The concept of sin is something I have been strangely aware of for most of my life. Sin is not just something I have been conscience of, but it is something I have earnestly wrestled with all my life, especially as a gay man. What is sin? What are the consequences of sin? And, based on my understanding of sin, how do I live a life that is pleasing to God?
Sin: The Great Awakening
Nurtured on a curious hybrid of Christian doctrine (Holiness and Free Will Baptist), I formulated my belief about sin and what it means to be a serious disciple of Jesus Christ in the context of my church environment. Looking back on many indelible memories, some of the most significant experiences were the various revivals and camp meetings I attended as a child and teenager. From the August “graveyard meetings” in the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky to the weeklong revivals at my home church in southern Ohio, I heard the familiar Gospel story on numerous occasions. It was during those meetings that I first began to wrestle with sin.
I can still remember many of those lively church services where itinerant evangelists and country preachers, anointed by the Holy Spirit, prophetically sermonized about the perilous ills of society, the necessary remedy of repentance and conversion, and the importance of being spiritually healthy, or ready, for the imminent Rapture of the Church. Most of the preachers were older, well-respected gentlemen who wore dated polyester suits and ties, greased their hair with globs of pomade, and waved white handkerchiefs into the air in complete surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. While passionately delivering the message God had given them, the preachers would work themselves into a sweaty frenzy, pacing back and forth throughout the church sanctuary. Standing from the wooden pulpit, their voices boomed and their countenance blazed with an ardent fervor. They wooed the audience captive by their sing-songy delivery, and, of course, they armed themselves with a well-worn, leather-bound, note-free King James Version Bible. You can’t forget that important piece of the picture. Looking back on it, it was almost like a scene cut from Robert Duvall’s film, The Apostle.
The preachers always assumed that there was at least one “unsaved” person or apostate in the church. To stir up conviction, many of them told colorful, yet powerful, anecdotes about wretched sinners being rescued from the clutches of Satan and being delivered from a myriad of sins — womanizing, alcoholism, drug addiction, lewd dancing, card playing, cursing, and all forms of gambling. With godlike authority and an austere demeanor, these holy men of God quoted verses out of the Bible related to the depravity of humankind and the incurable deceitfulness within our unregenerate hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). First of all, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). We are akin to Satan because “he that committeth sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). By nature, we are all morally corrupt and we crave evil things, not good things (Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3, and Romans 3:12). We are all sinners, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are spiritually unclean, like filthy rags, and we are easily drawn away, like a leaf on the wind, by our own sins (Isaiah 64:6 and James 1:14). And, finally, the “wages of [our] sin is [both physical and spiritual] death” (Romans 6:23). It was a severe blow.
For the first time, I wrestled with sin and what the Bible actually said about it. I was forced, at a young age, to deal with the gravity of sin. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I really understood, in my heart, what sin really was until much later. According to these devout men of God, sin was obvious. It was black and white. Sin could easily be categorized in laundry lists of evil deed. Most, to be honest, were sexual sins, including the “taboo” sin of homosexuality. Trying to reconcile these Bible verses in my heart obviously affected my self-realization and self-esteem, especially as I hit puberty. More importantly, it influenced my understanding of God. If this was God’s man, why did he strike such fear into my heart? Why did he use such words to describe my thoughts and actions? Was it true? Had Satan deceived me into thinking that my soul was right with God when, in reality, I was delusional and far from His perfect will? Remember, these preachers were God’s men and they were to be respected and obeyed. You didn’t doubt their interpretation of the Scriptures. You didn’t question their level of experience or education. And, most importantly, you didn’t worry about their motive. They were God’s chosen men and, believe me, you didn’t mess with God’s men. You obeyed, without reservation.
Even though I thought I was saved, I was always unsure after hearing these fire-and-brimstone messages. I kept putting my soul under a spiritual magnifying glass and I constantly lived in fear of “losing” my salvation. As I was taught, anything I tried to do to merit salvation was perverted and insufficient. Where was John 3:16? Where was the grace? Was mercy available for me? Where was the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ? Where was redemption? Was there any assurance? Unfortunately, these important theological concepts were drowned out by the endless barrage of cherry-picked Bible verses.
Sin: The Struggle Continues
At the end of each revival service, the preacher would conduct an “alter call,” calling all wayward lambs who had been drawn away by their own sin back into the secure fold of the Body of Christ. While the preacher pleaded with the congregants to come forward and lay their sin at the foot of Jesus’ cross, I remember having an uneasy feeling inside. My stomach turned into a jar of butterflies. Sitting in my pew, palms cold and sweaty, I bowed my head in prayer. I pleaded for God’s help, “Please, God, take the sin away. I know it’s there. I want to go to heaven. I want to be there with grandma and grandpa. I don’t want to burn in hell. I promise to do the right thing.” My troubled soul wrestled with questions about death and judgment. From a young age, I was afraid to die. I was afraid that I would not be spiritually prepared to meet Jesus if He came, in the blink of an eye, to rapture the Church away. You didn’t know when that would happen, but you had to be ready at all times. You had to have your heart ready and all sins covered under the blood of Jesus.
