That’s a tricky little word that for most of my life invoked feelings of fear, shame, and inadequacy in me. Whenever I heard a pastor utter the word “sin” during a service, my mind would flood with images of my shortcomings. I don’t think I am alone in this. The next time you and your friends are having a fun Friday night, eating chips and salsa at Chili’s, try saying, “Hey guys, let’s go around the table and share what sin we struggle with the most!” See how fast that brings the party down.
I often viewed Christianity as simply one giant do-not-do list. Stay away from doing X, Y, and Z and you’ll be in favor with God. I suspect much of the outside world views Christianity in this same light as well.
Reading through James, however, has given me a bit of a paradigm shift when it comes to sin. In chapter 4, James gives one of the most practical definitions of sin I have ever heard:
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4:17)
This is a definition of sin anyone can understand, even if they don’t believe in God. How does this new definition of sin change the way I live? It challenges me to take my focus off my do-not-do list and put it on the needs of other people. It invites me to be an active participant in sharing the grace of God that I have so freely received. And, when I really think about it, this is a principle Jesus lived by. What attracts me most to Jesus is not that he lived a sinless life (as true and important as that fact is). What attracts me most is the way he loves and tenderly cares for people.
My do-not-do list tells me to avoid petty arguments with my wife. James, however, invites me to love her unselfishly as Jesus would.
My do-not-do list tells me to avoid gossip and slander. James, however, invites me to go out of my way to encourage those around me who are feeling down.
My do-not-do list tells me to avoid laziness at work so I can get my job done. James, however, invites me to be concerned with the wellbeing of my coworkers and pitch in to help them wherever I can.
At first glance, the book of James appears to be telling me to do more. Be more. But the closer I study it, the more I realize that James is actually freeing me of my propensity to be so inwardly focused. The amazing thing I’m learning is the more I focus on loving others, the closer I draw to Jesus. And the closer I draw to Jesus the easier obedience comes in other areas of my life… All without having to worry about that pesky do-not-do list!