I think the word “sin” is one of those words that has become so misused, misdirected, and misunderstood that it’s almost taken on a new colloquial meaning, quite different from it’s original conception. Most often, I have heard this word used like a weapon with which to wage a character-attack on oneself, someone else, or whole groups of people. 99 times out of 100, when I hear this word used by Christians, I cringe almost involuntarily. There’s just something I don’t like about how it sounds in most peoples’ mouths.
The most recent example of this occurred during a meeting with a minister on the eve of my daughter’s baptism ceremony. This man – a wonderful man, and a kind, generous, gracious host to our family during this event – wanted to make sure we understood what a baptism ceremony was, and what it was not. We had a lovely conversation about spiritual rituals in general, and I was very moved by the humility with which he approached his role in his church.
At one point in the conversation, he wanted to make sure that we understood that a baptism ceremony wasn’t some kind of “magic” transformation event, and that we would be leaving church that day with the same little baby we had brought with us. He said this warmly but seriously: “she will still cry, she will still be a sinner” –
“It’s my understanding, sir, that the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ means to ‘miss the mark’. I don’t believe that my 7 month-old daughter can yet be aware that there is ‘mark’ for which to aim, and it doesn’t feel quite right to speak of her this way”, I said.
I knew this wasn’t a completely rational feeling, but I felt like he had insulted my tiny daughter’s reputation. Some fiercely protective instinct rose up from my belly, into my chest, and out of my throat a bit faster than my brain could mediate it. He was gracious, and while he offered a defense of the word use, I believe he also saw that I intended be unmoved about it, and gently backed away. If this had been a contest of character, he would have outperformed me in patience, gentleness, and self-control without the tiniest hint of pride or exasperation.
My point, however, remains a solid one. The Hebrew word most often translated as “sin” in English is the word chata’ah, which means to “miss the mark”, the way an archer might miss a target with his arrow. Chata’ah, or “sin”, is a mistake, an error, a big ole OOPS! To be committ a sin, you must be aiming for something and miss it.
I think that this word, and it’s associated imagery, is such a lovely, inviting, and compassionate way to understand the limits of our own humanity. We all know what it’s like to want to be – or behave – better than we are, and yet still keep making all kinds of little (or big) missteps along the way.
Perhaps that’s what this minister intended to suggest to us as he explained how the baptism ritual wouldn’t rid our daughter of her human limits. And frankly, I’m not sure I was listening well enough to have ascertained his precise meaning (well, would you look at that? That’s actually a perfect example of ‘sin’). Nonetheless, if someone wants to call my daughter a ‘sinner’ – or one day explain to her precisely how she is one – I just want to be sure they understand exactly what they’re saying.