Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Made a Mistake
Most everyone who’s been to church has heard of eros, philia, storge, and agape. Some of you have communion element preference (the wine vs. juice debate) due to looking at words like gleukos and shechar. The LGBT Christian crowd is all too familiar with various interpretations of arsenokoitai and malakoi and poring over texts to see if God shipped David and Jonathan. But why have none of us looked at the origin of the word “sin”, especially when it seems that one act of disobedience almost sent every person ever to hell in a handbasket? (The concept of hell is for another post.)
A quick look at Etymonline may reinforce the idea of sin as a moral wrong, but Rabbi Shumel Silinski examined the Hebrew word chait, a word that translates as sin, and came to a different conclusion. This word is closer to “inadequacy” or “shortcoming” rather than “moral violation”. For example, if I tried to do a math problem that I had not done before and came up with the incorrect answer, I would be wrong, but very few people self-flagellate (literally or figuratively) over an incorrect test answer.
Two other Hebrew words refer to sin: avon and pesha. Avon refers to deliberate moral wrongs done to satisfy one’s ego while pesha refers to deliberate moral wrongs done specifically to spite God. However, Adam and Eve’s sin was not avon or pesha, but chait, a mistake that would go on to haunt humanity for the rest of its existence. Fortunately, Jesus died and rose again to correct this mistake that they made, but the idea of sin as a choice or a moral wrong still persists. This idea encourages people to ruminate in guilt and cling to teachings that have been handed down over generations rather than to correct the mistakes knowing that Jesus’s death and resurrection have given us the chance to do so.
Understanding these differences adds nuance to the understanding of the concept of sin. Sometimes sin has to do with moral wrong, but it also has to do with mistakes, inadequacy, and the idea of falling short of a mark that no human can possibly hit. Not only are people not morally perfect, but we also do not have God’s foresight, power or ability to make sound judgments in the presence of strong emotions. This way, we do not need to make burnt offerings of animals, sprinkle blood on an altar, crucify God (again), or try to fit a man-made Christian ideal.
Ignoring the idea of sin as a mistake also allows abuse to persist in the church. When people say the church is full of sinners, they don’t just mean people who intentionally commit moral wrongs. They also mean well-meaning people who do harm by not being informed on a specific issue. For example, certain Christians claim that psychiatry is from Satan or blame all epilepsy on demonic possession. While not everyone may completely understand the science behind mental illness or epilepsy, blaming all illness on supernatural forces is a sin (mistake) that has harmful effects on people who need treatment for those illnesses.
It is not just that we don’t always want to do the right thing. Sometimes, we simply don’t even know what the right thing is and, in our shortsightedness, end up doing more harm when we try to do the right thing. The phrase “The church is full of sinners” is supposed to refer to moral weaknesses among believers. However, due to the meaning of chait, it also means “The church is full of people who fall short, not only morally, but intellectually and physically.” In other words, forgiveness for our sins isn’t just forgiveness for our moral wrongs. It’s forgiveness for not knowing the right answer and thus accidentally spreading certain types of misinformation that fuels hatred and harm.
The idea of the original sin as a mistake points out that the corruption of human nature wasn’t inclination towards evil, but the first example of mistakes harming others. Abuses in the church persist due to making mistakes such as taking one translation of the Bible at face value, not researching original words and Biblical history, and misquoting specific verses. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these people, but the sin of a mistake has caused much harm over the years. Acknowledging these mistakes and correcting the damage they have caused will not only make the church a better institution but help us to better understand the depth of God’s love for His imperfect and shortsighted people.