On the Subjectivity of Sin

Sin is a complicated subject. Not only do theologians disagree as to what sin actually is, but Christians seem to be confused as to what is actually “sinful” anymore. Homosexuality, for instance, seems to be the hot topic in our time. However, I believe most of our confusion today stems from the forgotten reality that sin is, and always has been, a subjective experience for man; so it is this aspect of sin that I wish to briefly shed light upon.

When I say sin is subjective, I mean that sin is often experienced as a “good,” even if in reality the action is objectively bad or harmful. Why? Because we were created as free, moral creatures, and we have all been given the freedom to observe a harmful action and say “I think that is good; I’d like to try it out for myself!” However, in making such decisions, our experience of sin loses touch with reality: what we “feel” to be good or bad will no longer be in accord with the truth.

For example, a prideful man who relies upon himself instead of God never thinks of himself as doing anything wrong; rather, he thinks he is being responsible. In the same way, a Pharisaical Christian doesn’t understand himself to be self-righteous—he genuinely thinks his life is pleasing to God. A slothful person thinks of his lack of zeal towards God as “not a big deal,” and a vain individual will find pleasure in his narcissism. This is because we experience our sinful state as a “good,” which keeps us blind to the harmful state of being which we have grown accustomed to.

Even if we grasp with our intellect that a particular sin is objectively wrong—say, sexual immorality or lying—we still often fail to experience the sin as so. In the moment, at least, we can still experience the sin as a good. This is quite unfortunate for 21st century Americans, because if we do not feel like we are doing anything wrong, then we probably won’t believe we are doing anything wrong. We rarely will give it a second thought.

The same is true for Christians. We seem to be under the impression that if we are truly living in sin, we will (almost necessarily) be convicted by the Holy Spirit, and will therefore “feel” if we are in the wrong. But this is simply not true. Are we so bold as to believe that if we are not under conviction, we are not in sin? If this were so, most of us would be saints!

Simply put, if our hearts did not experience sin as a “good,” then Christ’s teaching that one must “die to self” would be out of place. But it isn’t. The harsh language implies a painful event—a letting-go of something which we find to be good. The life of the Christian is that of giving up what our hearts “feel” to be pleasing in order to attain that which we know is objectively good.

Getting Past Our Subjectivity

How then should we go about discovering what is objectively good? Contrary to popular belief, it will not be accomplished solely through arguments and reason. Sin is a matter of the heart, not the intellect. It is our hearts which blind our minds, not our minds which blind our hearts. For this reason, understanding whether we are in sin will not be something we “discover” through autonomous reason and argumentation. It must be shown through a dependent state of being.

The key to moving beyond our subjective blindness, then, is not intellectual knowledge—but humility, for “God guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”[ii] In acknowledging our insufficiency and transferring our dependence from Self to God, we transcend the subjective and move towards the Absolute.

In order to do this,  it would be best to keep in mind that Truth is a Person—thus, knowledge of the Good will be attained through relationship. So in looking for healing, in striving to move past our subjectivity of sin, let us first and foremost seek to conform ourselves to a correct way of being, so that through humility, love, and dependence, we may finally come to know that which is truly good.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy is understanding.” –Proverbs 9:10

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” –Micah 6:8

[i] In referring to sin throughout the article, I am not referring to the legal aspect of sin, which denotes a “breaking of God’s law,” but to sin as an existentially harmful way of being that “misses the mark” of agape love.

[ii] Psalm 25:9

Micah McMeans

Micah McMeans

Micah graduated from Scarborough College with a B.A. in Humanities, and is currently getting his Masters in Philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. His main areas of interest are Existentialism, Phenomenology, and Christian personalism, especially as these subjects overlap with Moral Theology.

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