In a comment to an essay I posted last night, ruidh wrote: "You seem to be hung up on the sin = wrongful act definition. This really causes no end of problems. ... Sin is not failing to conform to some external yardstick. It is failing to live in relationship with God.
Defining sin as the failure to live in relationship with God has a nice ring to it. But it doesn't seem to be especially useful. Doing so would require us to make a couple of crucial determinations, discussed below. Unfortunately, I don't know how to make those determinations, and I can't see that anyone else does either — at least not with sufficient confidence that I'd be willing, on that basis, to label others as sinful in some particular respect.
Problem: Defining "Living In Relationship with God"
For starters, I don't see how we can confidently define the term "living in relationship" with God. My definition may differ from yours, yours from that of the guy down the street. Whose do we use?
Let's not forget the question of how God defines it. By hypothesis, God is a party to the relationship, after all. He might just have some thoughts about how we should define "living in relationship" with him. Personally, I wouldn't dare claim to speak definitively on his behalf.
In various places, the
collection of writings we call Scripture sets out different authors' thoughts on the matter. So, too, with the writings of other theologians, ancient and modern. But I don't see how we can assume that any of them speaks definitively for God either.
Problem: Determining Whether or Not Someone is in Fact Living in Relationship with God
I don't know how to determine whether, in fact, another person's dealings with God (if any) satisfy whatever definition of "living in relationship" that we choose. Neither I nor anyone else can see into someone else's mind or heart, let alone into God's. It doesn't seem possible for the rest of us to know whether God and the other person are — or, more importantly, are not — "in relationship.
For that matter, I don't even know how to determine whether or not I myself am in fact living in relationship with God. For the sake of argument, I'll assume that "living in relationship" means that two or more parties communicate with each other, at least to some extent, and that each is at least somewhat pleased by the other. Let's review the evidence:
- I certainly try to communicate to God from time to time, but I have no way to know whether or not he gets the "messages" I send. I suspect that at times God communicates to me, and to all of us, but again I have no way to confirm this.
- I'm certainly pleased by God; we can check that one off, at least. I hope God is pleased by me, or at least not seriously displeased. But since God himself hasn't been heard from on that subject, I don't think I'll presume to speak for him. It's simply not my place to say; to do so would be tantamount to blasphemy.
So am I living in relationship with God? I hope so. But not only do I not know, I don't even know how to find out, and neither am I persuaded that anyone else does.
OK, do we throw up our hands and admit defeat? We could. But if we're comfortable living with the uncertainty (which I am, incidentally), we can still try to make progress with the question at hand.
Let's Work on a More-Tractable Problem Instead
There's a well-known trick used by mathematicians and scientists: When faced with a seemingly-intractable problem, don't keep spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. Instead, go work on a related problem, one that you can get some traction with. That work could lead to new insights. Later, armed with those new insights, you might have better luck with the first problem.
Here, the intractable problem is that we don't know how to say, at least not with any confidence, whether someone is, or isn't, "living in relationship" with God. There are just too many uncertainties to allow for more than conjecture; intelligent guesswork is the best we can do.
So let's work on a related problem, that of trying to understand human behavior. Unlilke "relationship with God," behavior is at least observable (as are others' reactions to behavior, which reactions are themselves also behavior).
For the time being, yes, let's try to get a better handle on sin by studying human behavior and its causes. In our ongoing effort to help guide others to God, that may be one area where we can attempt to make some progress.