When I was a teenager I had a friend ask me rhetorically “What if we found out that there was a mistake in the Bible and one of the things that God told us not to do he was really telling us to do?” Then he laughed at the thought. His question reveals a teenage view of sin. For teenagers, sin is a bunch of sometimes arbitrary rules meant to keep the teenager from having fun. How do we know that what the Bible says is a sin really is?
In the Old Testament, some things are sins that we would not consider sins. Working on the Sabbath is an example. Touching the Ark of the covenant is something that also doesn’t seem to be essentially sinful. In the New Testament the definition of sin seemed to change from specific commandments to generalities. Paul said ‘Everything that is not of faith is sin.’ He also says ‘the wages of sin is death’. Why is sin so easy to do and why is the penalty so high?
A useful short definition of sin is an uneven trade. Like other short definitions it requires a long explanation.
Think of some secular sins. These are sins that are also illegal. Murder is an uneven trade and hardly requires explanation. Stealing is a sin and also illegal. It is the definition of an uneven trade. Tax avoidance is illegal and a sin because the tax avoider receives all the benefits from a functioning government while not contributing to that government. It’s an uneven trade. Dumping pollution into a river is illegal and a sin because the polluter receives the benefit of easily disposing of waste while everyone down stream pays the price of the pollution while receiving no benefit.
Think of some activities that are generally accepted as sins but not illegal. In adultery people receive the benefit of sexual activity with one person while pretending to be in a committed relationship to another. The innocent party in adultery would see that as a very uneven trade. Lying is not illegal but an uneven trade. The person telling the lie receives benefit of the lie while the hearer is left with a distorted view of reality. Even little lies like exaggerating the size of the fish you caught have a negative impact on the hearer. It’s an uneven trade.
Think of some of the things that used to be thought sins but no longer are. Is gambling an uneven trade? It’s very uneven. The people operating the gambling operation are exploiting the gambler. The same is true of the purveyors of recreational drugs. I include alcohol and nicotine in that category. They are exploiting the user. Self-indulgence is an unfair trade for the user of recreational drugs but it is not between the seller and buyer. It is between the user and the people they have responsibility for when those drugs keep them from fulfilling those responsibilities. Everyone has responsibilities. It comes from living in a pack.
Think of the mental sins. From my limited knowledge it is Christians who care most about the mental sins. Coveting, lust and hate are bad sins in the Christian religion. How can they be an uneven trade. No exchange has happened. The short answer is that they are not unless you actually do something that causes another person to take precautions against your coveting, lust and hate. And you will. The mental sins always leak out. It is very difficult to lust and not stare a person lustfully. That causes the person to change their behavior and they have received work but for no benefit. That’s an uneven trade.
All of the sins mentioned come with a host of grey areas. A lot of what a person may consider a fair trade is subjective. Narcissists are notorious for thinking that they have given more than they have in an exchange. It is still a good rule. It is like the rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’. It’s a good rule even when people follow it poorly. It is also the floor of behavior. Christians do not aspire to fair exchanges. They are to aspire higher than that.
The wages of sin is death. The wages of being a predator is death. Prey always have a right to kill their predators and they do when they can. To make an uneven trade in your favor is to be a predator. Everything the Bible calls a sin is predatory behavior. It is one human preying on another and in a few cases it is humans treating God like prey. If instead of the Ten commandments God had written ‘Thou shalt not treat God or humans as prey’, that would be enough for people who are deep thinkers, very knowledgeable, and take a long term view of human society. That’s not very many people.
Predatory behavior is not just about killing and eating. That’s the animal kingdom. Humans are different. We eat each other metaphorically when we use them for our own purposes. For humans anything that is not a fair exchange is predatory. That seems like a hard rule. There are lots times where it is not possible to pay someone the fair value of what they have given you. It makes accepting charity predatory.
Gratitude is how we make up the difference. If you receive more than you have given then you owe gratitude and loyalty. Every gift comes with the unspoken condition that the receiver owes the giver. Even evil people know this. If you don’t believe me allow a person in a crime organization to do a favor for you and then don’t do a return favor when the time comes. They’ll kill you. Gratitude is not high morality only practiced by saints. It is a duty of all of us. To not give it is use the giver and to be a predator.
What about the command to the Jews to have no other God except the God of the Jews? The Jews owed their God a lot. They owed what they could not repay so the owed gratitude and loyalty. To not give gratitude and loyalty to God is to use God and that is predatory and thus sin. The command to honor ones parents was to keep children from being predators to their parents. We all owe our parents gratitude for what they gave us when we were too young to give back.
Everything that is not of faith is sin. In the New Testament the rules against predatory behavior were broadened. It is not enough to not kill. Now you’re not allowed to hate. It is not enough to not commit adultery. Now wanting to commit adultery is a sin too. The way to understand the teachings of Jesus is read them through the parable of the ungrateful servant. The parable is about forgiveness but the principle applies to every command. According to Jesus all, of us owe a great debt to God and we are obliged to treat everyone as God treated us.
In Christianity it is not enough to not be a predator. It is not enough to exploit people because they are a consenting adult. Christian morality is like the physicians motto ‘First, do no harm’. Christians are like physicians because they not only do no harm but they actively work to make people well. Anything less is not having faith. The faith that a Christian needs to have is that we owe a debt to God and are obliged to pay it back by being more than not predators to others.
The morality of the Christian is that of a Parent with their grown children. The worst thing that parents ever do to their grown children is allow them to suffer the consequences of their own actions. They only do that when their children are beyond being taught. Think through the teachings of Jesus. Being a peacemaker: what parent doesn’t want peace between their children. Turning the other cheek; parents do that whenever it is a teaching moment. Visiting in prison; parents do that. The list goes on.
For humans who do not follow Jesus the height of morality is to not be a predator to other humans. For humans who follow Jesus the height of morality is to not be a predator to God. That means paying God back with gratitude and by treating others as God has treated us.