limitations, and constantly being reminded of them, and needing God to bridge the gap.

I think the key here is not just to relate to David’s Psalm as an individual might, but rather to discern that the world is in need of such transformation and similarly longs, or yearns, for something better. I hope that people are not just left on their own to figure it out. We actually have a solution.

You can demand that someone believes the right thing, but the answer is in relating to them. It might take time, but the intellectual assent alone might not save them. We might just end in verse eight of the Psalm “Your law is within my heart.”

That’s just the middle of it. There’s more that comes. Not only do we share what is in our heart, we share the fact that the struggle doesn’t end so easily. I think when we demonstrate that vulnerability, we actually help people follow God.

But it seems to me like most of the time we are trying to be perfect, or make the Bible writers seem perfect too. The trouble with that perfection is that our faith is ultimately weakened. We have high expectations for what following Jesus brings us, and when the inevitable suffering comes, we are disappointed and might leave him.

I think that’s why I couldn’t be a Christian by myself. I need to be in a body of people with whom I can relate and find encouragement. One really simple way to spread the encouragement is to write a new song yourself. Let the Lord put a song on your tongue and write it and sing it. Tell your story and help others to relate to it and ultimately find that Jesus fulfills them, not just shaking it off.

It’s about love, not about living in the right place, or having the right friends

Someone asked me how it all works the other day.

From what I know, here are the basics about Circle of Hope: we’re a circle of hope in Jesus. We are church that is made up of cells. You could say that the four congregations are expressions of the cells. The cells are positioned outward for transformation. They are incubators of revolution. They change us when we include others in them. And those people that are included are changed. Those seemingly “little” changes, change the whole world. As we do this incremental, we are doing our part in the new creation—bringing God’s kingdom right here, on earth as it is in heaven.

The cells are beautiful expressions of us, and out of them and out our church, we form compassion and mission teams that pull us into new directions. Underneath all of that is something of an infrastructure with which our capacity teams form and support us—they lead our common fund, site management, human resources, and technology areas.

People from all over town connect to our congregations, which have their main headquarters on corridors that intentionally invite people form everywhere. Two are on Broad St. in Philadelphia. Another is that a central intersection in South Jersey: where 70 and 130 meet. And another is on Frankford Ave., the main artery that runs from the Northeast all the way to Girard Ave.—spanning a populous and increasingly gentrifying area. We planted in these places so that we could be regional. One doesn’t have to be “in the neighborhood” to be a part of us. Some people choose to do that, but they are no more holy than those who live elsewhere. Moving closer is not a prerequisite.

The other day someone asked me if she could be a covenant member if she lived in a distant neighborhood—I exclaimed, “of course!” She had gotten the impression she needed to move to one of the hip neighborhoods many of our friends are moving into. She thought she wasn’t a “good” Christian because she had to travel 30 minutes to get to a PM. To live in a local neighborhood by the meeting site of the congregation, that’s a fine thing to do, but it doesn’t make you more committed or righteous, if you ask me.

Neither is being in the “in-group.” Sometimes I wish there was not an in-group (but humans will be humans). In my high school, I never seemed to be in the in-group (but I did tend to know someone in each of the cliques). In fact, as a Christian Arab, who is quite different in terms of thinking to many other Christians (many of whom seem to be lackeys for the G.O.P.) and other Arabs (most of whom are nominal Muslims), I have never really found an in-group. For me, the Body of Christ is my family, when the world made me other (literally, on the census form). So I am among the people that longed to be cool and never were. I think Jesus specialized in being friends with us.

The cells and the church aren’t about getting in—they are about getting out there! You haven’t made it once you are invited to all the parties. I think we’re really talking when you go to the parties to meet your next friend. Or, better, you invite everyone to your house and you help people meet Jesus that way! We are forming community and including the next person in it, not making sure we can relate to the most arbitrarily popular people. The concern is if the church is all about community and not mission, once you get your friends, you’ll be done. There are people who keep the friends and forget to extend the invitation and hospitality that they received when they got connected.

That invitation, and that hospitality is life-altering. That transformation happened in cells. They are like little communities led by pastors. Each of our cell leaders has the level of dignity and responsibility that we would assign any of our pastors. The cells form communities so that natural cliques in the church aren’t encouraged to form. They are porous so that people can get in and out easily. They are not like the store you keep getting Emails from ever since you bought that cardigan. They are not like the elite nightclub with a huge line and a big cover. They are inclusive, and filled with enough love to go around.

That’s the basic principle for Circle of Hope: there is enough love to go around. The love of Jesus is not better because it is scarce, giving to the popular people, or in the right neighborhood. It’s everywhere. It overflows out of us and straight to the margins and the ends of the earth.

What would you add? Comment below.

A song that changes the world, and doesn’t just get reviewed

These days musicians don’t revolutionize music—Spotify does. That’s the revolution we’re used to when it comes to music. But not a real revolution. Even the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, a song about a revolution, in the end taught us deconstruction, not how to build a better world.

theonionThat deconstruction is embodied in Pitchfork, a music blog, that impales musicians. Music becomes another item to evaluate and consume—it gets objectified with a number, as if a narcissistic 500-word essay wasn’t enough! It strips the humanity from the artist and positions the critic as more important. The Onion wrote a funny article about Pitchfork. The Onion declared that Pitchfork reviewed music as a whole and gave it a 6.8. Here’s the lead:

Music, a mode of creative expression consisting of sound and silence expressed through time, was given a 6.8 out of 10 rating in a review published Monday on Pitchfork Media, a well-known music-criticism website.

According to the review, authored by Pitchfork editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber, the popular medium that predates the written word shows promise but nonetheless “leaves the listener wanting more.”

If music is really inspiring and uniting it is almost unratable. But then, again, how often does that happen? Contemporary musicians have created a product to be rated—whether it’s in a hipster’s critique of it, whether or not they can sell out a venue in a certain amount of time, earn a Grammy award, or get enough radio time to be recognized.

This season we are trying to see the poetry in the Bible as something we can relate to. It seems to me that when music is commoditized like this, analyzed and deconstructed, it only becomes relatable because the same thing happens to us on OK Cupid. For me the music of the Bible is meant to do many things, which we will explore this season at the PMs: celebrate, revolt, express longing, romance, power, transcendence, and hope.

This isn’t just a contemporary problem. In Europe, particularly, where aristocrats dominated the music landscape and only special, highly educated people were producing music, Hadyn / Mozart / Beethoven had something of a clique, even. And for the most part, these pieces were co-opted by the state (when I say “state” I mean government) and used for nationalistic purposes.

Even songs that changed the world are still used by the state. Here’s the perfect example of how this has happened. In 1792, this French song was written. It was the first European march song written and it literally lead the peasants, three years later, to overthrow the aristocracy in France and cause the French revolution. That song actually changed the world. The heads of state were so bent on that not happening again that after they created their republic, they made that song their National Anthem—completely stripping it of its power.

The state actually got something that the church didn’t get (I think the state has used music that could inspire us to bring the Kingdom of God here, for its own purposes), which is the unity that comes from a stadium singing the “National Anthem” or “God Bless America,” a unity unparalleled in the church. For the most part, we like to rate our worship music, like Pitchfork rates music. And why shouldn’t we, when it is produced, marketed, and sold in precisely the same way as pop music? People bring that same evaluative deconstruction to their relationships and as they “church shop” too.

That’s one of the reasons why writing songs is exciting for us—because it gets us to relate and connect to God personally and lead others to do the same, while still embracing it as a community. Singing songs in other languages, too, helps us to realize that our community isn’t just local. It actually is global and the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ is alive and we’re bringing it.

I think that’s the reason that music has been so central to our faith—the songs of the Prophets, the psalms of David—they are important and guide us to worship God, among the ever-present Spirit, into what Jesus is doing next.

