An Exploration of The Moral Topography Of Sin: Part Three

When we last left our discussion of the moral topography of sin [1], we had pointed out that much of life consists of borders and boundaries that we are told not to cross. We might think this was the end of it, that so long as we do not stumble over any of those lines that we have done what we need to do. Yet this is not so. The borders around us and within us are only one aspect of the terrain we must deal with. It is not enough to recognize, as Alexandr Solzenitsyn did, that the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, but we must also recognize the second aspect of sin is not crossing over a line but missing a mark. And to say that one misses a mark is to imply that there is a target that we are aiming at, a destination that we are traveling to, and that not only are we seeking to avoid something, but seeking toward something as well.

It should therefore not be any surprise that the language of sin also includes this concept of missing the mark. The Greek is particularly precise about it, in that the word for sin, hamartano, comes from archery and means precisely that, missing the target. The archery metaphor is an immensely apt one. We are archers with a difficult charge: “Be you perfect as Your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” Even where we take this perfection to be maturity, it is still a daunting challenge all the same. We are like little children practicing in archery, with bows that are almost as tall as we are, and it takes us great effort to get the arrow to move towards the target at all that we rejoice at these efforts when we have scarcely begun to show excellence. After some time, and with a bit of luck, we may occasionally start to hit the fringes of the target that we are aiming at, not realizing that the very purpose of our efforts and practice is to effortlessly and with alarming regularity hit the bullseye of the target every single time. We picked up the bow and did not realize that we were called to develop the moral accuracy that Hawkeye or Robin of Locksley have with the bow. Had we known what we were getting into, we might never have picked up the bow in the first place, not realizing how much effort it would be, yet having begun, we feel ourselves compelled to continue the effort.

When we conceive of sin as missing the mark, an alarmingly large number of behaviors count as sin that we might scarcely conceive of. What we are aiming at is a high standard. James 3:1-2 reminds us: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.” Indeed, this development of the moral perfection of brethren is the very reason for the existence of offices of service among believers, as it is written in Ephesians 4:11-16: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunnint craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

If what we are aiming for is to be a perfect man, fully mature and in total control of every thought (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 10:5), then we must candidly admit that all of us fall short of this standard many times. It is for that reason why Jesus Christ, when commenting on moral purity, comments that when we have lusted after someone—how small of a thing that seems to us—we have already committed adultery with them in our hearts. God is not merely concerned with our external obedience to His ways, but also about our thoughts and feelings, our strength and our will. This is the case for a very obvious reason, namely that we are His offspring, created in His image. This point was poignantly brought out by Paul to the Athenians on the Areopagus in Acts 17:24-29: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is he worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.”

There are several obvious implications of the reality that we are, as human beings, made in His image. For one, the common attempt of mankind to make God in the image of mankind is doomed to fail, because we are already in His image, however defaced and marred by generations of falling short of God’s standards. It is akin to the task of making copies of copies, with errors and degredation increasing at each step, rather than seeking the original master copy that we may be corrected by it. There are other implications as well. The rulers of the heathen, whether Japanese emperors or Egyptian pharaohs or Roman tyrants wearing the purple, have often considered themselves to be gods or sons of the gods. Yet this favor was not granted to others. Paul is very keen on reminding people, even very gently, about the implications that all people are created in the image of God. Two examples should suffice. In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul proclaims: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” This is not to be taken as mere rhetoric, for Paul made the same point, albeit with considerable delicacy, while writing to the Christian slaveowner Philemon on behalf of his runaway (former) slave Onesimus in Philemon :15-19: “For perhaps he [Onesimus] departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”

Part of hitting the mark, a large part of it, is recognizing that both we and those around us are created in the image and likeness of God. Our recognition of our own identity as God’s children in His image ought to encourage us to live in a manner befitting of princes and princesses [2], which means to live free of the sins that so easily ensnare us. Yet, perhaps just as difficult, our recognition that everyone else is also created in the image and the likeness of God means that we have a duty to treat them with honor and respect. And it is here where we miss the mark often—we act with contempt towards others, we do not show love or respect, we are quick to hold grudges and slow to forgive, we do not see God in others and so fail to act to them as God has commanded. We look too much at the shabby exterior of the poor, the deprivation of the blind or the deaf, the external reality of the lame or imprisoned, and we do not look as God looks at the heart, because we do not by nature possess that sense of vision. One is reminded of this lack of vision of someone’s true nature in the story of David. When God had rejected Saul as king, he sent Samuel the prophet (see 1 Samuel 16) to the little town of Bethlehem in Judah to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as Israel’s next king. Jesse sent son after son before Samuel only to have God reject all of them and to have the embarrassment of having to call David, the youngest, who was seen as fit for no more than being a lonely shepherd boy, to be anointed before any of them could sit and enjoy the sacrificial meal with the august prophet.

The target that we are dealing with is rather at least twofold in nature. On the one hand, being created in the image and likeness of God, and being told that it is our task to develop the nature of God and of Jesus Christ within us means that we have certain behavior to develop and other behaviors to avoid as it relates to ourselves. We are compared in scripture to temples of God being built (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19) or ore that is being refined (Proverbs 25:4, Zechariah 13:9). We are not, yet, the finished product, but we are on the way there. But part of this target is not only developing the nature of God within ourselves insofar as it relates to we ourselves, but also developing the nature of God in respecting the dignity of others as well. It is not for nothing that the two great commandments are to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength and also to love our neighbor—everyone else—as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40), which requires that we recognize who we are just as we recognize who everyone else we are dealing with is as well. We love and respect others out of the love and respect we have for ourselves and also that we recognize as having been received from God either directly or from other people.

It is in serving as the image bearers of God where this becomes most important. Other people recognize the love that God has for us, or doesn’t, as a result of our behavior. The Bible calls Jesus Christ our priest, but if we do not see Christ in the people who serve in religious offices, we will have a mistaken image of how Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ is also our elder brother, but if we as elder brothers do not teach our younger siblings and behave with restraint and patience and understanding, others will think of elder brothers (or sisters) as merely bossy and demanding people and not as guides towards a better life. God is said to be our Father, but if our experience with Fathers is one of physical or sexual abuse, we will scarcely view the thought of God as a father with anything remotely approaching equanimity. In whatever role we happen to live our lives, we have a responsibility before others to show to the greatest ability possible the nature of God in that role or office manifest through hour own behavior and example. Otherwise, we not only miss the target we are aiming at for ourselves, but we may very well influence others to deliberate aim at the wrong target because they will see what the Bible asks of people and think that it asks them to be like us, which they find utterly abhorrent and unacceptable.

Having seen, therefore, that the moral terrain we are dealing with has lines and borders, let us also remember that it has a destination. Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4), that is, the goal, the destination of it, what we become like ourselves as we walk in His ways. We are going somewhere else, we are becoming something other than that which we are. In this we as human beings are the larval stage of what we were created to be. In this we as human beings are like those animals with long migratory patterns, in that where we were born is not the place we were meant to live. We have something to become, we have somewhere to go. We are not dealing, therefore, with a mere fixed domain where we can stay safe within a small area and not step over any boundaries, but are rather called to take a lengthy pilgrimage from a place where we are strangers and outsiders to the kingdom we are citizens of, to become changed into what we were created to become, and sent back with honor and glory to rule over this world and bring it into harmony with His ways. It is a heady charge, but given the demanding nature of the task we have been given, the blessing and reward could hardly be anything less to repay the effort required by both the Eternal and we ourselves through His Spirit.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An Exploration of The Moral Topography Of Sin: Part Three

  1. Pingback: An Exploration Of The Moral Topography Of Sin: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: An Exploration of The Moral Topography Of Sin: Part Five | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Zones Of Disaffection | Edge Induced Cohesion

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