The key to conversion was not only accepting Jesus as personal lord and savior, but forsaking the old life of sin. And, this transformation, from enemy to child of God, would evidence itself in a new lifestyle. A true believer would not willingly participate in sin. A child of God “is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So, I dared not flirt too much with the sins of the world. If I did entertain the enticements of Satan and this world, I might risk backsliding, or returning like a dog to its vomit, to my sinful ways and willfully separate myself from God. And, if Jesus returned to take us away, I would be lost for all eternity. I couldn’t risk that. I had to keep everything together. I had to guard myself from the sins of this world. If my heart was not right with God, I would go to hell. I was determined to go to heaven and I was not willing to allow any of Satan’s ploys to trick me into falling away from God.
Dragging out the service, the pianist would repeat the all-too-familiar invitation song as God’s man called one last time, “We’re going to give y’all one more chance to make things right with the Lord tonight. He’s calling you and He wants you to come home. If you feel Him knocking on your heart’s door, step out into the aisle. Don’t be afraid. We’ll be right there to take your hand.” As I sat there, the pounding of my heart was so loud that it deafened my ears and the watermelon-sized lump in my throat began to cut off my oxygen supply. I was paralyzed by fear. I didn’t want to go to hell. I was afraid to die and I was afraid that the “sin” in my life was going to prevent me from going to heaven. And, believe me, I didn’t want to miss heaven!
While the preacher waited for someone to come forward, I sat quietly in my pew and I dared not open my eyes. I didn’t want to make eye contact. I kept my head bowed and I prayed that the service would end soon. Sin, for me at that period in my life, was anything a preacher spoke against from the pulpit. Even though I didn’t know what everything he talked about was, I knew down deep inside that I had miserably failed God’s test. I just felt it.
Looking back on that experience, what was it that I was so uneasy about? Was this the “conviction of sin” which I had heard about? What does an 11-year-old boy do with these feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame? What does he do about the fear of dying? What kind of God places such unreasonable expectations upon His children? These preachers used the “fear of the Lord” to manipulate and to create contrived confessions of faith. There was no room for question. What childlike faith I had inside of me was slowly suffocated by their inflexible doctrine and their extra-biblical standards of behavior that no one, in reality, could live up to. Slowly but surely, these men owned my soul.
Stepping Outside the Box
In high school and college, I began exploring different theological avenues and learning about other religious traditions. My understanding of sin began to change as I stepped outside of that airtight theological box which I had created for myself. I wanted to stand, alone, on my own two feet. I carefully stepped outside of that box, cautiously examining and weighing everything I studied and experienced. I became friends with Christians who didn’t quite share my view on things. They came from different denominational and cultural backgrounds. I learned from them and began to appreciate their spiritual journey as much as I came to respect my own. This was extremely challenging for me and I matured tremendously during this time of my life.
During that time, I also began struggling with my sexuality. The homosexual desires I had before were not going away. They were real, yet I denied their existence. And instead of openly dealing with my romantic attractions toward men, I focused all my energy on my studies in college. I buried myself within the books. Even though I had come a long way in my understanding of sin and Christian theology, I still sought the right answers. I wanted to feel safe and secure in my beliefs. So, I began to study. I focused all of my time and energy into doing the Lord’s work instead of taking time to understand and appreciate every unique part of me, especially my sexuality. I wanted to do the right thing, no matter what. So, I taught Sunday School for all ages, from children to adults. I graduated from a Christian college and completed a B.A. in biblical studies. I studied all aspects of Christian theology, from soteriology, the study of the theological doctrine of salvation, to bibliology, the study of the theological doctrine of the Bible, to hamartiology, the study of the theological doctrine of sin. As I studied the intricacies of Christian theology, I started forming a mental list of questions regarding the specific nature and effects of sin. I had a lot of questions and I wanted the answers. Even though I had progressed on my spiritual journey, morality still could only be organized into black and white lists of wrongs and rights. No middle ground existed.
Checking with the Doctors
Since church history and historical theology interested me so much, I started researching the writings of the many “doctors,” or great theological writers, of the Church to see what they had to say about sin. I wanted to find the answers to all of my questions, especially the big question — is it OK to be gay? As I delved deeper, I kept unearthing more questions that I had not thought of before. I learned very quickly that sin, ethics, and morality are not simple topics.
I wrestled with Augustine and the consequences of Adam and Eve’s original, or first, sin in the Garden of Eden. What were the direct and indirect consequences of this original fall from righteousness?
Where does personal guilt, whether or not it is inherited from the original fall from grace, come into the whole picture? What sins, as human beings, are we culpable for in this life? How do we deal with guilt and our own conscience, if it is guided by the Holy Spirit?
