A psychiatrist friend once described to me the typical problems that drove people to seek her help. Then she stopped and said, with a note of skepticism: “Ah, but you’re a Christian, so you think the problem is that we’re all sinners.” I asked how she thought the Bible defined sin, and with a wry smile she answered, “Oh, probably something along the lines of drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll?”
“But that’s behavior,” I replied. “From the Bible’s perspective, sin isn’t just misdeeds. Bad behavior is the result of sin, not the cause.”
“Ok,” she said, “I’ll bite. What’s the root cause of sin?”
She asked exactly the right question. Indeed, this is our challenge: how do we discuss sin in a culture that no longer believes in it?
Why the Bad News of Sin Is Good News for People
The Bible describes sin as both rebellious unbelief and also idolatry. In today’s culture I’ve found that the concept of idolatry (using God-substitutes to give our life meaning instead of God) is often easier for people to initially grasp. At the right time we will need to explain both aspects of sin, but for now let’s look at how the issue of idolatry can be deeply relevant to unbelievers.
In today’s culture I’ve found that the concept of idolatry is often easier for people to initially grasp.
While living in the U.K., I often went to a London hair salon, and my hairdresser’s name was Theo. As trust grew between us, Theo told me he was gay. He shared his life with me, and I shared my life and faith with him. While he respected my faith, he wasn’t sure if God existed.
One day I arrived at the salon, and when I greeted Theo I realized he was very low. As I sat in the chair, I put my hand on his arm: “Theo, are you going to tell me what’s wrong?” He looked at me and said, “Becky, you are the only customer all day who’s even noticed that I’m depressed.”
He continued, “I’ve had a partner for several years. To be honest, I cherished and worshiped him. But last week he moved out, and I am absolutely devastated. Since you’re a Christian, are you going to tell me our relationship was doomed because I’m a homosexual?”
I took a deep breath:
Oh Theo, I am so grieved to see you in this much pain. Actually, I think the issue you are struggling with is deeper than sexual identity. In fact, I have a straight friend, Anna, who just told me the exact same thing: she met the love of her life and was certain their love would heal them both. But he recently left her for another woman and she is now clinically depressed. Yet what I find interesting is that you both told me that you worshiped your partners, which is very insightful.
“Why is that insightful?” he asked.
I told him:
Because we have been created to love and worship God. We have worshiping natures. Where we run into trouble is when we try to worship something other than God; when we put something else in God’s place. It can be good things or bad things, but God-substitutes will always fail us, because they aren’t big enough to ultimately build our lives upon.
Theo said, “That is exactly what my partner told me! He said I was trying to make him my everything. He even said, ‘I’m not god! I can’t possibly meet your every need and, frankly, it’s exhausting.’”
That is why god-substitutes are seen as sin in the Bible, because we are demanding they give us what only God can give: identity, purpose, being totally understood and perfectly loved. The Bible even has a word for God-substitutes—idolatry.
Theo looked at me in astonishment and said, “So you’re telling me that, according to the Bible, my suffering is actually due to the fact that I’ve been worshiping the wrong thing?”
“Exactly! And Theo, you are not alone! All of us, myself included, have used God-substitutes. All of us have turned from God and tried to run our own lives as if we are in charge. It’s the primary reason for all the brokenness around us and in us.” I continued:
We’ve been created for a relationship with God; to live with him at the center of our lives. That is why the Christian message is called “good news,” because God loves us and has been seeking us for far longer than we realize. But we also need to own the bad news—that we have chosen something else in his place.
“What scares me is that what you’re saying makes so much sense,” Theo answered. “That to find the love I’ve been searching for all my life, I have to get my relationship to God sorted first. But . . . I couldn’t come to God, Becky, not after all the things I’ve done.”
“Theo,” I replied:
The only reason any of us can come to God is because he loves us. Jesus came from heaven and died on the cross for our sin because everyone needs God’s forgiveness. There isn’t anything we can do to deserve such a gift except to thank Jesus for all he has done for us—tell him we are sorry for our sin—and invite him to come into our lives as Lord.
‘The only reason any of us can come to God is because God loves us.’
To my surprise, Theo replied:
Becky, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for speaking plainly without making me feel judged. Thank you for saying that you’ve also tried God-substitutes. Thank you for telling me that God loves me and wants a relationship with me when I am feeling so worthless. You’ve already given me some books and a Bible; I think it’s time I start reading them.
True Human Fulfillment
Why did I focus my conversation with Theo that way? Because Theo’s deepest problem was that he did not understand where true human fulfillment comes from. While I believe the Bible is clear about God’s design for human sexuality, the root of Theo’s problem was that he’d made an idol of human love. If he’d been in a heterosexual relationship, the idol would’ve been the same. Anna and Theo were suffering because they were both confused at the same point: that what makes us truly human and whole is God.
Only God defines us. Through our relationship with him we find our true identity and receive what we most need: forgiveness, reconciliation with him, identity, purpose, and the love that will never leave us.
Through our relationship with God we find our true identity and receive what we most need: forgiveness, reconciliation with him, identity, purpose, and the love that will never leave us.
When people sense our compassion and love, and when they see that we ourselves identify as sinners and aren’t looking down on them, it enables them to “hear” us, because they don’t feel we are standing above them in judgment. We need to follow Christ’s example and go to the heart of what separates us from God, showing that what they long for most of all is what Christ offers.
The wonderful news of the gospel is that our sin and God’s righteous judgment on sin does not have the last word. The very things we long for have been made possible by the God who sent Jesus to rescue us—even when we were sunk in sin (Rom. 5:8).