Unless you are a professional oceanographer or a logophile who’s addicted to The New York Times Sunday crossword, the term archipelago (ar-ke-PEL-a-go) isn’t often used in conversation. At the risk of oversimplifying, an archipelago is a cluster of islands in a body of water like the Greek Islands, the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, and Indonesia just to name a few. What’s fascinating about many archipelagos is that the islands we see jutting out of the ocean are actually land peaks or mountains from an underwater land mass submerged just underneath the ocean’s surface. For example, New Zealand’s islands are the highest peaks of a submerged continent called Zealandia that’s actually larger than the entire subcontinent of India. And Java, Borneo, and Sumatra are all peaks of a submerged landmass called Sundaland. In the southern Indian ocean there are a series of tiny island chains called the Kerguelen and McDonald Islands, that, when considered as part of the same underwater continent, the land mass is more than three times larger than all of Japan. On a common, two-dimensional map, islands such as these appear to be distinct and unrelated because their relationships are hidden by the surface of the ocean. But, when examined closely by the trained eye of a scientist, these islands are far from distinct. Instead, they are biologically interconnected, share identical geological characteristics and are unified by the same tectonic histories and destinies.
So why do I call this essay, “The Sin Archipelago”? Because there is something about archipelagos that have helped me understand the true nature of sin as it is understood by Christian Orthodoxy. In essence, all sins listed in the Bible are visible peaks (no matter how different or distinct they may appear at first) interconnected by a underlying, unifying land mass. And it is that common connection that ties together so many biblical themes and simplifies so much theology.
Sin is such an unsettling word. At least it is for me. I think most of us try not to think on it. And when we do, we usually end up feeling rather lousy. It rarely takes us to a happy place. So why write about sin? Good question. Because it’s now apparent to me that I have misunderstood sin for most of my life. And, I’ve come to realize that my misunderstanding has calcified my theology, seized my affections, and occluded my worldview.
According to Christianity, sin is an inescapable reality. Our collective lives are so defined by sin that it’s hard to imagine life without it. Without sin, there would be no fall of man, no judgment, no selfishness, no suffering, no guilt, no pain, no self-loathing, no disease, and no death. Without sin, virtues such as salvation, forgiveness, mercy, grace, or healing become meaningless. Without sin, Christ’s passion — in essence, the entire Christian message — becomes unnecessary.
Even the sound of the word sends us back to its beginnings — ssssssin — that tempting “hiss” in the Garden. Even the shape of the first letter of sin haunts us. It memorializes a cobra’s strike at the head of its defenseless, neighboring letter. Sin denies us comfort. It strikes, bites, and poisons.
“What is sin?” and “What is a sin?” are two distinct, yet interrelated, questions. Because the word sin is an oft-heard word, we naturally assume we know it well. It may sound familiar, but, in many ways, it still feels oddly foreign. When I first began thinking on sin, I realized how hard it was for me to define the term concretely. I hemmed. I hawed. I knitted my brow and rubbed my temples. Eventually, I came to a reasonable answer. But, even when defined, the divide between my knowing sin’s technical meaning and my understanding its true essence felt as wide as the space between the stars. I had a devil of a time internalizing it.
So I set out on a personal crusade to make sense of it all…
I started with the second question first: “What is a sin?” — the easier, more tangible of the two. Listing different kinds of sins is easy. The Bible is stock-piled with lists and for-instances of all sorts of sins. Throughout Church history detailed and comprehensive lists of sins in the scriptures have been helpful in determining what kinds of actions or intentions offend a holy God: you shouldn’t lie, murder, cheat, steal, lust, be lazy, envy, get drunk, disobey parents, be arrogant … and the list goes on.
Then I tried tackling the first question: “What is sin?” or “What is sin essentially?” I got to thinking: are all the particular sins listed in the Bible merely a laundry list of God’s pet peeves? Or are they elements of one much larger thing? Are they isolated, unique actions? Or are sins really the same thing but with different faces? As I began reading the words of Jesus, the Apostles John, Paul and Peter more closely, I realized they viewed sin as being “one thing” but manifested in a variety of ways. It surprised me. In all my life I had never heard any preacher or theologian really talk about it in this way before. I was surprised by what Jesus and the apostles had to say about sin. I felt as though I shouldn’t have been shocked by what they had to say, but I was. And everyone I talk to about this is oddly shocked as well. The real answer to “What is sin?” is hidden in plain sight. And this real answer makes all the difference in the world. And, it’s the unifying subcontinent of sin that makes it an archipelago. Those individually-appearing sins we see so plainly above the surface of our consciousness actually share the same underlying truth of a submerged continent: sin itself.
The best way to demonstrate this unified, submerged continent of sin is in the form of a deductive syllogism:
The Sin Syllogism:
Sin is not obeying God’s commands.
God’s commands are to love Him and love others.
Therefore, sin is not loving Him and others.
In the Sin Archipelago, the refusal to love explains the entire realm of sin. According to the scriptures, all of God’s commands are summed up into the command to love. The Apostle Paul clearly understood the sin syllogism when he penned the following:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
— Romans 13:8-10 (ESV)
This explains the first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 really well, don’t you think? For in those verses we are told that, no matter if we speak with tongues of men and angels … or have faith to move mountains … or give all our goods to feed the poor … or even offer our bodies to be burned … but when practiced without love, any religious activities such as these are obnoxious, worthless, unprofitable … and, when viewed through the lens of the sin syllogism, sinful.
Much of my life I have viewed sin as a slate of activities that were measured purely on performance. Either I murdered, or didn’t. Either I lied, or didn’t. Either I envied, or didn’t. Either I lusted, or didn’t. Either I cheated, or didn’t. That’s all sin was: a pre-scripted behavior that violated an obvious statement of sin in the Bible. Love, or lack thereof, was never a variable in the calculation. Just the act itself was the only evidence needed to determine the “rightness” or “wrongness” of anything.
Now I’ve learned that sin has everything to do with love: whether I am loving others or not. Just recently I heard one very educated pastor say from the pulpit, “We must preach against sin no matter how unloving it is!” I thought of the irony of that statement. I really don’t think he meant exactly what he said — or at least I hope not.
As a Christian (or “little Christ”), I am to love. Love is what should define me. Why? Because Jesus said so. He told His disciples love would be their “tell” as it should be mine. My love will inform the world that I am a Christian. And when I do not love, John warns me that I am not obeying God and, further, that God’s love is not even within me. Hard words to be sure, but true words — loving words.
By Jesus’ own definition, no command of God resides outside of love. If we have chosen to call a certain action “sin,” but cannot see that action as a violation of love, it is more of an indictment of our understanding of the true nature of that act than whether or not it is truly sinful. No sin can be an outlier of the two great commands. Conversely, when Jesus equated hate with murder and lust with adultery in His revered Mount of Olives discourse, He wanted us to know this as an a priori, fundamental truth: the “absence of love” is the identical genetic sequence replicated within each individual sin. Sin, when defined as mere deviations from behavioral norms within a community of faith, can twist our affections and cloud our worldview.
Further, if we believe two things: (1) God is consistent in His dealings with humanity and (2) His commands are unified — meaning never in conflict with each other — then the command to “love God” can never be in conflict with the command to “love others.” There cannot be a subset of God’s law that demands us to love Him, yet by doing so would then require us to act in unloving ways towards others. Or vice versa. It’s inconsistent. It’s dis-unified. For a triune God, it’s impossible. We see Jesus emphasize the unity of these commands when he says that whatever we do to the least, we have done to Him. And John tells us we cannot love God if we hate our brother.
Then, what is love? Chapters in the Bible like 1 John 3-4, Galatians 5, Colossians 1-2, and 1 Corinthians 13 give us plenty of understanding. A Christian’s brand of love is a deep and costly love: a love that aims to help others flourish even when that love comes at the expense of our own desires, dreams and comforts. Love is when we forget ourselves and turn our attention on building up others. It’s the love Jesus showed. It is the love we celebrate in our best art, literature, music, and movies. It is a self-giving, heroic love. It is not the commercialized definition of “love” we see on common display that is a mere gift wrapping for selfish desires and unbridled passions. This kind of “love” apes true love and, in the process, rapes it of all its truth, goodness and beauty. We Christians need to reclaim “love” back to its rightful place in the vernacular, but not with acrimony. Instead, we must reclaim the word with loving actions that glow with patience, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and enduring hope — and that charm with divine grace.
Yet, much of what we hear today concerning sin in bible-believing Christianity often ignores this reality. Love has been overlooked and discounted. Sin itself has been re-cast as mere offenses to prescribed religious behaviors — behaviors that are mostly concerned with conformity. They are starved of Christianity’s common core: love. Therefore we tend to consider love-less actions “right” because they adhere to behavioral norms; just as the celebrated deeds in the lead-off verses of 1 Corinthians 13 were (“if we speak with tongues of men and angels,” et al — see above.) And we tend to rebuff love-filled actions that fall outside our pre-scripted patterns of behavior because they “just don’t look like what good Christians should do.” When Jesus walked among us, He was hotly scolded many times for being a law-breaker when He chose to love others in unacceptable ways. Sadly, we are not immune today. We hear the identical, echoing scolds and hisses among our most fervent religionists, too. This is our tragedy.
Some of the “right” actions we uphold as virtuous are not quite right because they lack Christian love. And some of the “wrong” actions we uphold as inappropriate are not quite wrong because they are overflowing with self-giving love. Right is actually wrong. Wrong is shockingly right. And we’ve had it backwards more often than we’d ever care to admit. This is our opportunity. And change can begin in an instant.
So, according to the Sin Archipelago Principle, if what we do is loving, it’s good. If it’s not loving, no matter how “right” it may seem, it’s not good. It’s that straight forward. Love God. Love others. This is our destiny. All else are merely details.