The Most Harmful Misconception About Christianity

A bit more on what I wrote in “Born Into Sin” Just Means Born, Period. I’m sure this thought of mine isn’t original (what thought is?), but I’ve not heard it before. The moment it came to me a few years back, I knew that I’d hit upon one of the biggest and most harmful misunderstandings in and about Christianity.

When people use the word “sin,” what they almost always have in mind is bad behavior or thoughts. If you think of the classic Seven Deadly Sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony), you think of committing one or all of them: of being wrathful, being lazy, watching me eat on Thanksgiving.

We very much tend to think that sinning is something bad that we do, think, or say. And so we Christians try super-hard not to sin—to exercise control over our baser nature—because we believe that the better Christian we are, the less we’re inclined to act contrary to God.

And to a very important extent, of course that’s true: the more aligned we are with God and God’s spirit, the more selfless we become. That’s the great gift and joy of the spiritual life.

But St. Francis himself never stopped being human. Try though we might, none of us can ever become so wonderfully pure that we stop being human. That’s just not an option for us.

And what does it mean to be human? What are we born to do?

To survive. To exist. To win, fight, struggle, procreate. To eat. All of that.

All moral evaluations aside, we will be selfish, greedy, envious, prideful, lazy egotists. We must be. We were designed to be. None of our five senses are about registering internal phenomenon: they’re all about processing and experiencing what’s out there.

Again: we’re made, first and foremost, to survive.

That means we’re born to take care of ourselves, to meet our needs, to make ourselves #1.

And all of those things run in exact opposition to the selflessness that’s most in accord with the loving grace of God.

We Christians are not—or certainly should not be—trying to ignore that we’re human; we’re not supposed to be repressing that about us which is negative and selfish. Rather, we’re meant to look to the cross to discover the means by which God has proven to us not that it’s possible for us not to be human, but that ultimately it’s perfectly okay that we are.

Anyway, “born into sin” just means born, period.

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  • Hey John, wondering if you have read Made for Goodness by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, and if so, how you see the basic premise of that book interacting with what you have written here? (BTW…if you haven’t read it…well worth the time!) Blessings-Joe

  • Anonymous

    I’m afraid I have not read MfG, Joe. But unless it agrees with every single thing I’ve ever written, I’m sure it’s terrible.

  • Anonymous

    (Joke. This was a joke. But you knew that, Joe Snavely.)

  • Did I read that correctly? Are you saying that there is no sin, only humanity?

  • RayC.

    I’m unclear about what you mean by “designed” to be sinful, i.e. human.

    Weren’t Adam and Eve originally “designed” without sin? and via their free will became sinful? If you’re saying they were designed to be sinful, then doesn’t that imply that whether or not A&E sinned it bears effect on their quality of being sinful?

    If, in fact, we were designed to be sinful then why did God design us to be the “exact opposition to the selflessness that’s most in accord with the loving grace of God[?]”

    Not looking for a debate, just a clarification…

  • skip johnston

    This line of thinking was first presented to me in a jr. high Sunday school class. The nice church lady made a distinction between capitol “S” sin and lower case “s” sin. (Except she spoke with a slight Southern accent and actually said “big eh-yes sin” and “small eh-yes sin” and could not, for the life of her, figure out what we 13 year-olds were snickering about.) But the lesson stuck. “Sin” is what we are; “sin” is what we do.

  • Katgelinas

    I love, love this article. I think sometimes as Christian’s we forget that we are human. I know I

    have gone to countless churches and they will point out the “sin” in you life and not what is going on in their own life. The funny thing is I was just discussing this with a friend of mine lastnight. He said: “I would go to church and all but all they preach is about how this is sin and that is a sin. And Hell Fire and Brimstone. Everything is a sin and everything is going to lead you straight to Hell. And everyone sins we are human that’s what we do. I am probably sinning right now talking to you about this. Don’t they remember the story about the adulterous women and Jesus. It’s not about laws it’s about grace. ”

    That’s the problem I see with the bad use of the word sin. People forget too that those “sins’ drive us sometimes or don’t (if you’re into sloth). I have Cancer and Lupus and every time that I go to the doctor or get treatment. I fight to survive, I dare say it “greedy” to live longer. I am certainly not going to fight that sin. It keeps me alive. And the funny thing is no one would tell me it was a sin for me to fight Cancer or Lupus. But if you live under the rule book it would be because I am being greedy. And trust me people will say stupid stuff like I sin so much that it is the reason I have Cancer and Lupus. Which I just nod my head and smile and then usually think some bad cuss word in my head (SIN ALERT).

