Formation

How the Way We Talk About Sin Can Keep Us From Being Good People

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American Christians lost our public credibility when we stopped talking about “virtues and vices.” Few church leaders, and even fewer popular Christian writers and teachers, focus on the development of virtue and resistance to vice. And words create worlds.

Why is language so important? Because without the notion of vice, we are left with few terms to describe our darkness. And the word we choose most often isn’t hefty enough alone to carry the freight of our fallen nature. That word is sin.

You’ve heard it. “Do not sin.” “Sin no more.” “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

Sin is serious. Jesus-people ought to take it seriously. Sin leads to death. It distances us from God. But sin has companions, like vice, wickedness, and evil to help describe its depths.

Deploying only the language of sin—a word that has become one-dimensional for us—leaves the church crippled when facing deeper challenges.

We Have Reduced Gospel Transformation to Sin Management

Years ago Dallas Willard, in Divine Conspiracy, warned us about reducing the gospel to sin management:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally … When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.” Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.

Willard was correct in his assessment. Not only have we lost emphasis on the “transformation of life and character,” but we have also failed to name the transformative process for rejecting vice and adopting virtues into our fundamental character. When vice and all other acts of evil are thrown into the sausage press and simply called “sin,” faithful witness has no energy, metric, goal post, or standard to signify a gaping disconnection from God and deepening connection to the dark powers at work in the world. At the same time, we have no words for the development of a deepening and widening connection to God’s preferred future for all creation.

In short, because we only talk about “sin” (and its avoidance), we have nothing further to offer the world for our betterment. We submit no process for discipleship. And worse, we have no means to critique ignobility or behaviors, patterns, and policies that injure the vulnerable or debase the image of God in others. Instead, all we have is a management plan for—maybe—avoiding sin. This is far from the gospel Jesus proclaims: the good news of transformation and new life.

When “Everybody Sins” Becomes A Distraction from Living a Virtuous Life in Jesus

When racism, hatred, sexism, sexual abuse, and mistreatment of the widow, orphan, and foreigner rear their ugly heads, because “we all sin,” Christians are equally likely to marginalize, embrace, ignore, or even legitimize these injustices because we don’t know what else to do with them.

You’ve heard it: “No one is perfect.” “Only God can judge me.” “We all fall short.”

All this colludes to insulate us from transformation. “Everybody sins” dismisses the seriousness of what is a truly vicious way of life. When someone performs a virtuous or vicious act, it really doesn’t matter all that much—because we’re all sinners.

For instance, when a concerned relative, a member of a church small group, a spiritual leader, or anyone else points out the rampant sin in our lives, we puff-up, bristle, get offended, and howl, “But we all sin! Only God can judge me.”

Rather than receiving the invitation to develop Christ-like virtue, “but we all sin” enables us to dodge self-examination and repentance while simultaneously chastising whoever dared judge us by loving us enough to illuminate our sin.

Check. Mate.

No Place Else To Turn

The gospel of sin management flattens transformation. It makes all behaviors meaningless while wearing the fig-leaf of taking sin seriously.

When vice is simmered down to “sin,” Christians are left wordless when political leaders are brazenly offensive, when they degrade others, are recklessly untruthful, ruthlessly grotesque, and sexually debased. “We all sin.” Sin management leaves us without anchor when our Christian sisters and brothers in the business world exploit the poor and marginalized, cook their own books, or embrace greed. “We all sin.” Mum’s the word when we encounter the startling numbers of Christian men addicted to online pornography. “We all sin.”

A friend of mine pastors a church, and like many others, they attempt to utilize small groups to help spiritually form people. Couples in one small group were swinging (spouse-swapping and exploring group sex). When confronted with their vices, they responded that everyone sins and that they would try to stop. This is what sin management does: It blinds us to the corrosion and danger of sin by treating it like the common cold. “We’re all sinners.”

It never occurred to this group that what they were doing wasn’t simply sin, but was initiated by a process of nurturing vices and rejecting virtues. A better question for Christians is not whether something is a sin, but whether or not an attitude or action leads to virtue or vice.

Vice and virtue are what Jesus was seeking in the Sermon on the Mount when he talked about lust. Christians agree that consumption of pornography or swinging is sin. But what about the long stare at an attractive co-worker? We tell ourselves, “It was just a glance.” We’ll comfort ourselves saying it’s “not a sin” because we weren’t acting on our lust, but what would our answer be if we asked whether or not our leer was virtuous?

A better question for Christians is not whether something is a sin, but whether or not an attitude or action leads to virtue or vice. Click To Tweet

Virtues and Vices

Virtues are habitual dispositions to the good, the practical side of holiness. Vices are nurtured dispositions, slouching toward debasement.

What could happen if we reclaimed the language of virtue and vice? Could it lead us farther down the gospel road of transformation?

Churches, in an environment of love and grace, can call good “good” and evil “evil.” Armed with the language of vice and virtue, acts good and evil can be named. The virtuous can be celebrated. The vicious can be rebuked.

Sin management is negative and reactionary. It reduces the with-God life to the mere avoidance of the bad. It’s focus is twisted.

Virtues, however, focus us on what God envisions us becoming.

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29 responses to “The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood

  1. Well expressed. I had similar thoughts the other day while “sitting” in our monthly ecumenical ministerial meeting as we talked about stuff we could offer to people trying to overcome addictions of all sorts. Um, if the church is truly concerned then we would be a people and a place where addicts can receive the thing they often need most, relationships with healthy people who are not addicts. Our churches are already hosts to AA and other groups, great, but why do we always think in terms of adding on more “programs” or specialized groups?

  2. A great suffering exists for those who are insanely committed to social justice & acts of mercy. The “suffering” simply put: this dehumanizing of the other. In fact, it’s a dehumanizing of ourselves, too! I have served side-by-side in soup kitchens where there were too many serving. Teens were told to just sit and wait until the event was over- wait until the adults finished serving the needy. The only “job” left was to actually talk to, sit with, dine with the people we were serving. No one wanted to do that. But we did want to direct them where to go, correct them if they got out of line (believe it or not, some people like to do this), pray for the meal (surely they couldn’t do that) and tell them when they were allowed to have seconds. But conversation? Surely, the older servants should have gained enough contact with those being served year after year that they could have sparked up conversations. But that is not comfortable, doesn’t “feel as good” as fighting for justice, and in some ways takes greater effort, more work.
    The western world is so alone. With all our “good causes,” loneliness continues to be a main source of misery.

    Until we’ve gotten to KNOW people- joy will never jump off the page of our scripture or the laws we hope to enact to provide justice. Surely we should not stop fighting against human trafficking, but personal relationships trump the overcoming of sin, and precede this very victory. It did for Jesus. What social structure did Jesus tear down? Did he cry out “fight for the equality of women in an unjust society?” No- he got to know women and empowered them by sharing his unconditional love for them. By loving people authentically from his being, he modeled how people should be treated. Anyone who followed Christ, was immersed in his treatment of others; and they followed suit. Lets work on changing the laws, but until hearts are changed by Christ’s love and our love- we will run these cycles, and injustices will continue to pop up.

    Well written, David!

  3. Dave, I share your concern about objectifying people and colonizing them through our well-intentioned, but paternalistic attempts to be their saviours. So, starting from that point of agreement, I want to push back a little.
    I affirm what you are putting forward as long as we are vigilant to be aware how this can be exercised out of privilege. This can be largely offset with a firm understanding of the difference between certain kinds of needs (i.e. development vs. relief). Again, we need to be aware that there are times when those in need cannot afford the luxury of waiting. Interestingly, loving (mutual) service in a time of crisis can go a long way to build deep relationships that might otherwise take years.

    Second, we have to acknowledge the not all neighbourhoods are created equally. In fact, the very nature of some neighbourhoods result in the quality (or deterioration/exploitation) of others. Therefore, because of this privileging in certain neighbourhoods, you could end up waiting a long time, as the injustice we are called to engage has been pushed out. So while I affirm localism, that must include those other communities that have been impacted by our community. After all, when God said there should be no poor among us, He wasn’t recommending segregation. We are local expressions of a global Body and we need to learn to live in that local/global tension.

    The fact is that, while rooted in love, relationship and mutuality, we are still called to “do”. We have to be careful not to over abstrationalize “the least of these”. The explicit nature of those listed are people who confront our own sense of security, both with respect to life and identity. “Doing” for them will require a greater level of intentionality.

  4. I love both the phrases “The Grace to Do Nothing” and “Withness” What a beautiful picture of neighbors living well with one another. Sharing, listening, eating, drinking, laughing, playing, sitting, comforting, trusting, and “being with” one another. I wrote a love poem to my fiance a couple months ago about my love of just “being” with her. I realized that sometimes that “being” is enough and that “being” is good! I mean I am a human “being”. I could always get caught up serving her and wooing her, but I most of all loved being with her. Just being next to her. If “being” is good enough for us, it should be good enough with our neighbors too. The Church is often “in” the neighborhood (via a building.) The Church is sometimes “for” a neighborhood. (Serve Day Projects, Serving Homeless, and AA meetings) Yet it rare to see the Church “with” the neighborhood. (In trusting, faithful, relationships with neighbors.) I long to be a part of the Church that is forever “with” neighbors till I die.

  5. Jamie,The one I have tried to learn from on this (when I can catch him in one place) is Wayne Gordon and the CCDA movement. Wayne teaches at Northern but I’ved watched/followed his life and ministry at Lawndale Chicago from the beginning. They went to a resource-less community. The way he chose to inhabit and submit and be part of that place and then respond is helpful as I continue to try to learn their ways. What has emerged with John Perkins in the CCDA group and their many variant types of church expressions, is something I think allmissional communities can learn from. Have you explored much with them?

    1. Yes, I am very familiar with them and have learned much. Like my comment stated, I am largely on your side in this one. However, I am exhausted (and becoming less than patient) with groups who use the language & logic you present, but do so to justify inaction. I know that is not what you are advocating for. I simply want to reaffirm that there are dangers on the other side of the colonialist expressions that can be equally as damaging.

      1. Jamie, I agree that there’s a danger in justifying inaction. But I also think there’s a danger in jumping into “doing” without thinking about the way what we are doing engages the people we are trying to help or reach. I think David’s right that when we create a dynamic in which we are consistently the “authority” reaching down to assist the poor and neglected, we might feed them for a day, but we aren’t equipping them to rise above their circumstance. We’re actually in a way enforcing a glass ceiling with such a power dynamic.
        So there’s a balance that has to be struck here, I guess. I really appreciated the way David conceptualized this issue, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, but I think this is a very helpful way of approaching the question, “how do we walk alongside those we are seeking to serve?”

  6. We have all heard the warning issued to missionary types “do no harm!”. This exhortation to be careful with our good intentions certainly extends to our neighbourhoods.John Mcknight in his book “the careless society” gives us some categories which are helpful here.He says that there are two postures that we can take, one of “servant” and one as “friend”. He warns against the perils of servanthood and the way in which servants become masters. When we become “service providers” in the neighbourhood we will most likely create “clients” of the neighbours.True neighbours are rarely treated like clients with professional boundaries and all. Neighbours are most naturally friends.
    So in my mind the issue is not one of doing something or not, but one of posture. Are you a friend or fellow citizen OF THE neighbourhood or a Servant or service provider TO THE nieghbourhood?

  7. I was going to comment and then read what Jamie wrote and he said what I intended to say (in his original comment and subsequent rejoinders). There is a time to do nothing . . . and a time to do something . . . and I bet in some really desperate situations there is a time to do anything.

  8. If I am reading this right, friendship is being connected with inaction and servanthood with action. I believe that both postures can both be active or inactive. Granted, initiative in friendship is not well known, and among men in particular. While activity around projects has been commonplace. In the west we have built the Industrial Service Complex in which we entrust all “care”. But servants are not caring by nature, friends are.You can hire a personal trainer to help you stay fit or you can organize a group of friends to run with. Same fitness outcome, same amount of initiative, completely different posture.

  9. This reminds me of the distinction Gary Nelson makes, in his Borderlands book, between “mission projects” and having a “mission field.” Mission projects, whether soup kitchens, school support, drop-in centre volunteering, or otherwise, are good and they are necessary. But a “mission field” is about entering into the “rhythms, concerns, and faces of a place.” It’s about developing long-term relationships with those we are serving and with whom we are sharing life together.

  10. The question that came to me as I ready this was the following: if you do not know the needs in the neighbourhood, is you community living in the neighbourhood, or just situated in the neighbourhood. You seem to be advocating a shift to living in the neighbourhood, which is more than just doing nothing.

  11. Good points. I do find myself wondering what Jesus and the apostles did in this regard. It wasn’t project-based, but it was Kingdom-based. It wasn’t just “hanging out for years” either, but it was being amongst people .
    When Paul turned up in a new town he went straight into action, headed to a promising location and started speaking! When Jesus arrived he would preach, heal, cast out demons.

    Perhaps “doing vs being with” is the wrong scale; perhaps they are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s more about… being sent? Being sent to our neighbours, but also being sent to the ‘least of these’ (which might involve MOVEMENT at least, intentionally putting ourselves in the place where we meet them!).

    Thanks for making me think.

  12. […] of this is pretty standard operating procedure in the common program-style church. David Fitch, who is trying to help church adopt a more missional approach that goes beyond things that happen […]

  13. I struggled with your intro because I’m friends with Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Kim – the authors of “Refuse to do Nothing”. I am currently reading the book and it’s a great read. I understand the struggle we’ve had as a North American church – to almost idolize the GREAT and promote solving the world’s hardest issues while not even knowing our neighbour. I am an urban missionary in Calgary, AB and know the missional side of what you’re stating and agree fully with the idea of dwelling “with” as Jesus dwelled among. Totally sold on it and living it. However, I feel the need to state the book’s purpose of getting women out of the matrix of the mall, botox treatments and living for the next outfit and onto what we’re created to be: an answer. The book is practical to the North American woman to live Christ’s mission. I feel like the book’s message and your message are on the same team, just different titles.

  14. While I can agree with many of your points, I, too, would recommend that you actually read REFUSE TO DO NOTHING by my friends Shayne Moore and Kimberly Kim. Right now in our world there are 27 million people that are slaves—mostly women and children—who need to be rescued. The message is to raise awareness, help women who live in freedom and relative wealth to understand the problem and discover their power to mobilize and work for a solution. While there are many approaches to working for justice in an appropriate way for each problem that exists, with this issue we don’t have the luxury of waiting.

    1. Yep! Terri and Connie, I think I made it explicit, I wasn’t criticizing the book, I havn’t read it. Is it out yet? I basically said everything you said in the first paragraph right up front. So I’m riffing off the title and hopefully that will help you all clarify the need and message for the book.Peace and blessings on the book!

  15. I would like the opportunity to jump here, as the author of Refuse To Do Nothing and say that my book is not about any of the things you all are discussing. I am not insane about social justice nor is my book about objectifying people and colonizing.
    It is a book written to a specific demographic. Everyday American women. The goal is to educate and encourage them that they do indeed have power to make a change in our world.

    We do talk about power. Saying prayer is our number one tool in fighting this evil.

    I find this thread a little out of touch with the everyday person — real suffering in real people.

    And as academics, I find using a book that you have not read to simply enhance your point and then extrapolate to bizarre place is irresponsible, at best.

    ~ Shayne

  16. Shayne Moore, Like I posted on your FB, you implied I reviewed the book and I think it’s obvious I didn’t review the book. If anything, I think my opening paragraph praises the cause and assumes the best .. and then goes on to talk on a diferent topic – local engagement relationally an how it works for justice. I think you might have missed the subversiveness of the title? Peace .. and sincerely I wish blessings on your work.

  17. David, I think you shoot yourself in the foot here. Your statement, “Do nothing…” establishes a very strict assumption of the boundary for action. But your call to “withness” isn’t “nothing”. It’s something very specific. This created a sense of confusion about the post that I thought wasn’t intended, but happened. You’re not telling Shayne’s readers to embrace inaction, but it comes across that way in a cursory read.
    The deeper question which you ask then gets lost. Withness is a deeper way of acting that doesn’t begin with validating oneself through rescuing, which is what a lot of projects can easily end up being. It’s much deeper than that and allows the movement of God to work itself out in a more powerful way.

    1. Right Jonathan … but come on, can’t we read the next layer of meaning in a turn of phrase? Ironically, if you google this post, the grand majority of the 5000 readers (best estimate of one my more popular posts) got the point, and the reason they got it was because of how the post made the point … that it’s not us doing it, it is God, and therefore we need a shift in posture away from activist to participant. So sure you right this is doing something, but it must be obvious to anyone that I didn’t mean “do nothing” literally. Check how many people got it. BTW, I wasn’t the first one to use this phrase. H Richard Niebuhr used it against his brother 70 years ago arguing for not making war … and he got his point across too, so much so that people still talk about it that many years later.Blessings … and thanx for coming on the blog.

      1. I hear you and I got it. I read the subtext, although I will say that at first blush I didn’t get it, until I read the entire statement.
        The concern is not for those who got it. It’s for those who misunderstood it. There are lots of reason that may happen. Confirmation bias is a strong habit. I just wonder if the phrase isn’t as valuable as you may find.

        I am friends with Shayne on Facebook, and I think she wondered if you were attacking her.

        1. Jonathan,Yeah, I don’t what to say about that. It’s hard to predict. Unintended miscommunication is part of blog life. I wish it could have been different because I seriously think Shayne/her co-author could have read the post and maybe used it to talk about the issue in relation to their book and gotten their message out.

  18. This withness and doing nothing really resonates with me. I work as a community nurse for youth who are experiencing homelessness. I’ve noticed many times that the most significant work has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘goals’ and ‘outcomes’, and everything to do with connection, withness, acceptance, listening and celebrating the wonder of each unique human being, even amidst awful pain and suffering and helplessness and yuckiness. A bit like Jesus on the cross I suppose – withness doesn’t always lead to fulfillment, fun and happiness.
    Thanks for this thought provoking post David!

    Kind regards,

    Meg

  19. […] The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood – This article addresses some of the questions swirling through my mind, and maybe one day I’ll get them out of my head and more clearly in writing and in living. As a Church, we’re trying to hard “to do,” instead of just being and being with: […]

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