In 1973, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published the book, Whatever Became of Sin? He noted that the word was disappearing from our vocabulary. Moral offenses were increasingly labeled by neutralizing words like “mistake” or “slip-up.”
Since Menninger wrote that book, the nature and gravity of sin have been further squeezed from our public understanding. Rarely if ever does one hear the word used to describe a lie, theft, corrupt act, cover-up of wrongdoing, or personal abuse.
The Christian Scriptures have an array of words or expressions to describe acts of sin such as: lawlessness; unrighteousness; depravity; disobedience. Sin will harm its perpetrator and/or another person, but is always first and foremost an offense against a holy God.
Here are two situations, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, that might help us regain our understanding of the terrible consequences of sin.
Joshua had led the people of Israel in a great victory over Jericho (Joshua 6). They had marched around the walled city as the Lord ordered and the city’s walls had collapsed. They were on their way to taking possession of the Promised Land.
There followed the conquest of a much smaller town called Ai. Victory should have been easier here, but 3000 of Joshua’s soldiers were routed, and 36 were slain.
When Joshua heard of the failure he lay face down on the ground. The Lord rebuked him sternly saying the problem was that Israel had sinned. God had ordered that all property of the people of Jericho (the prior battle) be totally destroyed. But God told Joshua that one of his soldiers had greedily seized and hidden a selection of them. The Lord called this “stealing” and “lying.” Thus the sin of one man was behind the failure of the Lord’s soldiers to overcome their enemies at Ai.
After a detailed investigation, Achan confessed that he had buried a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold in his tent. Messengers recovered the forbidden booty.
Despite his confession, Achan and his family were executed and all of their possessions destroyed. The sentence seems severe to our modern sensibilities, but we recall that these were ancient times; God’s longstanding covenant with Israel had been violated; Achan had caused the death of 36 soldiers; 3000 fighting men had been routed; and Israel had been demoralized for a time.
The greed of one man had devastated the whole nation. Yet, his act had not seemed serious until its consequences were brought to light.
Centuries later, in the earliest days of the New Testament church, an act of deception against a holy God and his people again brought severe punishment. In the young church in Jerusalem a spirit of generosity had broken out among the people. Some even sold their houses or lands, bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to provide for the needy.
Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, noticed that open-handed giving had released great joy, and they decided on what they considered a harmless bit of deception to win them recognition as lavish givers.
The two agreed to sell a piece of property but to give only a portion of the proceeds to the church — while allowing it to appear that they were giving the whole. The Holy Spirit revealed this deception to the apostle Peter, who rebuked Ananias for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” The shock was more than Ananias could take and he collapsed and died at the Apostle’s feet.
Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira, having not heard the news, came before Peter, repeated her husband’s lie, and also died on the spot. The Acts of the Apostles records, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).
Each of the two incidents occurs at the outset of a God-directed venture. If the offenses had been ignored or covered, both ventures would have been seriously compromised. In each case, the point had to be made in a way that would speak clearly for the times: however hidden, sin is primarily an offense against God, and thus profoundly serious for that reason alone.
Today, we can find many examples in business and politics of lies, deceptions, broken laws, raunchy talk, and corrupted processes. And nowhere is the word ‘sin’ to be found in news reports even in quotes. That may be partly because today, God’s judgments of sin may not seem so immediate as they were in the cases of Achan or Ananias and Sapphira. Grace restrains judgment for a time and God’s mercy is extended. But situations like the above are included in our Sacred Book to warn us about our peril. These stories counter the notion that God is just nice and he will understand and be indulgent when his holy standards are violated.
The church has everything to offer society today, provided the church, too, keeps its sense of the reality and gravity of sin. After all, our God is holy. With the empowerment of the Spirit, his people must be, too.