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What is Sin?

The term “sin” is very general and means different things to different people. That can make it hard for counselors and counselees to be sure they are communicating accurately when they use the term. 

I had a seminary professor who tried to illustrate for his students in England the fact that words can have shades of meaning depending on perspective. He picked out a man in the crowd who had on a pair of pants that were an odd shade of blue and he asked him, “What color are your pants?” The Englishman replied, “My trousers are blue, and the color of my pants is none of your business!” Apparently, the word pants in England referred to something other than his slacks. It ended up being the perfect illustration for how the same words can mean different things to different people.

The word “sin” is one of those words.

If we are going to make honest and effective efforts at dealing with sin in our lives, or helping others deal with the sin in their lives, I think it is important that we understand the multi-faceted reality of sin, and how it manifests itself in our lives. So, let’s take a brief look at what we’re fighting against. 

How does God define sin? How does God teach us about the nature of sin in Scripture? To understand the subtleties, it is helpful to look at a few words God uses to refer to sin. There are a lot of terms, and no one of them captures by itself all that can be said about sin. The Bible speaks of transgression, rebellion, straying, stumbling, iniquity, disobedience, and of course the term sin itself. 

The most common way theologians refer to sin is as a violation of the law—doing, thinking, or saying anything contrary to God’s holy Law (1 John 3:4). Not all terms used for sin, however, imply willful rebellion. Sometimes law breaking happens more by “straying off the path.” One such term is the Hebrew word ta’ah. 

Psalm 119:110 — The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.

Psalm 95:10 — …They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.

Here we see that straying may happen due to temptation (someone has laid a snare). But there is also the possibility of straying due to ignorance (we do not know His ways). In either case, whether by temptation or ignorance, straying from God’s path is sin. This term for sin highlights the importance of knowing God’s Word and being intentional in your pursuit to not turn from it—to the right or to the left! The Greek word planao implies a similar idea. This term is often translated with the ideas of “deceive” or “deception” because it implies straying from what is true. 

No one sets out on a morning hike and says, “I think I’m going to get lost today.” But through ignorance of the landscape or being tempted to forge a new trail, we wander from the safe path God has mapped out for us. Whether we stray from ignorance, or because of a snare and temptation, God still calls it sin. It is also possible for someone to stray from the right path in rebellion because they see something in the distance—on another path—that they want more. Knowing the condition and motivations of the heart make a difference in how you understand and address the nature of the straying.

Another term for sin is the Greek word parakouo. This term refers to sin springing forth from an unwillingness to hear—not in the sense of avoiding the sound entering your ears, but of being unwilling to listen to the counsel of God’s word and obey it (see Romans 5:19, where it is translated disobedience).

Another related New Testament word (Greek apeitheo) implies obstinacy. It means to be unpersuadable. It implies obstinate rejection of the will of God and an unwillingness to be persuaded that God’s will and ways are best. It can also be translated disobedience. Hebrews 4:6 says, “those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience.” You can see that they heard, but refused to heed God’s word. 

The most common word God uses both in the Old and New Testaments is a word that basically means the same thing in their respective languages. The idea is “missing the mark” (the Hebrew word, hata’ and the Greek term harmatano). It means to not hit the target. You aim for a spot and miss it. In one place the term is actually used in this very literal sense, talking about the fighting men of the tribe of Benjamin who never “missed the mark” with their slings (Judges 20:16).

God uses the term most often in moral and ethical contexts. To miss the mark means to fail to hit the target of reflecting God’s perfect righteousness—that is essential to what God calls sin.

We shoot and miss all the time. We aim at the target of God’s will and we fall short. We desire to hit the bullseye of God’s commands and misfire. This can happen in a positive or negative way. We can aim at not doing something wrong, and end up doing it anyway. Or we can aim at doing something right and end up doing it wrong.

I believe that this is the sense in which things like anxiety, despair, and anger arise in our hearts. These types of “violations of God’s Law” have emotional elements that fuel and often overshadow the definite and willful aspects inherent to other types of sin (like rebellion, disobedience, transgression, etc.). 

Why is this important?

Because when we understand the different ways God refers to sin it helps us see how things like anxiety can be called “sin” (“missing the mark”) even though it doesn’t usually flow out of a willfully rebellious heart. The first person I ever counseled who was experiencing panic attacks did not hear me compassionately identify with her struggle to trust God in her trials. Instead, she only heard me refer to anxiety as “sin” and never came back for the second session. Was I wrong? Technically, she was missing the mark of trusting God, which makes it sin. But because I failed to compassionately express the nuances of her struggle I forfeited the opportunity to help her further.

That experience taught me an important lesson. Many of the “sins” we deal with every day involve ‘missing’ the target we are aiming at—obedient, humble, loving, trusting, Spirit-filled, Word-oriented living. So, while “sin is still sin,” we should be careful to recognize that not all sins are of the exact same nature. Rebuking a rebel is appropriate. Admonishing the transgressor is too. But for the same reason a basketball coach should never yell at a player for missing a free throw, we should have patience and compassion with one another when we “miss the mark” too.


This blog was posted originally at Faith Bible Church, read the original post here.

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Brian Sayers
Brian Sayers in the Director of the Faith Biblical Counseling Center in Spokane, Washington and Associate of Pastor of Counseling and Equipping at Faith Bible Church.
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