What is Sin?
An excerpt from Jesus: Fallen? The Human Nature of Christ Examined from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective, by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis.
The prevalent notion in the West on what constitutes sin does not correspond with the Orthodox understanding. Sin in the West is identified with sinful act. However, sin goes beyond a personal bad choice; it is more than a “trespass,” which is only an external manifestation of something deeper lurking within us. Sin is not merely a transgression of God’s law, a violation of His commandments. It is not to be understood as an offense of divine justice that is punishable by the just God. It is not a commission or omission of an act for which we stand condemned by an irate and vengeful God. Sin goes beyond a strictly ethical and juridical content. What, then, is sin?
The Greek word for sin, hamartia, means missing the mark. The “mark” is God. Sin, then, is anything that takes us away from our target, God, and the goal of our union with Him. More than an infraction of God’s commandment, sin is the breaking of our (comm)union with God. The human being, wounded since conception and cut off from the source of life, is inexorably led to death and annihilation. Demetrios Bathrellos expresses succinctly the “nature” of sin: “Sin must not be understood primarily in forensic terms, for instance as the transgression of divine law. It must be seen primarily in relational terms. Sin primarily consists in parting company with God.” Whatever impedes us from accomplishing this goal is sin.
Sin primarily consists in parting company with God. Whatever impedes us from accomplishing this goal is sin.
Man as a relational being finds his true personality and fulfillment in his relationship with God. Sin is a rejection of God’s love and of our filial relationship with and dependence on Him, a journeying away from God and from His loving relationship. The beginning of our alienation takes place with our movement away from our Father’s house, from His loving care. Our personality suffers and is twisted when our loving relationship with God is damaged, when the link is broken. The very fact that we are away from our Beloved constitutes in itself a state, a condition of sinfulness.
This state of sin, then, is something beyond a personal willful act that can be controlled, with some measure of success, by us. It is a state of ontological alienation from God, the source of our existence and of every good. This is how St. Gregory of Nyssa defines sin: “Sin is [our] alienation from God, who is the only true life.” Sin is a life of disunion and alienation from holy and immortal God, and source of holiness and immortality. The definition reflects and expresses the Orthodox understanding that God is the only Being whose property is existence, while everything else was brought into being by His uncreated energies. Its continuous existence depends on the sovereign will of God. Without God’s will, it tends to fall back to non-existence. In order to remain in existence it is necessary to remain in communion with God.
Sin is a selfish, introverted existence that breaks man’s communion with God and leads to death, physical and spiritual. “For this reason sin and death in the Orthodox tradition are interconnected and in many respects are identified,” states George Martzelos. The fall produced a psychosomatic change that lies beyond our control. It is the source and cause of personal acts, but even without them we would be inclined to sin and we would reap its unavoidable consequences, which are chiefly corruption and death. “Human sinfulness,” once more Bathrellos states, “consists first of all in a deep ontological, existential and structural deformation and depravity of man’s very being. It is this deep, existential and ontological captivity to sin that is subsequently expressed in sinful activity.” Our inherent state of sinfulness, that is, of alienation from God, is manifested in personal sins, of commission and omission, confusion, blindness and self-deception, which perpetuate our mortality.
Sin, then, as our Lord illustrated it in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is to leave our Father’s home and dissipate our lives away from His love and warmth. Sin is to misuse the freedom God gave us and instead of returning His love, be consumed with ourselves. Sin is to alienate ourselves from God and to isolate ourselves from our fellow human being and from God’s creation. Sin is to be swayed by our passions, instead of being in control of them. Sin is to serve the devil, instead of God. Sin is to live in sickness, and to die from it, instead of seeking therapy and wellness. Sin is not to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. Sin is not to long to be with our Beloved. Sin is not to live in the presence and in a loving relationship with our heavenly Father. Sin is not to participate in the heavenly banquet. Sin is not to strive to be like God, that is, to achieve theosis. Sin is not to be like Christ: forgiving, long-suffering, helping, loving, sacrificing ourselves for our fellow human being, out of love for Christ. Sin is primarily and fundamentally an unnatural condition of estrangement from our Creator and Re-Creator.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis