Our Sin May Affect God, but Only on God’s Terms [Questions That Haunt]

Our Sin May Affect God, but Only on God’s Terms [Questions That Haunt] June 3, 2013

Last week’s question came from Ben — you can submit your questions here — and it deals with three thing:1) the nature of God, 2) the nature of human interaction with God, and 3) the nature of sin:

Does my sin have an effect on God? Specifically, if I do something that doesn’t harm anybody (but maybe myself) does it matter to God? I understand there is general sin (or corporate sin) that is simply the brokenness of our world. I’m talking about specific individual sins.

Ben, the first thing to address is the nature of God. The question is, does anything we do affect God?

I have strong feelings about this. I firmly believe that God is the only non-contingent being. By that I mean that God has total freedom, total liberty, total agency.

We do not. Each of us is trapped in structures and superstructures that dictate most of what we do everyday. God is not so ensnared. My belief in God’s total freedom is not something that I can substantiate in any way. It is, instead, a purely theoretical position that I hold, an a priori commitment of mine that God, by God’s very nature, is non-contingent. If God were contingent, then the God would be another kind of being, but not God.

But here’s the thing about the Judeo-Christian story: When God created the cosmos, it was an act of self-limitation — the first act of self-limitation. By creating something other than God, God freely chose to abdicate some of God’s freedom. There was now a creation, of which God is not in total control. No longer does God have total freedom, at least in regards to this creation, because the creation evolves and moves by a certain structure (a structure, I might add, that humans have been trying the measure, quantify, and explain from the beginning of human development through the latest forays into quantum mechanics).

If you choose to be grounded in the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, as I do, then you must acknowledge that the overriding story is that God and human beings are in some kind of relationship. God relates to humanity in ways that we can understand.

And, in a correlated sense, what we do and say affects God. To reiterate, this is not because there is something in God’s nature that demands it, but because of God’s repeated acts of self-limitation, begun at Creation and seen most poignantly in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. What we do affects God because God has chosen to allow it to do so. There is nothing inherent in the God-human relationship that dictates this contingency — this is solely the result of God allowing it to be the case. (If you’re tracking closely now, you might think that this argument sounds Reformed, and indeed I think it is.)

To go from theory to practice on this issue, however, is tricky, and that’s exactly what Ben is asking us to do. If human behavior has an effect on God, how do we measure that effect? How can we prove that effect? These are the questions that we’d want to answer to get to the bottom of the repercussions of our sin.

It’s virtually impossible to answer this question. We’ve got the Bible, so we can see how the sins of Israel affected God, at least insofar as the Israelites themselves recorded their experiences of God’s wrath at their sin. Whether that’s an accurate of depiction of God’s actual “state of mind” is doubtful, I’d say. We don’t have much in the New Testament about God’s behavior in the face of human sin, except rare examples like the divine execution of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the church about the money that they made on a real estate deal.

In fact, that’s a good example to bring the plane in for a landing on Ben’s question. Ben asks about sins that don’t hurt anyone but ourselves, what some people call “victimless crimes.” Withholding money from the church and lying about it would be one such sin — no one is really “injured” per se, though the church is poorer as a result. A modernday example that’s been in the news a lot recently is the use of pornography. But even this sin, when investigated even a bit, is shown to have far-reaching consequences. Here’s Richard Beck in a post on Rachel Held Evans’s blog today:

Psychologists are only just beginning to grasp the full impact of pornography upon our brains and how those effects are creating sexual and relational dysfunction. For an introduction to the issues psychologists are beginning to examine see Gary Wilson’s widely-viewed TED Talk.

So you can see that even this “victimless crime” has implications for how a viewer of porn treats other people, which means it’s no longer victimless. Thus, I’m going to reject the premise of Ben’s question that there is such a thing as a personal sin that does not affect other people (and other parts of creation).

And back to the question of how our sin — victimless or not — affects God, I’ll say this in conclusion: What we human beings do affects God. That’s the clear message of the biblical narrative. However, how it affects God, and why some things we do affect God and others do not, is not answered by the Bible. That, it seems, is an unanswerable question.

With this post, Questions That Haunt Christianity is going on summer vacation. If Click and Clack can send the puzzler on vacation each summer, then I think it’s a good idea for QTH as well. I will continue to solicit questions, which can be submitted here, and I will return in the late summer to QTH with renewed vigor.

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  • It seems that the third issue, the nature of sin, has not been fully addressed. The answer, “I’m going to reject the premise of Ben’s question that there is such a thing as a personal sin that does not affect other people (and other parts of creation)” does not define what sin is.
    Perhaps there is a consensus here of which I am unaware, but when some people speak of sin, they are talking about watching movies or even TV. Dancing, drinking, and smoking are all sins that concern some. Perhaps Ben is not speaking on a legalistic level, but the question remains as to what constitutes sin.
    A definition of sin seems here to be assumed, but I cannot determine what it is, so to say that there is no personal sin that does not affect others tells me nothing. I have no idea about what Ben had in mind, but this answer seems much too vague. Without clarification, the answer is inadequate.

    • Sarah

      Ha. I don’t know why he left the definition a bit vague, but I’m always a little hesitant to draft too narrow a definition of sin myself partially because the Bible’s references to sin seem to be so nuanced and embedded in context that they defy a Webster’s one-liner.

      But also because when it comes to sin, both Jesus and Paul seemed to emphasize examining our own hearts, rather than uncovering and identifying sin in others or particularly those outside the church. When I (or other people of faith) announcing a list of behaviors as some sort of sin rubric, I think this can cheapen the experience of forgiveness and stifle openness to transformation. And there are a host of other bad side effects: it can make people indignant and defensive to human judgment and it can tempt me to foolishly condemn people who Jesus might (as he often did) unexpectedly refuse to shame.

      Conventionally, it seems like many want to extract a definition of “sin as rule-breaking” from the Genesis 3 narrative. But when I’m looking at myself, it makes sense to me to read those guidelines for Israel or the vision Jesus cast in the Sermon on the Mount and draw out the principle that sinful behavior subtracts from our wholeness and the community’s well-being (or maybe as Jesus would say life to the full), while remembering to filter assertions of sin with mercy not sacrifice.

      • Sarah, I agree that sin as rule-breaking is a faulty way to understand sin. I think sin is an offence against another person or our self. It is something that disregards the good of others and us for whatever reason.

        The principle of behavior is set out in Jesus’ reflection that the law is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor as our self, which implies that we should love ourselves.

        However, each person must determine what choices they should make in light of this standard. But if a behavior does not have a negative consequence, then how can it be called sin? In our personal life, we must also constantly consider the consequences of our behavior on us, personally.
        Apparently, the specific issue in question is pre-marital sex between those who plan to be married, or perhaps living together without having sex. Is this sin? No person can determine that for another person. The standard is whether a person is behaving in their own best interest and the interest of others.
        So for the question, “if I do something that doesn’t harm anybody (but maybe myself) does it matter to God?”, “I’m going to reject the premise of Ben’s question that there is such a thing as a personal sin that does not affect other people (and other parts of creation)” does not seem to me to engage the issue.

    • elladitsa

      Individual sins would be bodily sins that of what people may do behind closed doors, or their own habits that can affect them but no one else. If you have family than its not a sin that affects only oneself, but affects the family. If your totally alone than that is different. There are people in this world that have no family left and no friends so whatever they do that may be considered a sin is a personal sin. Its not murder, suicide, stealing, because your not hurting anyone but maybe only yourself.

  • Craig

    Here’s my stab at restating Ben’s question.

    Are there considerations besides the ill effects on other creatures that can make behavior wrong/sinful? If so, what are these considerations? For any behavior that is wrong/sinful on account of such considerations, why, in the eyes of God, is our avoidance of such behavior so important?

    • Gary in FL

      Craig, I would answer that in addition to sins which clearly injure others, we might also include behaviors and/or attitudes which undermine our own humanity. If we believe humanity was created with a noble or glorious purpose in mind, then we could define sin as anything tending to frustrate that divine purpose for us.

      • Craig

        Gary, this sounds plausible but it might get messy. On some views, God’s noble and glorious purpose for Jesus was for him to be betrayed and crucified. Would Judas’s loyalty have undermined/frustrated the divine purpose? Moreover, it is plausibly more glorious and noble for a person to read the classics or to volunteer at the homeless shelter rather than play video games. Does this make the latter activity wrong/sinful? If not then why is it only sometimes wrong/sinful to deviate from the glorious and noble?

  • The_B_C

    The specific sin I had in mind is fornication, specifically, pre-marital sex between to consensual committed adults who plan to be married (or maybe they’re just living together and not having sex). This is one of the issues that Tony has previously said the church can just get over because it is pretty much socially acceptable. I was trying to speak of “sin” generally as a way to dodge all of the other sexuality debates connected to this.

    So, I tend to agree with Tony, there is no such thing as a “victimless crime.” So who is the victim when it comes to pre-marital sex. Is God a victim because it’s a rebellion against God’s law? That sounds pretty legalistic, but in another sense, if I am a devoted practicing Christian who seeks to please God by loving others, and putting others above myself, then shouldn’t I be learning self-control. So is the couple a victim by missing an opportunity to learn self-control? If God is modeling self-limitation for us, should we be following God’s example too?

    I didn’t think that the specific sin was relevant to the conversation. I like Tony’s response, even if it sounds reformed, I tend to agree.

    As far as the part about: “However, how it affects God, and why some things we do affect God and others do not, is not answered by the Bible. That, it seems, is an unanswerable question.” I think that Bible does explain it in terms of relationship and love, which is relativized/contextualized to each relationship. But even then, the effect is not directly upon God, but on the relationship between us. So possibly, really the effect is on the human, a change in perceived closeness/separation. Now, I’ve come to circle back around to agree with Tony that it is an unanswerable question.