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Turning Away from Sin

Working with inmates at a county jail during a chaplaincy internship some years ago, I regularly heard one story after another of the heartbreaking struggle to do the right thing. And there was so much struggle—the struggle to get clean, the struggle to stay clean, the struggle to make amends, the struggle to leave the old life, the struggle to break cycles of addiction and violence generations in the making, the struggle to be loved, the struggle to be loving. I would hear in their confessions the words of Paul:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. (Rom. 7: 15–20 NIV)

As a young seminarian from a stable, loving family, I had, on the surface, little in common with these inmates, who often carried the wounds and woundings of the brutalized. At the same time, I could see in their struggle for wholeness my own. And I could hear Paul’s words in a fresh way as I contemplated my own inner battles against inner demons and considered the deeper roots of this misery of self-war.

When I speak of sin, then, I prefer not to use the word. I would rather listen to the story behind the word and what it means to the person who is using it. I would rather give up the moralizing that so often loads any discussion of sin and sit instead without judgment and with silent recognition that we are each in a struggle for something we have not yet learned how to embody for more than a few moments at a time. I would rather journey with other pilgrims to discover for ourselves the path(s) of liberation out of the sticky trap Paul so ably mapped in words.

Where to begin then in a discussion of turning away from sin? And when I do use the word sin, I don’t just mean the famously big ones—the looming, stone-carved Ten—and their derivatives. By sin, I mean everything that separates us from God in our lives, which I further accept to mean as everything that is not rooted in love and compassion.

Admittedly, this is a very simplified, general, all-encompassing definition of sin. But it frightens me more than any ten concrete rules for daily living ever will. I can follow rules just fine, usually. It’s cultivating the inner life that the rules are pointing me to and that I can miss entirely in the service of legalism that I find so frustratingly difficult and downright scary.

Turning away from sin presumes the ability to turn away from sin, an ability that is dependent on free will. But if we are such free agents, attempt the following exercises:

  1. Silence the bugaboos of your mind—now! Sit for five minutes in the clear light of God’s love without a single wandering thought, image, grocery list item, random memory, or bored sigh.
  2. Practice love—agape love, “conscious, dispassionate love is beyond all feelings of love and hate” for all of God’s creatures—every single one, no exception—now!1 Emanate God’s light through you as though you held the secrets of an eternally burning sun in the steady and lovely gaze of your eyes every moment of every day. Come on, get a move on. There is so much to love.
  3. Shake off that shadow hanging over your head, the intricate ways your mind has repressed all the unwanted parts of yourself that you now call evil. Yes, that shadow. Invite it to dinner. Sit next to it and hold its hand. Woo it. Say: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made and you must now see this very thing and act accordingly.”

    Whatever you do, don’t startle it with the fluorescent spotlight you save for those special occasions when you feel the need to confess compulsively. This isn’t an interrogation. Torture by any name is not allowed. Instead, have compassion for the very things in yourself you have hated. Then see the people you have hated—oh, you would never admit to that, I know—hating is so looked down on these days.

    But look at them all the same—no, look to see whether you can find their shadow and whether your shadow and their shadow may in fact be twins. Then look again and see whether your heart and their heart might just carry the sacred imprints of the universe. And if you can find that holy marker of love that binds all Creation together then live into that reality—now!—and let it be the starting point for all action.

For those of us who are such defenders of free will, it’s kind of embarrassing that we don’t have that much control over our own minds, the actual ground from which “sinful” thoughts and feelings arise.

In this week’s conversation on turning away from sin, I’d be curious to hear how people believe such a movement is even possible to begin. John as he has come to us through the lesson study guide seems to think it’s quite simple: Do not sin. Rely on Jesus when you do. But in his book Lost Christianity, Jacob Needleman concludes that the virtues Christians commonly celebrate and seek to live are in themselves unattainable to most of us given that we have not yet acquired the mastery over mind and development of soul to enable us even to choose between sin and love, to choose to live like Christ.

“How many people will even entertain this idea that the familiar Christian virtues, by which half the world seeks to live, presuppose the development in oneself of a quality of consciousness that is actually extremely rare and difficult to acquire?”2 The lost element in Christianity, then, is the link—an “intermediate Christianity” between the state we are in now—this ego/Mind driven existence that does not even have control over its own automations—and the fulfillment of the command to love as God does, something that cannot, in fact, be commanded (see exercise two above).

How do we return to the intermediate state Needleman says is represented by Adam before the Fall? That place where we can greet God as a reality—holding that knowledge with the focused attention of a lover/beloved—and not nearly as a belief or concept that can run through our minds like any one of a thousand thoughts and feelings that stop by for a moment then race on.

So our first work is not in the turning away of sin but in turning inward to the nature of our own existence, our interconnectedness to all Creation, the knowledge of God both within and without. We cannot turn away from sin if we do not know what it is that we are turning toward, opening into, being transformed by, resting in.

So for the present time I see the task of turning away from sin to be too advanced for my seething, wild mind. I will try to be ethical, yes. Maybe even good some days. But to turn away from this thing we call “sin” will require something I have encountered only through the gossip of mystics and the rare intimations of grace that pop into my life at unexpected moments—a connection to God so real and present that my whole life—my whole body, mind, and soul—is imbued with it. That place where God is not only a belief but a knowledge my heart cannot violate, cannot sin against. That place within where the war ends.

Notes and References

1. Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition (Boston: Shambhala, 2002), 190.

2. Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery to the Centre of Christian Experience (Longmead: Element Books), 154.

Heather Isaacs Royce writes from California’s Napa Valley, where she works as a hospice chaplain.

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