Experimenting with Sin

Jenell Paris

Jenell Paris

By Jenell Paris –

As a professor and author, I often speak with Christian audiences about how holiness can influence our sexual lives. Recently a group of young adults invited me to talk about what it might mean to “be holy, for I [God] am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

Feedback from table discussions wasn’t hopeful. “This just seems impossible, but I guess we’re supposed to try.” “If holy means perfect, I’m out of the running.” “The Bible seems full of impossible standards.”

Such ideas are pervasive in many churches and Christian traditions. Recently I taught kindergarten Sunday school, a Bible lesson about Jesus and the desert temptations. The moral of the story, in the published curriculum, was that “Jesus resisted temptation and never sinned. If you ask him for strength, you can resist temptation too.” The 5-year-olds weren’t buying it either; they knew they loved Jesus, and that they also kept on sinning.

If holiness means moral perfection, God seems to
be asking us to become something other than
human; angels, maybe. No wonder this message feels inhumane; it is, literally. Can we who live with feet on the ground, no white wings sprouting, be holy?

I talked this over with my lifelong friend Marie. We both accepted Jesus into our hearts before age five and have been active and devout church members ever since (combined, a whopping 83 years of Christian devotion). She said sinning less is a mark of growing in Christ, and it isn’t unreasonable for God to command us not to sin, because it is in God’s character to hate sin.

I countered, “But should a Christian ever claim to be sinning less than someone else, even just your own former self? Isn’t that a sin of pride?”

She agreed, “It’s important to avoid pride, and maybe not talk too much about how little you sin. But still, you shouldn’t be sinning very much. Shouldn’t that be a visible marker of your growth over time?”

I decided to chart my sins for one day to test this
notion. I don’t have a pre-Christian point of comparison, but I figured I’d have a sense of “a lot “ or “a little.” It’s also possible I’m just not a very mature Christian, but if I consider other things I’ve been doing for 40 years – say reading, or bicycle riding – it’s clear that regular practice over a long period of time has yielded positive results.

First, a definition. One of the few catechisms I remember from confirmation is, “What is sin?” “Sin is all in thought, word, and deed that is contrary to the will of God.”

Fridge-To-Do-ListSecond, a measure. The Ten Commandments is a go-to list, but not useful here. In the next 24 hours, I’d not likely murder, steal, commit adultery, or covet my neighbor’s ox. (I do covet my neighbor’s wife, however, because at 85 years old she has a lot of free time for porch sitting.) More to the point, Old Testament law is not the measure of holiness for followers of Jesus; he came to fulfill the law, to write its true meaning on our hearts. When we live from that center — the law of love, the circumcision of the heart — our lives manifest the fruits of the Spirit. I decided to use the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). I listed them on a clipboard, and would make a check mark every time my life failed to manifest one of the fruits. The experiment would begin at midnight and run for 24 hours.

12:59 a.m. A sniffling boy stumbles into my bedroom. “Mommy, where are the tissues?”

“Seriously? You can’t find them yourself?” Check one, against patience.

The boy’s bugle-like nose blowing woke me every half hour between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., and I responded joylessly. Five more checks.

6 a.m. I sit on my front porch for quiet time, which my family knows is my sacred time of absolute silence during which I watch flowers, read poetry, and pray. Mr. Sniffles follows me out and says he’ll be very quiet, but first he just needs to read me his favorite part of “The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” and tell me about the time he got stung by yellow jackets. The other two little boys appear, then the husband. By 6:45 I’ve counted nine more sins against peace, patience, and joy. No, make that 10; one kid is making the garage door go up and down. One check against gentleness for my reprimand, though it was repeated thrice, one for each push of the button.

What kind of Christian sins ten times during devotions?

Though most days I interact with students, colleagues, and people at the grocery store or YMCA, today is different; my family of five people and 17 WebKinz (small stuffed animals) will be in the minivan all day, driving 300 miles to visit with my in-laws.

My besetting sin was impatience: 17 failures. Margin notes explain tersely, “Kids annoy me.” One strike against self-control when I snapped at my youngest after he had badgered me for what felt like an hour about turn-taking. I slapped one of the older boys, glared at my husband, and whispered a swear word at his back (at a pit stop, he chose a parking space that offended me to the core). At one point I scrawled on the clipboard, “Road trips do not make me joyful,” one of five strikes against joy.

I also couldn’t stop an inner dialogue of evaluative self-talk. Asking if anyone needed a potty break was so loving; you’re doing great! What an un-gentle way to serve a peanut butter sandwich; you’re awful.

In the end, about 60 sins. If they were equally distributed across a 24 hour period during which eight hours were spent sleeping, that would mean that during waking hours, I am sin-free for less than 20 minutes at a time.

If my day was a stage performance, spotlight on sin, I was an impatient, snapping, slapping, swearing wife and mother. But that wasn’t how my husband, or my children, looked at the day. Whether he observes my sins or I confess them, my husband generally absolves them quickly and easily. When I grieve him — don’t extend him the benefit of the doubt, or am too harsh with my words — he says so, and we talk about it. I do the same for him; this informal rhythm of repentance, confession, and absolution is one of the gentle waves that floats our marital boat.

Just after encouraging believers to manifest the fruits of the Spirit, Paul describes what to do when we don’t. “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2, NRSV).

The law is fulfilled not in each person achieving moral perfection, but in people bearing the burden of each other’s sins with gentleness. This isn’t OK, but the fact that you did it; that’s OK, you’re human. Let’s deal with it and move on.

Such a different message than the one we often teach in church. Jesus never sinned; you shouldn’t either.

The young adult discussion of holiness spiraled out to other questions. “What are the Bible’s requirements for our sexual lives?” “How can we know what is right and wrong?” “How can we choose the good over the bad?” In my experience, the topics that come up most often are lust, pornography, masturbation, same-sex attraction, and premarital boundaries; there certainly are many others that don’t get mentioned aloud.

I haven’t yet answered as boldly as I’ll try here.

If what you want is to be good, abandon hope! If what you want in your sexuality is moral purity and goodness, abandon hope! There is none that is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). Don’t think you’re going to be the first.

Instead, seek the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus.
Seek this first, the kingdom of God, and you will find
it. Take Jesus’ yoke upon you, and you will find it easy, the burden light, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29). I lean on Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s interpretation of John Wesley’s thought in A Theology of Love: holiness is “living life locked into the true center, Jesus Christ.” Sin is a burden, but it shouldn’t stop you from finding rest for your soul.

But when the topic is sexuality, especially, grace sounds like license. If we believed that we are God’s beloved, worthy of loving and being loved, then wouldn’t we just sin like crazy? And without rules, how would we know right from wrong?

A friend has struggled with her weight, her body image, and seemingly every bite of food she’s had for well over three decades.

She said, “I’m not doing very well with it, but I have to keep fighting. How much worse off would I be if I didn’t fight?”

In sexuality, and certainly with food too, many of us are locked into a fighting stance — tense, on guard, struggling toward mastery or victory — not the light burden or easy yoke that Jesus promised.

I wondered aloud to my friend, “But it’s been 30 years! Where is the fight getting you, really?”

All the diet rules, recipe books, and standards of
health are readily available, as are Christian rules
about sexuality. More rules, stated with higher volume and specificity, more likely produce the opposite of what is desired, pushing people toward shame and bad behavior squeezing out every crack.

Holiness is not a sin-free life; it’s a life in which love pushes sin off center-stage. A life in which we know about and carry one another’s sin with clarity, gentleness, and patience. It’s not soft on sin; our grievances against God and against others are very real, and they must be addressed. Using the Bible as a rule book of sins, or Christianity as a self-help sin-management system, is a short-cut through this process that requires careful searching of conscience, discussion in community, and consideration of Christian responses throughout history.

What did I learn from my sin experiment? I learned that the experiment itself was a sin. Micromanaging my thoughts and behaviors in an effort to be good is contrary to the will of God, regardless of the charted results. It distracted me from what I was created to do: live well in God’s good world. The best part of that day, in fact, was not when I did something good (I’m loving! I’m patient!), but when I forgot about the experiment, fully absorbed in driving, eating, or playing Auto Bingo.

You can’t force fruit to grow on a tree, nor can you get spiritual fruit by pushing, prodding, or monitoring your spiritual life. Just leave it alone, trust that there’s going to be enough light, and then enjoy the fruit as it ripens. Yielding to the love that is and always was there in abundance; that’s holiness.

Jenell Paris, professor of anthropology, Messiah College. Paris is a United Methodist and an active member at First United Methodist Church of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.


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