One of the most difficult things for us to do is the task of locating sin properly. One common mistake, one that we have addressed a number of times before, is the mistake of locating sin in stuff. This mistake thinks that sin must be resident in material things—in sex, in alcohol, in refined sugar, in tobacco, and so on.
Faithful Christians know better than this, knowing that sin is a function of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. But there is a subtlety here also. We sometimes forget that hearts do not exist in any solitary way. Think of this another way. All sin, every sin, is always a sin in relationship to others.
If you could be alone, truly alone, you could not sin. Moreover, you could not even be you if you were genuinely, completely alone. In the world God made, relationship with others is as necessary as contending with height, breadth and depth. Even if you were to go off into the mountains to live alone, every moment of every day, you will still be living in relationship with the triune God in whom we all live, move and have our being.
So sin is not found in material stuff. Neither is sin found in a solitary human heart. Sin is always found in the human heart in relationship to other hearts. But notice what follows from this. When sin is in the stuff, sin is simple. That is why people are attracted to the legalistic systems that operate on this calculus. “Don’t drink beer” is the rule, and you are either obeying it or you are not. When sin is in your own heart, and it is your solitary heart that you are thinking of, sin is simple. Sin is defined by how you think and feel about things. You descend into your own heart to look for sin, and as it turns out you always look in the same old places, and you don’t look in the nooks and crannies—the first places that others would look.
If sin is a function of relationship, then the complexities are such that only the grace of God can sort it all out. And sin is a direct function of relationship, isn’t it? What are the two great commandments, the two commandments that sum up all ethical responsibility that can be found in the Bible? What are those commandments? Love God and love your neighbor. All the law is encompassed in relationship. This means that sin cannot be understood, analyzed, confessed, or forsaken without reference to the thoughts, loves, intents, and desires of those others.
Therefore . . . love God. Love one another.