Music has been the hope of the captives. The Jews always found themselves in captivity in the Old Testament—most famously was when Pharaoh and the Ancient Egyptians held them captive. Under captivity, with God speaking through Moses, it’s easy to lose hope and to lose courage.

They probably felt like a lot of us do now. Under one of the worst empires of the day, with no way out, nothing practical to sustain us except for our faith in God. The Israelites were under Egyptian captivity, and after a long and arduous journey the Lord delivered them from Pharaoh’s Army when Moses parted the Red Sea.

They don’t know it at the time, but in Exodus 15, when they are singing the Song of Moses and Miriam, celebrating their freedom from the Egyptians, it would be that very song and story that would continue to keep their hope alive, as they fell into captivity again and again. The real freedom that Jesus offers us is what they were waiting for.

When our enemies do us wrong in the U.S., we are told to “never forget.” That song, unfortunately, isn’t one that keeps our hope alive, but keeps our anger boiling. How many wars can we fight based on that idea? How many people can die because of it?

I hope we sing for the liberation that Jesus has given us, the freedom that we have in Christ, the promise of total newness—I hope we don’t sulk in our anger, our rage, whether it is justified or not. I hope we don’t pervert the song of the revolution into a song about a love affair with a nation or a song that leads us into war.

The Israelites not only praised God for the great Exodus from Egypt, but longed for a Messiah that would deliver them, not just from political oppression, but from their own internal captivity.

We sing it every time we break bread and eat together—when we observe communion, drinking and eating the symbols of the body and blood of Jesus—we’re imagining and celebrating and remembering the radical, dangerous act of God not just parting the Red Sea and delivering his people from Pharaoh’s army. But God becoming human, entering humanity, and redeeming humanity by his life, death, and resurrection among us.

The difference between Circle of Hope and the School District of Philadelphia

One of the reasons my stomach churned when I read about the School Reform Commission and its recent decision was because, for my adult life in Circle of Hope, I’ve been trained to do something totally different and in a totally different way. The SRC is the group that runs the School District of Philadelphia. It is a five-member board, three of whom are appointed Pennsylvania’s governor, and two of which Philadelphia’s mayor. Alone, in its structure, we see the difference between leadership through a team effort and leadership through fear. In Circle of Hope, we don’t have much of a “structure,” we don’t work through imposition based on titles–we work through a dialogue of mutual love.

Recently, the SRC decided to cancel the hard-fought teachers’ contracts. The contract itself was seriously negotiated for months and took a lot of hard work to create. In a poorly-announced public meeting the SRC agreed to cancel the contract, without any real input from the PFT. Though teachers won’t get any pay cuts (but the pay has been frozen for two years), they need to pay a large percentage (up to 13 percent). The SRC’s argument is that this change will cause no layoffs to occur so schools can use the money to “hire a full-time counselor and nurse, perhaps, or to pay for more supplies or after-school programs.” The politics might be right here, but I think another key difference is that in Circle of Hope our agreements are based on a covenant of love, not a legally-binding contract. Relationships cannot be replaced by pieces of paper.

Naturally, the teachers who are being abused here are enraged. Some other education advocates also share their rage. Will Bunch is particularly upset—I loved his columnAl Dia wrote brilliantly too. Many of friends also cried foul. But when the rubber hits the road—do we actually care enough to do something? I actually think the people in Circle of Hope care. Here’s why:

  1. It is in our backyard. We realize that every Philadelphian, and every person, is God’s beloved created. Their education matters because their pressing trouble sometimes makes something like participating in a cell seem esoteric. It is not, and God heals the troubled through our love. I think the people in Circle of Hope know that and want to help meet the needs of the least among us.
  2. We have goals, but those goals are not met if we violate our trust relationships. Our agenda is Jesus. Our goal is to help people follow Him. In this world, we find trouble, but Jesus overcomes that trouble. The relationships we have and the way we have them is just an important to the end result. For the SRC, this decision was all about Tom Corbett and his dismal effort at getting re-elected. It was done in a secret meeting that wasn’t advertised very well, in contrast, we’d be hard-pressed to have a meeting that everyone wasn’t invited to and everyone didn’t know about! And if we did, we might consider that a problem. We want to communicate well, not shroud our communication in secrecy because we can’t get along. Unlike the SRC and how it thinks about teachers, I want to offer the people that are gifted to lead around me the dignity, not mistrust.
  3. The body of Christ is protected by the Risen Lord, not a coalition. We don’t have unions in Circe of Hope because we are developing trust. We have a dialogue that connects us, and we don’t need representatives to speak for us. I understand why unions exist—teachers are accused on having cushy jobs, and only working ten months a year, and they’ll retire with great benefits. I think that mentality is totally not Christian, because it is based on a stereotype, which, when living in community, is harder to develop.
  4. We have not lost a sense of public good. In a world filled with are individualized people, right down to how we are educated, Circle of Hope is the alternative. We have public meetings. We want to be known and we want to include everyone. The idea of educating our community or improving our neighborhood schools is not just a nice thought, it is important to us. Jesus transcends the debate between public and private. Everyone among us is his child, and his will is discerned in community.
  5. Jesus’ love is more bigger than the evil in the world is overwhelming. The SRC’s decision adds to a laundry list of evil in the world: income inequality, mass incarceration, systemic racism, perpetual war, and so on. That can be overwhelming. But Jesus’ love is bigger than it. And our expression of His love in community is an expression that helps us overcome all of the evil in the world.

It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to lose faith. It is easy to become indifferent. But Jesus gives us another way.

Here are some things we can do: Be a part of an alternative to how the SRC works. Engage a dialogue. Volunteer at a local school can be helpful. Consider meeting with your local principal and asking how the school needs help (Megan did, and she formed NICE and For the Love of Childs); ask the principal how you can be like Jesus to her! Love your neighborhood as yourself–some of us even want to get our kids to struggling schools to invest in them and our neighborhoods are stakeholders. Don’t discount the power of praying for the school. Action is important, but I think we need to pray as much.

Deconstructing with David Bazan on Twitter

When my friend Jeremy retweeted David Bazan this week, I had to respond. David Bazan, a favorite of mine in the disillusioned days of college, is a post-Christian singer/songwriter who has captivated many of my friends in and around Circle of Hope because he’s making his career off of deconstructing his childhood faith. He’s made the rounds on this blog more than once (here, here, and here).

I followed him down his path of broken faith and really fell in love with some of his music, but I kept my faith through it. I remember a few years ago singing along to every word of Control when he was playing through the whole thing at the First Unitarian Church. I’m glad I did, too. In fact, his politics, original views on faith, and earnestness was important in my spiritual formation.

This summer when I was repainting one of our rooms after it was reinsulated, I had his two most recent records on repeat, so I kind of fell in love with him again. I was really glad when I was listening to Bazan that I had not only a faith that endured deconstruction, but that I had also built something else in return. I’m a little late with commentary on this, but my interest is piqued, so maybe you’ll indulge me. Bazan’s lyrics are so clever and charismatic, it’s hard to look away. Curse Your Branches might be the centerpiece of his cynicism toward faith. He is not just a hater, so I appreciate his honesty, at least. “Hard To Be” is a song all about losing faith because the creation story doesn’t make sense. In fact, in “Heavy Breath” he talks about whether or not getting created really matters: “If no heavy breath blew up these lungs / While dirt and wet spit hung a ghost in the air / Well, we’re still here.”

Bazan is really working with something too. In the final song on the record, he is actually trying to dialogue with God about his lack of disillusionment. The “You” in the song is God! So you could even think of it as a prayer—I stretch it that far anyway. Here’s the part that stung me:

“When Job asked you question / You responded, ‘Who are you / To challenge your creator?’ / Well, if that one part is true / It makes you sound defensive / Like you had not thought it through / Enough to have an answer / Like you might have bit off / More than you could chew.”

I think God likes those kinds of questions, when they aren’t rhetorical. I hope that David hears back from God, because the story of Job is a little wild. That level of questioning and deconstruction can actually help our faith—it did mine!—but I want to note, that not everyone can keep their faith through their David Bazan fandom. Not everyone can reconstruct something else. Sometimes we’re just left in the rubble. So when David tweeted this, I was happy to dialogue with him:

The church needs to be disassembled, but I think we need to reassemble something better in return. We need to create an alternative. We can’t just pillage and destroy. David is right, it needs to be real, slow even, and gradual. But it needs to be right too. Not everything that’s institutional is wrong, and not everything that’s anti-establishment is right. We have true selves and false selves, and getting to our true self will take some deconstruction—but clearly, it takes a lot more work than that. I think the same goes for all of creation.

I was glad David and I were able to have a civil conversation and actually get to the same page. In fact, in his original tweet he writes “I have faith…” It probably does take some faith to make deconstruction work for Jesus. But we need to be conscious because if we are bulls in china shops we might be hurt by something—obviously God, truth, and reality aren’t those things—and we might hurt something that needs to be hurt (my examples were racism, militarism, and materialism). But we also might hurt a person and drag them down a path that we needed to take, but not one that they need to. When I talked about hell and my view of it last week, it took at least one person down a darker path than they started. It’s important for us to be conscious about who we influence. We might “still be here” at the end of it, with God, reality, and truth—but I want to be more than just here.

I suppose that’s the biggest difference between living in community and isolation. In community, we are interdependent, responsible for each other, but also responsible for ourselves. The institution of individualism might be the first one that needs to be deconstructed. As leaders, we need to mind our influence and realize that we are influential. David Bazan’s music stimulates me and works for me, but I have a strong faith community that helps me not only contextualize it, but also helps me reconstruct something after we’ve taken it apart.

How we’ve thought about sin throughout the ages

I offered a speech on this subject last night at our public meeting; a lot of it is based on what I’m learning in Dr. Francesca Nuzzolese’s Spiritual Formation class at Palmer Theological Seminary.

How we think about God affects us in how we relate to him and how we tell people about him.

When it comes to the question of sin, I think it is important to think about it so that we can help people understand what it means to follow God. People have been thinking about sin, or maybe overemphasizing it, for a long time so it might be a bit hard to get started.

Sin is a complicated subject because when Jesus refers to it, it’s almost like it is a given. He doesn’t spend much time defining it. Much of the time he says things like he’ll forgive our sins, he’s come to save the lost, “go and sin no more,” and so on. So we are often puzzled at what sin exactly means.

Some have come up with the idea that “sin” means to miss the mark. The Greek word is hamartia (ha-mar-tee-a) which means “missing the mark.” That mark is God’s “ideal” mark, and we can debate all day about that. And Paul knows that people will. So in Romans 14, he writes about it.

Paul is taking about purity laws. He and Jesus spent a lot of their ministry talking about what is pure and what is not. At this point, they are both observing Jewish people who are so strict with the rules that they are missing the point. The rules were set up so they wouldn’t miss the mark, but they have missed it.

One of those rules surrounded purity of diet. For the most part, these rules were set up for health reasons—sometimes food was literally unclean and dangerous to eat. Other times, it was set up for environmental reasons—a camel was more useful as a beast of burden than as a burger. But ultimately, the reason that Jewish people observed “kosher” laws was because the Torah, the law of the Jewish people, said so.

Paul didn’t want these strict rules to miss the point of Jesus’ redeeming work and that’s what he is talking about in Romans 14. Paul thinks that some new Christians will still follow the dietary law. And for him, that’s OK, and he might even do it with them if not doing it causes them to stumble. He develops an attitude of hospitality and accommodation for the “weaker” people, but he warns them not to judge harshly. His basic rule for life is “peace and mutual edification.” He concludes the passage with this definition of sin: “everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Paul is connecting sin with faith, and even that word is automatically connected to the idea of God. The dictionary definition of sin is “An immoral act considered to be a transgression against the divine law.”

