What’s the Word?

                                               What’s the Word?

                                                       By Al Murdach             

                                                              No. 3   

     This is the third in a monthly series exploring today’s meaning and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition.  Today’s word is:


     It may seem strange, when dealing with spiritual ideals, to dwell on sin instead of hope.  However, in the Christian tradition it has long been recognized that Jesus’ birth occurred as a prelude to the final battle against sin, a battle that ended with his tragic death and, according to Christians, his resurrection.  So it is not totally out of place to consider the topic of sin at this point.

     Probably no word from the Christian tradition gives people more heartburn than this one.  Actually, despite its negative associations, the word has always been used to denote two well-known human tendencies: the power to do evil and the capacity to really screw things up.  Since these tendencies have been observed throughout human history, the classical term for this problem is “original” sin—that is, tendencies that go all the way back to human origins.  G. K. Chesterton once observed that sin is the only religious concept that has been empirically proved.  History, in other words, gives us plenty of proof that we are capable of doing a lot of sinning!

    The notion that humans can sin, however, seems to fly in face of our cherished belief in human goodness.  If humans can sin, can they still be good?  The Christian tradition has always answered that, yes, humans can have it both ways:  they can sin and they can also be good.  Sometimes even at the same time.

    Our consideration of sin, however, does not stop at this point.  Other issues immediately arise, such as human choice, responsibility, knowledge, judgment, and blame.  Probably the scariest issue of all is sin’s consequences (better known as the “wages” of sin).  As you can see, this is a word that can really push people’s buttons.

     What is history of this word?  Why does it cause such fear and trembling now?  Does it still really mean anything?  The term “sin” derives from the Old English term “syn” (as in the ancient rhyme: “In Adam’s fall we synned all”). As does the original Hebrew word  chata, sin means to “stray off the path, get lost, miss the mark” etc. Viewed in this way we can see that the word is still very meaningful and focuses on a key human tendency—something all of us have a problem with!  Although approaching such a word with anxiety is not very helpful, it is still a word that points out something we need to be aware of, respect, and avoid as much as possible.

     Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?, remarks that, while many today have dismissed the concept of sin from our minds, the awareness of sin is ever with us. Indeed for many “it is a burning sore, a deep grief, and a heartache.”  Therefore, it is certainly something we need to understand even if we can’t always avoid it!

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