I studied the works of Luther, Melancthon, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Reformers. I wanted to believe in sola Scriptura, sola Gratia, and sola Fide. In my heart, I welcomed the beautiful idea of the imago Dei, or the image of God, yet I painfully struggled and wondered to what extent sin has spoiled and stained that original, “divine” image and likeness in each one of us. As unregenerate persons, are we spiritually sick or are we spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins? How does sin relate to “free” will and the weighty theological concepts of predestination and election?
Late in college, I began to study John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace and, again, I struggled with the effects of original sin and the reality of our free will and the serious consequences of unrepentant sin. Other related topics I meditated on included the mysterious “age of accountability,” the difference between venial and mortal sins in Roman Catholic theology, the relationship between “Sin” and “sins” and the possibility of different categories of sins (as illustrated in Dante’s “Divina Commedia”), the commonly forgotten sin of inactivity, the consequences of individual and corporate sin, and the final punishment, whether or not it’s eternal and physical, of sin in the life to come.
I had so many questions and continued to wrestle throughout my days in college. I found a lot of answers, but I had to process them and come to my own understanding of sin. I wanted to wrestle with the writings of these well-respected Christian men and women and I wanted to come to my own set of beliefs. After a while, it seemed as though I definitely had more questions than answers and the answers I did come up with were not satisfying. When I graduated from college, I moved away and began my life anew. However, I did not give up on my search for meaningful answers. I continued to study as I began to reconcile my sexuality with my spirituality. And, that is where I find myself today.
A New Understanding
Learning different denominations’ points of view on sin made me realize that I cannot blindly accept the doctrine of one particular church, but that I have to find it out for myself. I have to own it and believe it with all of my heart. The concept of sin, as dramatized by those preachers and evangelists during my youth, doesn’t quite fit with the way I now see the world. Life is painted in a wide array of colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and a million hues in between; it is not simply known in black and white. The world as we know it is a strange mix of the sacred and the profane and, whether we accept it or not, we live in both Athens and Jerusalem. From my perspective, we need both and we should accept both for what they can teach us.
Life is truly much more complex than what I first believed. Sin is not a laundry list of dos and don’ts but a barrier that separates me from God and other human beings. Sin is anything that prevents me from building honest, loving, and holy relationships with God and others. It is anything that tries to dishonor and destroy those valuable, eternal relationships. And, finally, it is anything that causes me to compromise my integrity and dignity as a beautiful human being.
For me, that is the way I view sin in others as well as myself. Sometimes sin is an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes it is an addictive habit or lifestyle. At other times, it is materialistic cravings. And, it can even be our own selfishness. I refuse to point at the sin in another person’s eye. I know I am an imperfect man with finite understanding and ability. But, with all of my heart, I want to keep sin out of my life. However, sometimes we do not realize we are sinning and that is why we rely on the Holy Spirit and our respected friends and family to keep us accountable to God and to others. Gently reminding, with compassion and patience, a friend of where his or her priorities are is not being judgmental. It is love. A true friend will be there beside of us, no matter what happens along the way. Everything they do is seasoned with love and graciousness.
As I have illustrated, throughout my life I have continuously wrestled with the concept of sin and how it relates to my life as a Christian and, now, as a gay man. I still struggle with sin because it is something that we cannot escape in this life on earth. My desire is to live a life of integrity. I want to know who I am and what I believe. That is paramount. My soul does not belong to a preacher or to a specific church. It does not pledge allegiance to a particular creed or covenant. It belongs to God. And, no one, I mean nothing, can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Only God sees my heart and knows the motives within it. I am not perfect and I will continue to miss the mark set before us all, but I am a child of the Creator of the universe. I rest in that and I have hope that I will always do the right thing.
I am most thankful for the fact that my heart is still tender and it is gently warmed by the truth of Christ’s love for me. I am thankful for that. For me, the unforgivable sin is a heart that is hardened and unmovable.
One of my favorite Christian music artists is Margaret Becker. Her music has been both an encouragement and challenge to me for many years. The chorus to her song “Clay and Water” speaks about the ever-evolving nature of our heart and mind and how we are slowly becoming who we are truly meant to me:
“I am clay and I am water
Falling forward in this order
While the world spins ’round so fast
Slowly I’m becoming who I am”
I pray that you can rest in that. Don’t worry about having all the answers. I know I worry too much about that myself. Rest in the fact that you are a work in progress. Rest in the fact that you are a beautiful child of God. Just rest.
And, when you think of sin, meditate on the precious truths found in Philippians 4:4-8, one of my favorite passages in the Bible:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” (New International Version)
All passages taken from the King James Version, unless noted otherwise.
Currently serving as managing editor of Brethren Press, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, James Edward Deaton graduated from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, in 2000 and earned a Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He has served as Soulforce coordinator in Chicago and as a Christian educator, student pastor and retirement home chaplain for various denominations including Free Will Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ.