WILDERNESS: The Problem with Our Definition of Sin


Exodus 32:30-35 (NIV)

30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.


O.K., this one is a thinker. In the wilderness we must do a fair amount of wondering. So here we go.

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

Why must sin be atoned for? And what is sin anyway? We think we know, until we are asked. It is fairly easy to provide a religious answer, but the wilderness invites us to dig a bit deeper, into the essence of sin and atonement.

I have mostly thought of sin over the course of my life as a personal failure; some way I failed to live up to a standard, behaved badly, or otherwise, “did it again.” I tend to define sin in a self-centered fashion. I am coming to understand this is the essence of sin—even the way I am defining sin—is to live in a self-centered way or to revolve life around myself—a.k.a. selfishness.

To demonstrate how deep this goes, let’s consider how we might define the opposite of sin. I tend to want to say it is self-less-ness or unselfishness. See the problem there? I just defined the goal around myself. The very effort to define the opposite condition of sin still finds itself caught in the gravity of self. It leads to defining sin primarily in behavioral categories around individual success or failure, which leads to a pervasive framework of pride and shame; a.k.a. self-righteousness and self-loathing.

What we must have is a shifting of the center of gravity in our lives—from self to something else. Naturally, we would consider the opposite of a self-centered life to be an other-centered life. This is where we come up against our big problem. We are so trapped in the brokenness of our self-centeredness that even our best efforts to be centered around others becomes a veiled effort to benefit ourselves. In other words, even my most unselfish efforts rarely go beyond my own self-interest in some way shape or form (i.e. to increase my self-esteem or to gain the esteem of others.) It is impossible to overestimate the pervasive permeation of the self-referenced structure of our lives. This is the law of sin.

In the immortal words of Star War’s Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!” And in the eternal words of the Apostle Paul, about the “law of sin” no less:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24)

Paul testifies to the powerful, inescapable gravity of sin’the pervasive structure of a self-centered life. One cannot behave or even repent their way out of this reality. We must be delivered from it. I’ve got good news:

Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25)

The only we we can be go from self-centeredness to other-centeredness is to be delivered by the greatest Other in the history of others, Jesus Christ our Lord. Becoming Other-centered is the secret to becoming others-centered, which is the outcome of being delivered from self-centeredness. It is to be free.

We must come to understand sin as fundamentally relational (not individual), which is why the first impulse of a sinner is to hide from others. We must come to understand that all sin is all at once against God, other people, and ourselves. Finally, we must come to understand that we do not become free from sin by trying harder to not sin but by living according to the law of Love (i.e. Greatest Commandment)—a.ka., the life giving law of the Spirit.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)

And we are here only beginning to touch on the meaning of atonement. The way we understand sin will dictate the way we understand atonement. And the way we understand atonement . . . I see an awakening on the horizon.


Father, reveal to me the deeper wisdom of your will and ways in the wilderness. As I think about the “great sin” committed by the Israelites, it strikes me that all sin is “great sin.” I confess my ways of wanting to minimize my sin, and then to dismiss them. Worse, I confess I am blind to the way my sin hurts you and others and even myself. Deepen my understanding of such things so I might live more alive in your will. Awaken me and make me an agent of awakening– even a great awakening. In Jesus name, Amen.


How does this challenge your view of sin? How have you primarily thought about sin in the past? What if you began to think of sin not so much as the failure of self but the failure of love? What might change?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt