We have again arrived at Ash Wednesday and the penitential season called Lent, when some in the Christian tradition focus on sin. Others, especially post-Christians harboring a gripe with the faith, characterize Lent as a time for flagellating ourselves while simplistically ascribing to Jesus the once-for-all, necessary fix: dying as a sacrifice to “save people from their sins.” All told, few theological concepts have been so mangled and misinterpreted as the concept of sin and penitence. Many grow up learning that a “sin” is a moral peccadillo one commits personally, often having to do with sex, what one consumes, or dishonesty; and Christian life is about achieving purity, ascending the ranks of “Good Christians” by ridding our lives of “sins,” while simultaneously clinging to Jesus as an insurance policy. It is quite ridiculous and confusing.
According to both New Testament teaching and centuries of thoughtful Christian theology, the understanding of “sins” as moral missteps is misleading. This use of “sins” as missteps is, in fact, found in the tradition, but missteps are like symptoms of a disease, not at all the disease itself. And according to the teachings of Paul especially, “sins” as moral missteps or peccadillos can be quite useful in the way physical symptoms let us know something is off in the body. In a round-about way, symptoms are helpful if we pay attention to them.
The fuller, truer meaning of “sin” is separation. And it is all about identity, about not knowing who we are. Essentially, sin is a state of being, characterized by being unconscious that we are united with God and imbued with God; that we are one with the ground of all Being. When we do not understand this, we operate out of ego and self-protection. And ego and self-protection cause us to make many missteps. But focusing on the missteps misses the point, keeping us fixated on achievement (the ego’s M.O.), participating in pointless purity contests—when instead we have been invited to a Love Fest.
Sin in the theological sense involves living out of this illusion, or state of separateness—separateness from God, from others, and from all creation. Meanwhile, God is constantly revealing to us our inherent union, drawing us across the chasm of separation back to our identity of oneness with God. In fact, you could say God is that revelation and union itself, pulling us like a magnet back to our own essence. I recently heard someone describe God as an alluring, attracting “field of love.” How stunning and beautiful, this image! How much more life-giving than the worn-out notions of God as disappointed father or fastidious schoolmarm.
The task, then, of spiritual practice and of religion done well, is to facilitate the recognition of who we are in God, to awaken us to what is already there, to recognition and surrender to the attraction of this Love—that we might return to ourselves as a part of it, in order to incarnate God each in our own corners of the world. This is what is meant by “Christ,” to become “the body of Christ” here and now—and I think it is open to all souls, Christian and non-Christian alike, wherever we are living out of our God-imbued essence.
The task of spiritual practice is also to inspire us day-by-day, hour-by-hour to keep recognizing the false self/ego. But recognizing our failures is never about self-flagellating, or viewing ourselves as “less than.” In fact, coming again and again to see the false self (and thanks to “sins” for helping us do this!) is what reminds us that we are actually so much “more than.” Seeing our false selves allows us to re-cognize (know again) our true selves in God. This is why Christianity isn’t a recipe for making your life moralistically pure and pretty and faultless. In fact, if there was ever a doomed and misdirected venture, it is coming to Christianity (or any deep faith practice) because we want order in our lives and the lives of others, to achieve moralistic benchmarks while stewing in judgment of others. Such misguided religion only feeds the ego and creates more separation. This is asking for more of the disease in hopes of curing your symptoms.
The Greek word translated “sin” (hamartia) means “to miss the mark.” We have misunderstood this to mean “falling short” morally, or “not being good enough.” What a terrible misunderstanding! Again, it is really all about identity. You think you are this, but you are really that. You think you are this self-guarding, separate entity journeying through your life—with no choice but to look out for Number One, but this misses the mark. The stunning fact of the matter: you are fully a piece of God journeying through this life. The purpose of your life is to come to realize it. In the freer age of fourth-century eastern Christianity, this process, this purpose was called “divinization” (see St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocians). A term we have become too scared and naïve to use. Yet insofar as we surrender to and experience this union, we are part of the “field of love” that is God. And the purpose of our lives is revealing it, expanding it, throughout all the universe.
Perhaps this is why failure is key to growth in the spiritual life, because failure is often the only thing strong enough to break the illusions of the ego. Often failure helps us to confront the utter loneliness we feel in our self-imposed exile from God, making us long for home. And if this is true, if we actually encounter who we are by “failing the ego” and “falling” into Divine mercy and embrace, then we can safely take our eyes off of the perfection contest and stop trying so hard to be right. If we fail, it is not the end of the world—in fact, it may just be the beginning.
That said, our missteps do often hurt people, and our collective “sins” in aggregate lead to institutional oppressions: things like poverty, cultures of harassment, racism, trauma. Therefore, “sins” are not to be taken lightly and brushed off, even if they are the symptoms of deeper disease and not the disease itself. Lent is a time of penitence when we repent for our sins not for personal ego or moralistic reasons, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and the planet itself. For the sake of awareness. It is when we acknowledge our homesickness and loneliness, recognizing the ways we have chosen flank-guarding and ego-stroking—not just individually, but as a society—instead of our destiny of union with the field of Love. It is fitting, then, that this year Ash Wednesday coincides with the Feast of St. Valentine. The roots of the word translated “repent” (meta-noia) literally mean: big mind, or in other words, to expand one’s consciousness and have one’s perspective transformed. This should be our intention, our desire, as we journey through the season that is Lent. Let us have minds expansive enough that we know we are invited to a Love Feast, our destiny.