While having a conversation with a friend of mine about different types of sin, I was struck by the fact that a broad picture understanding of the topography of sin is largely lacking among many people. This is not to say that any topography, or the study of terrain, is very familiar in our world, except perhaps the elevation colors on maps for physical geometry. To be sure, our society and every human society thinks and talks a lot about sin. Christian focus in my own society is largely divided between adherents of the social gospel small in numbers and in adherence to Christian doctrine but prolific as writers in politics and social critiques who point out the failures of Americans with regards to the social laws discussed in the Bible and supporters of what may be uncharitably called the statutes of Omri  that focus on the importance of personal morality but have no interest in the larger context of proper behavior towards the poor and stranger who is within our communities. Personal morality is therefore pit against social morality, when both are clear aspects of God’s ways in which our society falls short.
An example of this focus on either social or personal sins in our contemporary society can be seen in the different accounts of the immorality of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the smaller cities around them . Genesis 18 and 19, for example, paint a picture of moral depravity and aggressive homosexuality within Sodom and Gomorrah that has been responsible for enriching the English language thereby. Those who hold to a belief in the importance of personal morality point out, quite sensibly, that the moral degradation of these cities was responsible for the outcry that came up against the city and its consignment to destruction by fire. However, those who hold to a belief in the importance of social justice point to Ezekiel 16:48-50 as evidence that God is concerned about how a society strengthens the hands of the poor and needy when abundance of food and economic resources are malapportioned within a society. Yet we need not view either account as being inaccurate—Ezekiel comments on the abominations that were committed against God, discussed in more vivid detail in Genesis, and Genesis 14 provides evidence of the wealth of Sodom, so that we may view both accounts as complementary—the outcry that arose against Sodom was as a result of both its social sins as well as against its failures in personal morality, and for both types of sins Sodom and Gomorrah and their sister cities were destroyed by divine judgment.
This sort of attitude towards sins, where only certain sins are focused on by some people, and certain sins by others, but where a comprehensive view of sin is lacking, indicates that we have a failure to understand the moral terrain of sin as a whole, which hinders our ability to understand the continuing problems of particular sins. Without an understanding of the big picture, we cannot understand the place of the individual laws and their applications that we may argue over unprofitably for generations. Let us not be mistaken that a big picture view of sin alone is sufficient, for it is not, but it is necessary in order to place discussions of individual sins within their proper context. Perhaps most importantly for believers, an understanding of the big picture of the moral topography of sin helps us to avoid pitting some sins against others, because it is multi-dimensional in scope, and extending far beyond the letter of the law itself to its spirit and application within ourselves. Once we possess this multi-dimensional understanding of sin, we can then place particular laws and their applications within this larger picture and see which elements particular laws deal with.
Since the subject of sin is far too large in scope to be addressed in such a format as this one, let us limit ourselves to painting the larger picture and providing a few instances of scripture that apply to the various dimensions of sin. It is important in this discussion to have a knowledge of the language of sin, as different words for different types of sins deal with different aspects of the moral terrain of sin. By putting these words together, we can examine different areas of behavior in different matters that requires investigation and repentance and growth. Likewise, by examining paradigmatic laws dealing with different aspects of sin, we can understand what it was in particular cases that drew the scrutiny and judgment of God in ways that apply to us and to our world. This examination makes no pretensions of being complete, but it does wish to provide a compass, if you will, and a set of handy clues that will allow the reader to engage the Bible with a bigger picture of sin and righteousness.
This approach will use a great deal of metaphorical language in order to do so, which is unavoidable since sin is an abstract matter and we as human beings deal much more successfully with concrete images. When I was a student in middle school, I went to what was called “Nature’s Classroom” in the wilderness areas of the northern part of Hillsborough County, Florida where I spent my youth, communing with the water moccasins, snapping turtles, and alligators that inhabit that stretch of the Hillsborough River. On the first day of the week of learning, we were given a task in orienteering, where we were given a set of clues and a compass, and were to make our way from where we started to a particular destination to find a particular item. Those who were able to correctly follow the clues and use their compass with skill were rewarded. Part of the problem when we deal with sin is that we lack a skill in dealing with a moral compass, and we lack a map of the larger moral terrain that we are dealing with. It is little wonder, therefore, that our society, and we as individuals, seem hopelessly lost when we try to deal with the larger ramifications of our individual moral decisions, because we lack an understanding of the terrain we are in, like the children of city and town dwellers guiding themselves by compass in the wilderness. Let us therefore prepare ourselves to explore this terrain more successfully.
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