I remember when my uncle and aunt informed me that their son, one of my younger cousins, had been murdered. I was stunned. That event brought home to me, in a very personal way, how appalling an unlawful, sinful act like murder really is.
My cousin and I weren't that close, having grown up almost a decade apart in different states. But we were kin, and that was important! Such a tragedy wasn't supposed to happen in my family. But it did!
His murder was incredibly sobering to me. And in my cousin's immediate family it created an emptiness that could never be filled.
Perhaps many of you reading this article can recount a similarly tragic story. Murder is much more than just a bad event. Besides being a crime, it is a heinous sin. It is a direct affront to the God who created us.
Yet many people today are embarrassed when "sin" is brought up in a conversation. This is puzzling since they witness the terrible results of it all around them, every day.
The contradictory distaste for sin in conversation
Excluding even the mention of sin from polite conversation is becoming increasingly common these days. But expressing an opinion about crime is perfectly acceptable—proof of civic concern.
Yet, when considered fairly, crime and sin are both violations of similar laws established to safeguard people and their property. Human laws that define criminal acts and their penalties usually enjoy broad public support.
So why doesn't divine law that defines sin receive the same support? As most of us are probably aware, we will likely enter testy waters if the relationship of human law to divine law is brought into a discussion.
One reason may be that human law deals mostly with unacceptable actions —leaving motive to investigators and courts. But divine law often addresses motive right up front. And that touches some people where it hurts—right in the heart.
Many holding to the popular mantra that we should always "be tolerant" of everyone's opinions often contradict themselves by insistence that introducing "sin" into a discussion is intolerable.
One factor that is too often overlooked is the fact that crime and sin are essentially the same thing— the violation of law. Divine law and criminal law deal with mostly the same issues, though from slightly different perspectives.
Of course, it is the shock factor of any type of violation that catches and holds our interest. Regardless of how a violation is categorized—criminal or sinful—sensational incidents grab our attention much more quickly than those whose consequences are less conspicuous.
For example, sensational murders of young women who are abducted and raped draw frenzied news media coverage. In Western nations, days or even weeks of cable television coverage may be devoted to such high-profile incidents.
Disregard for rule of law
As appalling as these incidents are, they only scratch the surface of the pervasive human disregard for laws. The United Nations' oil-for-food scandal and America 's Enron debacle are high-profile examples of how greed sometimes motivates even highly successful people to ignore the rule of law.
But such notorious incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. The National Center for Victims of Crime reported that in 2002, the most recent year for which it published statistics, 23 million people were crime victims in the United States. Of these, 17.5 million were victimized by property crimes and 5.3 million by violent crimes.
These staggering statistics in only two broad categories of criminal behavior show how willing many people are to violate the rights of others. This general disregard for the rule of law— often fueled by a mind-set of "nobody can tell me what to do"—is escalating alarmingly.
At the root of this growing problem is raw, uncontrolled selfishness. How human beings think— with selfish desires, emotions and feelings dominating too many of their decisions—makes both crime and sin so difficult to combat.
The real solution to this all-too-common human weakness must begin ultimately in the mind. Neither crime nor sin can be stopped completely so long as selfish disregard for the well-being of others remains so dominant in human thinking.
Importance of rule of law
The rule of law is a major foundation of any society. The stability provided by rule of law has given Western nations in particular the capacity to make incredible advances, accompanied with both economic and social stability, to a degree that no nations ruled by the caprice of men have been able to maintain. Good laws serve to level the playing field in both our relationships and our activities. They set standards for everyone to meet.
But for the rule of law to work, effective law enforcement is essential. There are two paramount aspects of good enforcement, and both begin in the home.
Education is the first step. It should begin with every child as soon as he or she is born and continue through the entire education system until the child becomes an adult.
Law-abiding attitudes are learned, not inherited at birth. A child who grows up in an environment of commitment to respecting and honoring the rights of others—with the right example of parents and teachers reinforcing what is taught in this regard—is much more likely to make such behavior a personal lifelong habit.
Enforcement, including the effective capture and punishment of offenders, is the second step. Fear of punishment is a great deterrent to temptation— if the punishment is fairly, swiftly and effectively administered. But if enforcement is so lax that crime does indeed "pay," crime naturally grows.
It's important to realize that the mere existence of law does not guarantee observance of law. Effective rule of law requires commitment from most citizens to respect, obey and support the enforcement of their laws. If that support isn't there, lawlessness prevails.
The root of the sin problem
The real problem lies deep within man. The finest laws ever devised have not and cannot fully stop human beings from exploiting and abusing each other. And that is just as true with divine laws as it is with human laws. Laws merely define abuse and exploitation and establish penalties for the most serious infractions. But law alone is not enough!
Once we understand the limitation of law in eliminating either crime or sin, we can begin to have a realistic picture of the only solution that makes sense—somehow we must deal directly with the nature of man. And that solution is possible only with the help of our Creator.
The apostle Paul puts it this way: "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4, New American Standard Bible, emphasis added throughout).
The problem is spiritual because the most basic requirement or intent of a law—whether civil or spiritual—is to ensure that we treat others with the same degree of respect that we would like to receive from them. And the fundamental enemy of law is the selfishness that is so ingrained within us. Therefore, only a spiritual solution will work.
The word spiritual refers to those aspects of life that are not physical but are nevertheless very real. For instance, attitudes are real. People have attitudes. Yet an attitude cannot be weighed in a test tube or viewed under a microscope. Each of us, however, has experienced the chilling impact of someone else's wrong attitude—and wished we could change it.
