Be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Jesus, Matthew 5:48)
In the Western world, we usually, but inaccurately, think of sin as the breaking of God’s law. We also usually mean something repugnant, blame-worthy, immoral. Here are some typical definitions:
From Merriam-Webster Online:
1 a: an offense against religious or moral lawFrom the Bing Dictionary:
b : an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible
c : an often serious shortcoming : fault
2 a : transgression of the law of God
b : a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God
1. transgression of theological principles: an act, thought, or way of behaving that goes against the law or teachings of a religion, especially when the person who commits it is aware of thisFrom the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2. shameful offense: something that offends a moral or ethical principle
3. estrangement from God: in Christian theology, the condition of being denied God's grace because of a sin or sins committed
II. THE DEFINITION OF SIN
1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."121 St. Augustine, Contra Faustum 22:PL 42,418; St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,71,6.
The word “sin” in the New Testament Greek literally means to “miss the mark”. And what is the mark? It isn't merely a commandment or a moral principle, or even a whole set or system of these. The mark, the standard, is nothing less than Perfection! And Perfection, in Christianity, is Jesus Christ.
It's another example of how, in Christianity, Jesus Christ is always the beginning and the end of everything. What is love? Love is Christ. What is Truth? Truth is Christ. What is the Church? The Church is Christ. What is the way to live? In Christ. Who revealed the Holy Trinity? Jesus Christ. How do we interpret the Old Testament? Through “the Jesus window”, as my Anglican friends in Ormskirk like to put it. What is our destiny? Our destiny is Christ. What is Perfection? Perfection is Jesus Christ. In Him, Perfection is both revealed and made concrete. He Himself is the mark, the standard, the definition and personification of Perfection.
What is sin? Sin is anything short of Perfection, meaning anything that deviates from Jesus Christ or is incompatible with Him. Sin is thinking, willing, saying, or doing, anything Jesus wouldn’t if it were He acting in us, as is meant to be the case. More fundamentally than that, sin is being anyone Jesus is not.
Sin is anything that diverges from Christ, for any reason. Even if we don’t know it is sinful. Even if our sin is involuntary. Yes, even if we have been forced to choose the lesser evil. Even, in other words, if a juridical system wouldn’t, couldn’t, hold us culpable. It’s still sin because the main point isn’t whether or not we are guilty; the main point is whether or not we fit together with God. This is because communion with Him, sharing in His Life, His Love, His holiness, is the destiny for which God has created us; and anything that blocks us from this glorious destiny, meaning anything irreconcilable with Christ, is still sin. Whether it is a culpable offense or not, we still need to confess it, turn away from it, grow out of it, struggle against it all our lives long, for the sake of fuller communion in Him. Hence we pray for the remission of all our sins, known and unknown, voluntary or involuntary.
A noteworthy thing about sin is that it is "self-punishing." In fact, that is the very reason God doesn't want us to do it. It's harmful, and He Who loves us beyond measure does not want us harmed. His precepts are not merely expressions of His unfathomable Self, as some would have it, but more specifically, expressions of His Love. He prohibits this or that, and commands this or that, because in His infinite wisdom, He knows what is ultimately bad or good for us. And notice especially that sin, all by itself, brings such misery upon the human race that even if God were a retaliatory, vindictive sort, He would have no need whatever to add any further wretchedness to our condition. His purpose, rather, is to save us from it.
Another characteristic of sin is that it is not so much an individual affair as a communal one. Some unhappy boy goes into a school and starts shooting, and the press describes him as "a loner". Well, who left that child alone? A man murders his wife, and you think how disgusting and terrible, and then you remember what you revealed to him about her. You share in the responsibility. How often do we tell ourselves, "She's beyond help," as if God did not exist, or, "He's so weird!" and we pass them by instead of being Good Samaritans. When we fail to comfort someone, or fail to listen to anyone, or we speak evil against him, or exclude him, or insult him or embarrass him, then in addition to the accountability for what we did, we share in the responsibility for whatever evil he does. These examples perhaps make the truth obvious, but even when it isn't obvious at all, the truth remains: everything you and I do, don't do, or can't do affects everyone else. Sin is a communal thing; we're all in it together. We've all contributed at least our fair share to the brokenness of this world and this human race. (This is one more reason it is so arrogant, so deluded, so ridiculous for us to condemn anyone.)
How ought we to react to sin? When we see sin in ourselves, the right responses are: sorrow, repentance, confession, and making amends where possible. Note, sorrow, not guilt. Guilt is the cry of wounded pride (plus fear of punishment); sorrow is the cry of wounded love. Note, repentance, not remorse. Kicking yourself is futile (except that it may bring a temporary and mistaken sense of release from guilt). Repentance is what is needed; that is, throwing off the chains of sin, freeing ourselves from the shackles of our smallness, to blossom in the land of newness and hope. And we need confession, together with the advice of a holy father, to help us grow better and avoid future pitfalls as much as possible. As for amends, if we do not make them where possible and appropriate, we have not really repented.
And when we see sin in others? Well, theoretically, we aren't supposed to! I know of a woman whose daughter-in-law spoke very rudely to her. When her daughters protested, "How is it you let her speak to you that way?" her reply was, "What? I didn't hear anything." We are supposed to keep our eyes focussed on our own failings. But sometimes other people's shortfalls obtrude themselves upon our notice, and when they do, the right responses always include: compassion, not disgust (and still less, condemnation); redirecting our attention to our own sins; forgiveness if the sin was against us; remembering we also always bear responsibility for the each other's sins. And because of that last, once again we need sorrow, repentance, confession, and appropriate amends.