Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If you were to ask Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’d probably say “the egg” because evolution presupposes it is mutations in parental DNA that eventually result in the appearance of distinct new species. If you were to ask Ken Hamm, he’d probably say “the chicken” because instantaneous creation presupposes that God created adult chickens on the sixth day. It is a person’s underlying belief system about how the very first chicken got here that determines their response to the question.
Especially during my Baptist decades, I was told many times that sin is the cause of separation from God. I don’t dispute that, but lately I’ve been thinking about the converse- that is, separation from God is the cause of sin. During one of my nightly meditative sessions, the thought came into my mind that it isn’t a matter of cause and effect: sin is separation from God. Sin is not essentially what you do or don’t do; it is a state of being, of being disconnected from the divine. As Tillich understood it, “In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being.”
Which came first, sin or separation from God? Depending on which Scriptures you choose, you could make an argument for either one. The “sin comes first” perspective was the basis for for Bailey Smith’s rather infamous opinion that “God doesn’t hear Jewish (or Muslim, or any non-Christian) prayers. I also remember hearing a “talk” (women are not allowed to “preach” in most SBC churches) from a Child Evangelism proponent who demonstrated this concept with tin can telephones and clothespins. The two tin cans are said to represent a person and God, while the clothespin is sin. When the clothespin is placed on the string between the two tin cans, communication is interrupted because “sin’s in the way”. With this perspective, there’s a lot of emphasis on confession, which includes ferreting out and confessing any unknown sins, before a person should dare to approach a holy God in prayer. And of course, as corollary, any time a person feels distant from God it must be because of some known or unknown unconfessed sin. This viewpoint has caused a great deal of spiritual angst in many people, including myself. Isn’t that exactly what Job’s “comforters” told him? And maybe I’m going a bridge too far here, but it seems to me that the idea that I must eliminate all sin from my life in order to connect with God is veering rather close to a theology of works rather than one of grace.
I’m inclined to agree with Tillich about sin being primarily separation. If a person is connected to God, the “law is written on their heart” and they are unlikely to make a habit of egregious sinning. If a person is connected to God, they will have “the mind of Christ” and want what God wants. If a person is connected to God, positive behavioral and attitudinal changes are bound to follow. I think that’s what Jesus meant with his vine-and-branches metaphor , and I think that’s what Luther meant when he wrote “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” It is a mistake to direct all our spiritual energies toward eliminating all “sins” from our lives, because we can’t do it. Instead, I think we should primarily direct our spiritual energies toward connecting with the God who is already and always reaching out to us. It is by grace alone, which God supplies, that change happens. Concentrate on ending the sin that is separation, rather than obsessing about everything you’ve ever done/are doing/will do wrong. Connect with God, and you will both be changed and begin to change the world around you for the better.