But since our selfishness and self-seeking attitude can't be treated with medicine or surgically removed in a hospital, the issue of sin comes directly into the picture.
Sin, according to its most basic definition, is the transgression of law— God's law in particular. The apostle John states this explicitly: "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4, New International Version).
Lawlessness, as described by man's Creator, implies more than just ignoring behavioral restrictions. It also implies undisciplined attitudes. It covers the way the mind works, what comes from the heart.
Lawlessness that begins in the heart is the very essence of sin. The more our sinful, selfish nature controls our behavior, the less we will be able to enjoy good relationships with others and our Creator.
Why is sin bad?
Again, why is sin so bad? It's bad because it hurts. It hurts you. It hurts me. It separates friends and destroys relationships. It leads to violence, addiction and untimely death. It locks us in our own prisons of heartbreak, suffering, misery and fear. It never bears good fruit. That's why God hates it. And that's why you and I should hate it too.
If we object to crime, we should also object to sin! As noted earlier, crime and sin are essentially the same. Both are violations of law. The only difference lies in whose law is being violated.
Those who disdain even the mention of sin may not believe in God or might actually be expressing resentment for the rule of law. They insinuate that God should not "stick His nose" into their personal life. Essentially, they want to be able to live as they please with as few restrictions on their selfish inclinations as possible.
Why this hostility toward God's role in determining the laws we observe? Paul explains: "Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
"The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (Romans 8:5-8, NIV).
In other words, people naturally resist the idea that a supreme Authority exists who declares absolutely what is right and wrong.
How does God determine sin?
Maybe you've heard the comment, "Everything I enjoy is either sinful or fattening!" An underlying assumption in this remark is that if anything is pleasurable, God considers it to be a sin. That notion is amazingly prevalent.
Those who see life this way should be pleasantly surprised to discover what God really wants us to experience in this life. He certainly didn't frame His law to deprive us of enjoyment.
Notice how Jesus Christ saw His role in teaching God's will to humanity: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
Living abundantly! Is that really what God wants us to experience in life? If so, then why does He tell us so many things we are not to do?
Explaining that is a lot like a master sculptor explaining how to carve a magnificent statue of a horse from a solid block of stone. He might say that he simply chips away everything from that block of stone that doesn't look like a horse.
In the same way, God tells us that we should exclude from the way we live everything that doesn't contribute to our living fully and abundantly. As a loving Father, He knows what will harm us. He always has our well-being in mind.
The apostle John clearly understood this. That's why he explained: "And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16, NASB). Also, "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (verse 8, NASB). How simple! How plain!
God gives us fundamental principles—laws—for abundant living, all established on the foundation of putting love (outgoing concern for others) into all of our relationships. Notice how emphatic Jesus Christ was in making this point clear:
"Then one . . . asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?' Jesus said to him, '"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matthew 22:35-40).
These two simple principles—loving our Creator and loving each other—are the basis of every teaching and command of God. They tell us how to chip away everything that doesn't contribute to living an abundant, fulfilling and rewarding life.
The unseen consequences of sin
Some would no doubt argue, "If God's ways are so beneficial, why doesn't everyone follow them all the time?" The problem is that the consequences—the end result—of many of our choices may not be obvious enough at first for us to recognize how damaging they'll be in the long run. We could avoid many pitfalls if only we would first learn what God teaches and then trust Him enough to follow His advice.
God, however, has given us the freedom to choose the path we wish to walk! He urges us to choose the right path—but He won't make that choice for us.
He explains, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you . . ." (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NASB).
But He doesn't force us to live that way. If we refuse to follow His advice, the Bible reveals that we will surely have to face the consequences: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:7-8, NIV). God is concerned primarily with the ultimate outcome of our life.
In the short term, ignoring His instructions may seem the easiest and most enjoyable way to live (especially in a society duped by man's adversary, the devil—Revelation 12:9). But not in the long run. That is why believing and trusting God is so crucial.
For example, "By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward" (Hebrews 11:24-26).
Those passing pleasures of sin can be very tempting. As the psalmist wrote: "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked . . . They are free from the burdens common to man . . . They say, 'How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?'
"This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning . . . When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny" (Psalm 73:2-17, NIV).
It is our "final destiny" that counts. God wants us to see beyond today— to take the time to reevaluate the way we live. We all have stepped off the path that God tells us to walk: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Jesus Christ came to help us get back on the right path—for our own good.
We all need to reevaluate where we are in our relationship with God and correct our course. "For 'He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it'" (1 Peter 3:10-11).
There are no exceptions! Jesus explained this very clearly: "There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish'" (Luke 13:1-3).
God wants us to not be so foolish. So by the hand of James He sends us this advice: "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (James 1:12-15, NASB).
Why is sin so bad? It leads to a short, painful, temporary life compared to the eternal life God wants to give each of us.
He will not give eternal life to anyone who refuses to put the brakes on his or her selfish desires and foolish impulses. Only those who repent of such foolishness and begin building the self-control—the self-discipline—that God's law teaches can be trusted with that greatest of all gifts.
God asks you to compare your heart and behavior to the fullness of His teachings and make that choice. He hopes you will choose to build good character rather than pursuing the temporary, empty pleasures of sin.
If you have known someone who, like my cousin, became the victim of a violent crime, then you know personally the tragic effects of sin. Let that motivate you to take God's description of sin seriously. Resolve to learn and walk the path of a law-abiding person, respectfully abiding by the laws of both God and man. The rewards are infinitely better than the alternative! GN