    I am on rant so please forgive me sometimes you just have to get stuff of your chest. I have

    friends that don’t go to church and I never call them non-believers. Because I really don’t know if they are non-believers or not. As Queen Elizabeth I said “ I do not have windows into men’s souls” Most of the time if I ask them which is very rare they usually ask me.( Because if you know me and then put church in the same sentence, you tend to tilt your head.) Why don’t you go to church? I get the same answer that my friend above gave. Or they say the following (this is a paraphrase): “People assume that if you don’t go to church that you don’t believe in God or Jesus. It’s like you don’t drink their Kool-Aid your going to Hell. Why would I want to be apart of that club? And everything you do is a sin? (And by sin they mean wrong).” I had one friend who was being funny but it’s true tell me “It’s like they are all up in my spiritual Kool-Aid and they don’t know the flavor” This is what I tell them “Well you see that’s the difference I realized a long time ago my relationship is between me and God. And no one else. I tell them just because I am Christian doesn’t mean that who I am changes. The difference is that God knows who I am and loves me any ways. So I try to do the same”

    I am going to go get some Kool-Aid now since I am craving it for some reason.Thank you for letting me rant. And thanks again for the article. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays

  • RayC.

    If all we do is sin, then what is the opposite quality that delineates this sin? Sort of like the black/white, light/darkness dialectic. I mean, what makes sin such an integral issue in the Bible if it is the only possible quality defining a human being?

  • Jrp32741

    James defines sin as the transgression of Torah (law). We weren’t designed to sin. We were designed to honor our heavenly Father. He gave us a free will so we could choose to honor Him or not honor Him. Unfortunately most of the time we choose not to honor Him.

  • Katgelinas

    While I do see your point, What is the opposite quality of sin? Is it good works? What is it?I guess the only answer I can come up with is grace. It’s the light to the darkness. But I am not someone who is studied this topic in detail. I was also not saying that all we do is sin. What I am saying is that churches and “some” other Christians say almost everything we do is a sin, unless you are doing what they say is not a sin. And they say if you repress yourself and try really really hard not to be a sinner it will work. And that most non-church goers that I know find this very hypocritical, silly and not very logical. They tend to not want to go to church. There for it’s very damaging to Christainty. Because now you have a whole bunch of people that have lumped all Christians together. I don’t think we were designed to be “sinful” Because Adam and Eve were created in God’s image. And if we follow that logic than that is to say God is sinful. And then that opens a whole other can of worms. Thank you for your comment. I like when I have to really think about my rants.

  • Alex

    I tend to think about sin as my inability to what I want to do, which is what is right and godly (Paul says something about this somewhere in Romans). I want to be nice and to love my neighbors, but it’s really freaking hard (you haven’t met my neighbors). I want to be selfless, but I am incredibly selfish. I’m incapable of doing those things on my own, and that’s where I need God to step in.

  • Let me be the voice of… difference. I disagree completely that humans are born sinful. I believe we are born clean slates. I also believe there IS no such thing as “evil”, in as much as evil “exists”. I believe evil is the absence of goodness, just as darkness is the absence of light.If a child isn’t taught spiritual virtues (love, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, patience, fortitude… the list is endless), then that child will have a void of darkness of character. Lack of Virtues Training leads to making bad choices – think of a car with a powerful engine, but no one controlling the steering wheel! At the same time, I don’t believe there is a PLACE called Hell. I believe Hell is simply the results of having a severe lack of spiritual/virtues training and development. I cannot and will not believe that a loving and merciful God would create spiritual beings in His own image, then consign them to eternity burning in fire. That doesn’t make any kind of sense to me at all.Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for doing it.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me it would be sinful to teach about the flames of hell to children until they are old enough to understand about figurative or poetic speech. How many of the people who believe the rich man was literally in the flames of hell also believe poor Lazarus was literally in the bosom of Abraham?

  • Freda

    Wouldn’t you say that sin boils down to excesses and the true summary of many of the sins is that God wants moderation and balance in most things?

  • Kara

    I don’t like the word “sin,” ’cause I think it’s a church-y word that has no real definition. But I’ve given my thoughts on what it means to live how God wants a bunch of times, and those thoughts have stayed pretty much the same.Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.I don’t feel like this list precludes my screwing up or being human. It’s more about how I react to that, and where my heart is. So even though I mess up regularly, I just focus on forever doing my best to love the hell out of people and God. (Hey, I think Jesus might have talked about that somewhere…)Bravo, John. I think people get so bogged down in the minutia of the “sin” question that they lose sight of God and God’s real hopes and dreams for us.

  • “Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.”

    Oh, this, Kara. Lovely in its simplicity and its truth.

    I have this thought that the original oral traditions which formed the beginnings of the bible included a lot of talk of “sin” because at that time people thought that every natural disaster or bounty came directly from God (or gods, depending on the culture). They believed that if they were able to appease/please their gods, then good things would happen, and if they did not please God, bad things would happen. Immediate bad things like fires and droughts and plague and death. I think the biblical obsession with sin is a way of delineating those behaviors which were displeasing so as to engage in cost-avoidance.

    The way I see it, bad things *do* happen when I’m not remembering to do just those things which Kara mentions above – but they’re spiritual/emotional in nature. They cause me to be separate from my God and from my fellow human beings, and those things both engender unhappiness, loneliness, pride, anger, feeling separated from God’s love (even though that’s really MY feeling, not reality – He still loves me, I just don’t feel like he possibly could). Those are the wages of so-called “sinfulness.” Of course, even when I am following the right path, bad things might happen, but emotionally I will be in a better, stronger place, able to cope with circumstances because I am secure in knowing that I am loved and cared for, by God and by those I love. Being close in my relationship with God gives me the emotional and physical strength I need to deal with the challenges I face.

    I’m sure that made about as much sense as a camel sitting on the living room sofa…I feel really challenged by the ability to write coherently today.

  • Anonymous

    “We Christians are not—or certainly should not be—trying to ignore that we’re human; we’re not supposed to be repressing that about us which is negative and selfish. Rather, we’re meant to look to the cross to discover the means by which God has proven to us not that it’s possible for us not to be human, but that ultimately it’s perfectly okay that we are.”

    I believe that in some vein, Mary Goodson’s comment resonates. While I DO believe in the existence of evil, I believe it exists because people do not have the strength to resist it’s influence. Ultimately, evil influence (darkness) is only successfully overcome by Jesus Christ (pure light). However, even as Christians, any abatement of selfishness is commensurate to the amount of time we abide in Christ. In theory, we CAN be conformed to the likeness of Christ. Maybe I misunderstood the meaning of the paragraph I cited, but I believe the duality of our humanity is not inseparable. I believe as we commit to abiding in our relationship to Christ, the selfish nature retreats, and the selfless nature advances. In that respect, I disagree that our “humanity” in all of its duality is perfectly OK. I believe God’s Spirit is dedicated to making us increasingly uncomfortable with maintaining an equal duality. Doing so is tantamount to a stalemate, or Spiritual stagnation.

  • Chewa_11

    Not exactly. Hoarding wealth and resources while not giving any of it away to others less fortunate is sinful, and so in that sense God wants moderation and balance. But you can’t have ‘moderation and balance’ in murder and robbery. You do it or you don’t.

  • Chewa_11

    John, I love your blog and appreciate your general thoughtfulness on most things. I would have to disagree with you on this post, though.

    Are you equating sin with survival? At it’s most basic level, survival = whether our basic needs are met. So would you be sinning if you were starving in a POW camp and you stole the commander’s lunch? Probably not. But for the vast majority of these readers (presumably with money to pay for internet access), getting basic needs is not the arena where we sin; those needs are a given. It’s everything else (getting the job/promotion/guy/girl/social status, etc) that is open to the possibility of sinning.

    It seems as though you’re saying that sin is something that God designed into us (because of our experience that people are capable of good and things that are not good – which we call evil). And because of this, human beings shouldn’t have to worry about sin because God already knows it’s there and is ok with it. After all, if He wasn’t ok with it, then why would He put it there in the first place?

    If you look at what Jesus says in His famous Lord’s Prayer, He teaches us to ask God to keep us from sin. If God was ok with sin, why would He want us to ask for help to keep away from it? My thinking is because He knows we need all the help we can get. You’ve talked about our baser natures – and I think that’s what our “sinful natures” are (CHRISTIAN-ESE ALERT).

    God didn’t design us to be sinful. He designed us to be good, just like He is good. But He gave us free will so we can choose to be (or act) good or not good -which we call evil.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, no: You’ve really missed the point of this post. My fault, I’m sure; clearly, I wasn’t clear enough.

  • Chewa_11

    So if sin isn’t something that you do/say/think (or, in some instances, DON’T do/say), and it’s not selfishness, then what are you saying sin is?