What is it with Evangelicalism’s obsession with sin? It seems that every time a Patheos article comes across my social media feeds with “Sin” in the title, it’s from the Evangelical page. Taking a look at the Desiring God website today – for the sole purpose of seeing how many articles featured sin – and I discovered two frontpage pieces about that bugger of a three-letter word. Listening to a conversation between Evangelical darling Alisa Childers and Sean McDowell in order to prepare for a video me and my boy Keith Giles recorded, and I was struck to learn that the starting place for any Christian is realizing you’re a sinner in need of repentance.
So, what the hell gives? Why is sin so featured in their theology?
I’m sure there are a litany of reasons, but we’ll cover just a few in this piece.
First off, it’s probably because their theology demands it. Their God is a God of wrath, of punishment, of quid pro quo. You must do X in order to gain Y. Or, more accurately, you must do X in order to avoid Z.
- You must “give your heart to the Lord” in order to avoid the wrath of God.
- You must “repent and turn to Jesus” in order to avoid the fires of hell.
(The Calvinists suggest that it is God and God alone who makes you do X in order to avoid Z, but you get the point: Something must be done with regards to your sin in order for God’s graces to be bestowed upon you.)
Piggybacking off this, the second reason Evangelicals focus so heavily on sin is that they are living in fear. Their universe is one that would strike fear in the heart of anyone who affirms it. Perpetual Hell. Eternal Damnation. Everlasting Torment. FEAR! FEAR! FEAR! And, as my best friend and comrade in life, Michael Machuga, says in one of our books, “fear is a trap and hell is the ultimate trap.”
The problem with this trap is that if you focus on it for too long, you end up being ensnared by it. To again quote Machuga, “to focus on the obstacles of life is to guarantee a collision with them.” So, is it that Evangelicals are so enamored with thinking about sin because of the sin in their own lives? Has it become an endless feedback loop of sorts? Is it a never ending cycle of sin, fixation, sin, fixation? I can’t answer that for each individual, but I can answer that for myself.
Because I grew up Evangelical. I lived for 25 years of my life as one of them. And that’s exactly what was going on for me. My teenage years were basically trying to avoid my personal version of the pink elephant. Only instead of a pink elephant, it was sex: “Don’t think about sex! Don’t think about sex! Don’t think about sex!” And what did I do? I thought about sex. I was so focused on what NOT to do that I ended up having a collision with the very thing I was attempting to avoid. Over. And over. And over again.
And look, none of this is to say that sin is something we should avoid conversing about altogether. If you want to have a healthy discussion about sin, have at it. (I’ll be doing just that in one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, Apostate!) But let’s not pretend that the sin-obsession we see in the Evangelical church is healthy. Or working. Because it’s not. In fact, it’s probably making things worse for large swaths of people.
Again, though, these folks are, by and large, trapped in an infinite feedback loop. Some, like myself, break free of the fear, guilt, and shame and then go on to lead happier lives after having done so. But for many, tragically this isn’t the case. They are still stuck in the quicksand like Artax from The Neverending Story (sorry for breaking the hearts of all my fellow ’80s kids with that reference).
My hope is that someday everyone breaks free from the trap. That may put me out of a job, but such is life.
Go in peace, and don’t think about sex . . . or pink elephants.
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