The inevitability of sin was made clearer to us by St. Augustine who wrote, sin is “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.” Both the dictionary and the person who basically came up with the dictionary definition, Augustine, are coming to the conclusion that it is about a violation of God’s law. That creates a troubling relationship with God. God is essentially defined by a set of rules, not his being, and we react to him based on following them or not.

Wesley made it less inevitable when he said it was a “willful transgression.” It’s not inevitable, but for us, it is a matter of our personal choices. Thomas Aquinas came up with the idea of “mortal sins,” a sort of standard for Christians. You’ve heard of the seven deadly sins before, I’m sure (or you’ve at least watched Se7en). Aquinas said that sin isn’t the “wrong product” of God’s creation, it’s not all about the devil’s temptation, but it’s about humans trying to just survive in the world. “A human-creating reality contingently present in particularly living contexts.” We combat the deadly sins with their virtues. You can see how endless this struggle can be, but also how helpful these choices can sometimes be.

Another popular idea, mainly developed by Paul Tillich, is that sin causes us to be separate from God. As we sin we are estranged from God. And we suffer a kind of dread or angst in the places where we are distant from our creator. As we move away from God, we literally become less human. We suffer. We try to cope. We don’t get more virtuous, we just become more complicatedly evil. This is why it’s so hard to figure out how we are sinning and what it means.

That’s why I love Julian of Norwich’s definition and why I’m going to end there. Julian of Norwich: “Sin itself does not have any substance of any form of being, nor can it be known except by the pain it causes.”

We can endlessly debate about what God’s law is and how to follow it. But if we really take Paul’s definition when he utters “Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up” we are getting closer to knowing why we don’t want to sin and why we want to pursue this virtuous life.

What is building me up? And what isn’t? As I dwelled on my pain, I saw things more clearly this week. Much of how I have been sinned against by others has left me with a tattered self-image. It has worn me out, making me feel so often incomplete and empty. The content of my character was so abused, I didn’t think I had anything left inside of me.

The false image that I developed, the personality that I worked out, was an artificially confident one that was defined by what others thought of me. Rather than healing my injured interior, I developed a coping strategy and mechanism that simply pushed away intimacy. That makes thinking about sin even harder because I don’t want to admit where I’m wrong since that makes me vulnerable to an attack. The same kinds of attacks that formed my false self.

What pain are we feeling? And where does the sin of others lead us to sin? That abuse I received isn’t the end of the story. I did something in return that didn’t build up either. In the process I may have forfeited my whole soul.

I keep sinning, keep patching up my wounds because I don’t believe the other thing Julian says, famously: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Do I really believe that? That was a question haunting me this week. If I do, what is with all of my sinful behaviors? Do we really believe that all things work together for good? That all will be well? What do we do when we don’t believe? How do we sin?

The question of pain might be a better question than sin. How do we move away from God? How are we separate from him?

Jesus has overcome the whole world. We don’t have to fear. We don’t have to protect ourselves, or defend ourselves, or ignore our pain.

What do we do with our sin? With our pain? Just a few recommendations.

Know your pain. Become aware of how you have been hurt and how you are hurting yourself. Know it enough to know what you do to deal with it. If they aren’t of faith and of God, our coping mechanisms could very well be sins.

Confess your sin. Tell someone about it! That’s a hard step for me. I don’t want to admit it. I’m afraid of being judged. But it is freeing. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says the truth will set you free.

Be forgiven. Let go of the pain and let God fill you up. The point of forgiveness is that you are no longer guilty. Guilt is really nowhere near this—maybe just as an indicator.

Get transformed. The story doesn’t end with your forgiveness. It just begins there. We need to be transformed into new creations. This is a process, but it’s possible on earth right now.

This isn’t a linear cycle, nor do we do it once, but I hope it is helpful in overcoming your sin. In doing so we become our true selves. We no longer suffer that separation. That against. That less-than-humanness that our sin causes us to be. Our sin makes us less human. Jesus’ transformation makes us more human and more our true selves.