When You Sin

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I first served as a pastor in Perryville (that’s two syllables, not three), Kentucky, when I was barely twenty-two. I had no experience, no deep wisdom to share. I had hardly anything to offer. This was intimidating for me. (Well, for those who aren’t extreme narcissists, being a pastor is always intimidating!) I learned more from the experience of those people than they ever could get for me.

One of the more shocking moments for me during those days was when I found myself at the convenience store at the corner of Bragg and Second Streets. As I was paying for my gas, I stood behind an unknown man. He smiled and nodded. I returned the favor. He said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you. My name is Rick.” I held out my hand, “My name’s Daniel.” “You new here?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m the new pastor at the United Methodist church.”

Hearing those words, his smiled receded. A more somber look took over his face. He avoided eye contact. He uttered, “Oh…I used to go there…but…it’s been a long time. I haven’t made the…best decisions in the last few years…please forgive me.” I had no idea what to do!

I was surprised by how quickly shame and guilt came over him once he heard that I was a pastor. But nearly fifteen years later, I guess I’m not that surprised. Most of us walk around carrying these heavy burdens, to some extent. Do I pray enough? Do I give enough money? Am I kind enough? Have I messed up too much? Have I been too angry?

We worry that we have done something so egregious that we might have irrevocably displeased God. Then, we might try hard to change our actions and thoughts, but soon find ourselves falling short again, only to become more worried, which might cause us to try even harder, which might cause more worry… So the cycle goes. Maybe we come to a point at which we finally recognize how unhealthy that cycle is, so we stop even trying. We settle into our despair.

My guess is that some of this striving comes from what we think we see in the Bible. We may speak about God’s grace, our shortcomings, our inability to live fully into perfect love. But we also sense deep down that God does not desire that we keep falling down on our faces. So we wonder, deep down, if we have finally pushed too hard on God’s grace.

What do we make of the relationship between God’s abundant love and God’s intense demands to keep a certain way of life?

The book of Leviticus is a book replete with concrete, overwhelming detail about how the people should respond to God. In it, Christian readers have often seen the stark contrast between the “old” ways of God and the “new” ways revealed in Jesus. In Leviticus, many have assumed, we see the pinnacle of human striving for God’s favor; in Jesus, we see God’s embrace of human frailty.

But I want to consider Leviticus 4 here. This passage opens with the LORD saying to Moses, “When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any of them . . .” (verse 2). Several things about that verse that we could point out, but I will focus on only two.

First of all, notice that the text is talking about unintentional sin. In certain corners of the church, sin is marked mainly by intentionality. It is willful disobedience. It’s when we choose to do something that is wrong. We may do something harmful or wrong unintentionally, but, we say, this is not sin. It’s an accident. How could we call it sin, when it wasn’t done on purpose? Yet right there in Leviticus, we are introduced to the idea that we might sin even without trying to.

Second, notice that the verse begins with the word when. It does not say, “If anyone sins . . .” The LORD here takes for granted that people will sin.

How often we might be inclined to assume that we can hide our real selves from God is quite surprising. It’s counterintuitive and illogical, yet we still do it. Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3, hid themselves from God after they had disobeyed. If we hide the darkness, then no one will know it is there — including God.

The Bible indicates quite clearly from an early point that God is completely aware of the inclinations of humans. At the conclusion of the well-known story of Noah and the flood, God indicates that he will continue to be present with and work in the midst of humanity even though he recognizes how bent toward evil they are. God’s intentions with humans account for destructive patterns. Leviticus 4 likewise assumes this. God builds into the Law, the Instruction, guidelines for how the people are to respond to their own unintentional sin.

Think about that last statement for a minute. The Law that the people were supposed to keep in response to God’s deliverance involved them taking certain actions when they broke the Law. To keep the Law, you must admit that you won’t always keep the Law! In order to follow the Law completely, the people would, first, have to admit to themselves that they have sinned unintentionally, and, second, they would have to do something — very publicly — about it to restore the situation.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Upholding the Law involves recognition that you have failed to uphold the Law. The most devastating action you could take in that moment is pretending — to yourself, to God — that you have upheld the Law completely.

This all makes more sense when the Law is properly identified as Instruction. The word law has certain connotations: follow this rule, and be fine; break it, and suffer consequences. The word instruction, however, is more about growth, learning: here’s the ideal; now, try it out, and when you fail, get back up and try again.

We see here, then, that God’s Law is also God’s Grace. The Law is designed to train us in the way we should live. It assumes that we do not begin at the finish line! Rather, it sets the goal out in front of us. Without the Instruction that God gives, we would find ourselves wandering around in darkness. The Instruction of God shines light on the darkness, which, yes, is unpleasant. But it also offers the healing we need so that we can live life to its fullest.