How learning to walk in the ways of God helps us practice walking away from sin.
I had little to do with the word sin for a long time. I grew up with the definition of sin as “missing the mark.” It’s a concept often pictured by images of flying arrows missing the center of a target. Because I couldn’t muster up the emotions to do everything with a desire toward God, I believed I was sinning constantly. My emotions and motives were mixed, never truly singular for God’s glory.
As one example, I felt shame and frustration that during congregational worship I couldn’t ignore the idiosyncrasies of those around me: their clothing, their personalities, all the mini-stories their tiny interactions told. No matter how much I secretly admitted to God, I found little rest, only more sin. As my college students have taught me to say, it was too “meta” of a life.
I had no more muster.
Finished with the kind of faith I had been practicing, I told God, among other things, that I would have to fall back on his love for me. This declaration ushered in two years of depression, surprisingly dear in memory, as I fought to believe, with the help of trusted friends, that he loved me despite my questioning. My reviving spirit recognized he was all I had. How had I lived for so long as if the thoughts of my mind and the feelings of my heart were enough for faith?
That was a decade ago. Since then, the word sin has crept back into my vocabulary. One reason is my children. I can tell you that for much of their unkind behavior (although not all of it), my husband and I did not provide a model. Blank-slate theories of socialization have no credence in our household.
The second is my husband. There is nothing quite like marriage to recognize one’s own sin. Ironically, on our first date, my future husband, who was sick with pneumonia at the time (he swears he would have never mentioned this if he hadn’t been) brought up Gary Thomas’s book The Sacred Marriage. I was thrilled I was out with a guy who had a notion of intentionality in his dating life. However, that the book’s topic was how marriage sanctifies a couple had no appeal. Still depressed, I was recovering from the pressure of introspective-driven sanctification in my former church. Don’t tell me about sin. I knew all about it and was sorting out what grace really was, which I desperately needed to experience more.
But after ten years of marriage, I can bluntly tell you, I sin a lot. Most of the unthoughtful behavior I thought I had grown out of once leaving my parents’ home for college is back. A bit like a horror movie actually…. “I’m baaaaaaaack.”
I am the person who snaps at my husband when I’m in the midst of getting my coffee and he asks me to set the table, or when I’m returning to the laundry room and he asks me to help with dinner. Or I know he’ll clean out the dishwasher more quickly in the morning, so I leave for work right away. (Writing this, I’m noticing much has to do with cleaning and food prep around the kitchen. Hmm.)
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with these petty selfishnesses manifesting themselves toward their spouse. National Public Radio reported in a study that people who were irked at their partner will buy a brand of product the other partner doesn’t like when out shopping, even if they don’t like it either and even if the product is going to themselves and not their partner. Apparently, it’s a kind of venting. And I can see myself doing something similar when I give myself permission to spoil myself with a purchase when I know my husband has treated himself lately.
On Sunday morning, my church family prays the following prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.
As I say the words, I am usually thinking about my behavior, or my lack of behavior—“what [I] have left undone”—concerning my husband.
My favorite part of the prayer may be the request to “walk in your ways.” Here is another image of sin: my turning from him to go my own way. It is the one we emphasize with our children–sin as going our way instead of God’s way, language borrowed from the back of a Sunday School paper by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. This is God’s language too. Christianity is called “the way” in Scripture (Acts 9:2 and Acts 11:26), and we read of many Old Testament saints whom we are told walked with God, such as Noah and Enoch.
This language asks something of me, but doesn’t bring to mind God judging me with glares whenever I miss the little-bitty circle in the center of a target. He is near, but it is I who turn from him when I’m doing something such as badmouthing my husband to my kids.
For Valentine’s Day, I ignored cupids hitting the mark. Instead, I prayed that God catches me when I stumble and have to apologize again to my husband. God’s arms are big enough, not just to catch me, but to catch and hold all my mixed emotions and motives. I’m able to love my husband, not perfectly, but with God beside me while we walk in his way.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.