Oh Say, What Is Sin?

I’m not sure I know what sin is.

Lately, I’ve come to recognize that the theory of sin I’ve held since my youth is … wrong.  Or if not wrong, at least woefully incomplete.

For most of my teenage and young adult life, sin meant willful rebellion against God.  Sin meant knowing an action was wrong, and intentionally choosing to do it anyway.  I viewed everyday sins as a microcosm of the way Mormons describe Outer Darkness. Under that belief, almost everyone on Earth will obtain some degree of heavenly glory; the only exception is those who have “sinned against the Holy Ghost” – who have had so powerful of a witness of God’s truth they effectively walk right up to a glorified Jesus Christ, look him in the eye, and say “I am choosing to not follow you.” [1]

I considered that level of willful sin difficult to achieve.  After all, we simultaneously learned in Mormon Sunday School that things which would be sins for us (like drinking alcohol) may not necessarily be a sin for other people; non-Mormons didn’t have the same knowledge, so they wouldn’t be held to the same standard.

Even for me as a Mormon, so many of my imperfections didn’t seem to rise to the willful level – I argued with a sibling or disobeyed a parent or lied to a teacher because I was  tired, or hungry, or scared, not because I decided in that moment I wanted to disobey God.

And so, for most of my life, I almost never admitted I sinned.  “Sin” meant “something that makes me not Temple Worthy,” or “something I would have to confess to a Bishop.”  It meant clear transgressions against well-defined Mormon Standards.  But I paid tithing, attended church, was not in any way tempted by coffee, alcohol, smoking, or other vices, had never seen an R-rated movie, never did anything more than chastely kiss boys … and on top of that I was actively involved in both church and community service, seeking to develop my talents, writing in my journal every day, and earning good grades at school.  If you ran down a “Molly Mormon” checklist I aced it.  I genuinely wanted to follow Christ, and since I was following the For the Strength of Youth Standards with exactitude, ergo, I was following Christ.  For years, lessons or firesides focused on “repentance” felt irrelevant.  Sure I wasn’t perfect, sure I made mistakes, but I didn’t sin. [2]

The scriptures, however, chastened me.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

“For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)

If sin is so pervasive, I started to wonder, maybe, “sin” meant something different than willful rebellion.  Maybe we over-emphasize willfulness – maybe that’s the reason it is so easy to identify sin in others, and so hard to identify it in ourselves.   Maybe sin is – as I now believe – anytime your thoughts and behavior fall short of what Christ would do, regardless of your intent.

I once had a conversation with a therapist friend about the idea that sin is only willful rebellion.  And she echoed her opinion as a mental health professional – the amount of willful sin is shockingly low.  Sociopathic evil is rare.  Everyone thinks they’re a good person.  Everyone has excuses and justifications – even good ones! even ones they genuinely believe! – for objectively poor behavior.  Everyone can be a saint in one area of life and a tyrant in another.  At their core, everyone wants to feel safe and loved in an uncertain world.  Most misbehavior, even egregious misbehavior, when you really probe it, is just a mischanneled attempt at seeking security and love.  (Just ask anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship.)

But our good intentions or our ignorance of error doesn’t make our behavior less sinful.  Our failure to recognize how our actions harm others does not grant us immunity from sin, it is itself a sin. It is selfishness. It is pride.  Dismissing our oversights as mere imperfections, as one-off mistakes, as unintentional errors that in no way affects the core substance of our Temple Worthy® status – it’s a deluded exercise in mass minimization.  We sin.  Constantly.

Humility is having the self-introspection to kneel down every night and tell God “I have sinned.  I have sinned in ways I may not even recognize or understand.  Please teach me how I have sinned, and help me to be more aware of how I can better love everyone I encounter, every day.”[3]

Ever since I started dating a Catholic two years ago, we’ve attended both Sacrament Meeting and Mass regularly.  Right at the beginning of Mass, the entire congregation recites a Confession which speaks deeply to my soul – I’ve never before experienced such group vulnerability.

I confess to the almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned.
In my thoughts and in my words;
in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.
Through my fault,
through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Now, often as I pray before taking the Sacrament, I ponder these words (minus the Mary part).  Then I dream of the same frank acknowledgement of error in my community, of General Conferences entirely focused on each Apostle and General Authority confessing “my biggest mistakes, and how Christ lovingly led me to repentance.”

When I think back on my teenage and young adult years now, I’m hit with the startling revelation that I sinned all the time.  I spread gossip about a girl I irrationally disliked.  I published an op-ed in a school newspaper pronouncing that acceptance of the LGBT community would lead to an irrevocable loss of morals and the downfall of American democracy.  I chose to stop visiting teaching one sister because I spotted her wearing a tanktop on a 90 degree day.  Once in Algebra II, after the teacher told us to break into groups for a project, I happily started working with my best girlfriends.  But then one of those friends, the daughter of a pastor, looked up and realized that a Muslim immigrant in the class was all alone. Without hesitation she left our group and offered to work with him.  I hadn’t even noticed his existence.

These were unqualified wrongs.  I hurt other people.  I sinned.  I still sin.  And I am sorry.  I commit similar snap judgments and selfish oversights each and every day, and all I can do is pray to have the self-awareness to do better, and be grateful for the grace I do not and can never deserve.  “If ye should serve [Christ] with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” (Mosiah 2:41).

There is something refreshing and insightful in my Catholic fiance’s almost visceral reaction when Mormon talks wend their way into Temple Worthiness® and “be ye therefore perfect.”    “We are never worthy,” he’ll say.  “There is no minimum standard of righteousness required for us to commune with God.  We can never earn God’s grace.”


[1] Or as described by Scripture: “for if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26), for “if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable.” (Alma 39:6).

[2] And yet, whenever I went to those spiritual-overdose-EFY-testimony-meetings where fellow teenagers bore powerful witness about some dramatic change they had made or healing they had found after repenting, a part of me was jealous.  They seemed to understand something deep and intimate about Christ I couldn’t even comprehend.  At times, I even wondered aloud whether it would be better if I did intentionally sin, just to discover that depth of forgiveness. That seemed like silly logic … but I also wanted to love Christ more, and Christ had outright said in Luke that the debtor who had been forgiven most would also love Christ most.  (Luke 7:41-43.)

[3] One Protestant friend once told me of a meditation exercise he learned in school – that every night, he would kneel down, ponder, and then confess every way he violated each of the 10 Commandments that day.  He described is as thorough, painful, revealing – and spiritually uplifting.  I’ve never tried it.  Perhaps I should.


  1. A truthful post, Carolyn; thank you. Original sin–or, at least, my own original and constant sinning nature–is real. I doubt we can really grasp the miracle of grace absent acknowledging that reality.

  2. Amen. This is powerful and so true. Thank you for this spiritual insight and guidance.

  3. Amen to every word, Carolyn. We can only truly repent when we stop trying to justify and excuse sin. And saying that we didn’t mean to, or didn’t know it was really sin, is just that.

    Building on Russell’s comment, I think we too quickly dismiss original sin. It’s true that we believe that children are innocent and need no repentance, but it does not follow that our original nature is not in need of redemption. Jesus atones for the “original guilt,” as the Enoch revelation says, but, as it also says, we are nevertheless conceived in sin and therefore sin conceives in our hearts as we develop reason and the capacity for sin. Sin is baked into who we are.

    We call it “the fall” instead of “original sin,” but even our most distinctive scriptures recognize that our mortal nature is inescapably evil, and that in spite of our desires for good, we are incapable of it unless our nature is redeemed, and that not by our effort to remain free of sin, but by humbling ourselves and relying on Jesus alone. There are many restoration scriptures that make this point, but these two speak powerfully to me:

    1. This line from Ether 3:2: “[W]e know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.”

    2. Mormon’s teaching (Moroni 7:6-7) that “a man being evil [i.e. unredeemed] cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for this insight; I needed it.

  5. The thing I find interesting about “original sin” is that (as you say, JKC) I think we actually believe something very similar, except that we call it “the natural man.”

    The Lutheran confession goes something like this: “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been spoiled with sin.” This actually kind of rubs me the wrong way, and I usually do not say it when I go to church with my husband. (I do say almost all the Apostles or Nicean Creed — depending on what they’re reciting that week — so it’s not like I object to recitations in general.) I mean, I guess I don’t disagree with anything that’s said there — I do believe and accept that I’m continually sinning, I’m not perfect, I’m always falling short in thought and deed. But I feel like those words promote (at least for me) a distance between God and myself, and downplays the loving relationship — that is to say, I really like the concept of God as Heavenly Parents, and I would certainly be rather alarmed if my children said anything like that to me on a weekly basis.

  6. cahn, I’d be disturbed, too, if my kids said that. Of course, I’d also be disturbed if they worshipped me, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worship God. The earthly parent-child relationship can teach us certain things about our relationship with God, but it can only take us so far, and while we should have an intimate relationship with God, I think we also have to recognize that there really is distance between us because of the fall.

  7. What I find fascinating about the distance between us and God is that God is always willing to bridge that gap. I used to think that if I admitted I sinned, that almost meant that the Holy Spirit would have fled from me, and God would be mad at me, and if I confessed to God that meant I would get yelled at. So even when I was faced with those moments of –knowing– I had done something wrong, my reaction was to hide.

    But every single time I caved and started praying my heartfelt apologies to God, all I’ve ever felt is love. “Yes, you messed up, of course you did. Thanks for finally telling me about it. No, I’m not angry. I love you, and let me teach you how through love we can fix it.” There’s no yelling or anger. So my natural sinful state is a barrier in some sense — and yet I find that the more I acknowledge my weaknesses and ask for guidance, the closer to God I feel.

  8. Exactly, Carolyn. The distance is real, and we can’t bridge it by ignoring it. But when we stop ignoring it and acknowledge our desperate helplessness, that’s when he bridges it.

  9. Put differently, when I recognize my inability to climb to God’s level, I can see that he has already descended to my level to walk with me.

  10. Mormon Paleo says:

    Excellent post and excellent points. As Latter-day Saints, we culturally seem to be uncomfortable referring to our sinfulness, our inherent sense of being an enemy to God. The anecdote recounted by Eder Christofferson in his October address was quite refreshing and humbling.

    The Orthodox faith as I understand frequently refers to the Jesus Prayer, taken from the Publican and the Pharisee parable taught by Jesus. It goes something like this:

    Lord Jesus Christ,
    Son of God
    Have Mercy on Me
    A Sinner

    As I understand, there are at least a couple of musical settings for this verse. Some Christians find themselves frequently repeating this as a prayer-hymn-meditation. Perhaps one of your readers has more experience with this prayer and its use than I.

  11. So true. And important. At the risk of stirring up off-topic debate, I’ll relate an ‘awakening’ experience for me. For many years my father served as a member of the Utah Board of Pardons. Unusually (among states in the U.S.) the Board of Pardons handles sentencing including death penalty cases. (At least it did at the time, and this is a Utah State constitutional matter so it’s probably the same today.) I asked Dad whether he found that stressful, the death penalty cases in particular. He said that one time he laid awake for 15 minutes reviewing a case handled earlier that day, but otherwise he just did the best he could with the good intentions and didn’t worry about it. *I* laid awake most of that night, thinking that whether or not the right decision was made, a man’s life deserved something more than good intentions.

  12. pconnornc says:

    I think this view of sin, while correct, if not properly balanced w/ the atonement, can be overwhelming.

    The atonement is key, because it allows us introspection and recognition of our “sins”, while lifting from us the burden of guilt and self-loathing that can come such a realization.

  13. I agree that this view of sin is overwhelming. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s overwhelming because sin is overwhelming. It is supposed to be overwhelming. To live in this world is to be overwhelmed by sin, constantly, in spite of our best efforts. I’m not sure it’s possible to truly develop faith in Jesus Christ without that recognition. And yes, grace through the atonement saves us from the guilt of sin by redeeming our nature from the fall.

  14. Yeah, I agree, pconnornc. On further reflection, I think I don’t like thinking about sin in this way because (partially due to my upbringing) for me, getting overwhelmed by my sin can easily become a terrible state where I feel like I’m not worth anything — like Carolyn says above — but further than that, certainly not worth God’s love, so I never get to the point where I turn back to God, because what’s the point? Which is totally, totally wrong, of course. …So I think maybe this is a “me” thing, because certainly the Lutherans I know don’t think about it that way. For me it’s more helpful to emphasize the atonement and de-emphasize our sinful nature, but this discussion is teaching me that mileage super varies.

  15. To emphasize the atonement and de-emphasize our sinful nature sounds to me almost like a contradiction in terms.

    I mean, I understand that if a person is so steeped in despair that he assumes God’s love doesn’t reach him, that’s obviously a very bad thing. But on the flip side, if a person never confronts the reality of the fall and of what it means to live in a fallen world, and continues to believe that he is basically good, but just falls a little short, then how can that person ever truly rely on Jesus alone for salvation? And how can we ever exercise true, saving faith in Christ if we’re not relying on him alone?

    I think the problem with the “I’m so unworthy that God’s love won’t reach me” is not that it overemphasizes our unworthiness, but that it still assumes that God’s love and ability to redeem us is tied to our worthiness: “God won’t save me because I’m so wicked vs. God will save me because I’m at least a little good.” In reality, he loves us not because we deserve it, but simply because we are his. So I draw hope not from my own goodness or worthiness, but from the fact that nothing (except maybe my own refusal to accept his love) can separate me from his love: “God will save me because he loves me vs. God will save me because I’m at least a little good.” In my experience, it is that kind of faith that motivates me to keep the commandments.

    Either way, though, cahn, you’re totally right that everyone comes to this with their own point of view.

  16. I still remember the theology professor who introduced me to the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth observing that you could have as strong a concept of sin as you wanted, just so long as your concept of grace was stronger. I’ve thought about that a lot in grappling with the meaning of sin.

    I too like the communal confession that is part of many liturgical churches. In the (Episcopal) parish where I currently attend, we usually do a version that includes repenting for both things done and left undone, and also the evil done on our behalf. I find it powerful. It took me getting some distance from the LDS church to realize just what an awful spiritual toll the expectation of “worthiness” had been taking on me. I know that there are church members who find that the worthiness requirement inspires them to meaningfully reflect on their lives and seek to do better, and I respect that. But my experience was more along the lines of feeling beaten down every week with the sense that I would never ever be good enough. I find it personally more helpful to start with an acknowledgment of being ensnared in sin and to go from there to grace as something unearned, rather than to conceptualize grace (or a relationship with God) as something for which you have to qualify.

  17. I do not think much about sin anymore. Oh, I accept that I practice sin quite a bit, sort of like daily piano practice, getting better or more skilled at it as I go along. But I am trying to slow down my practice so that I can make fewer mistakes or at least rectify them more quickly. I guess you could say I am trying to be more mindful of the consequences of my actions. But not to the point of crippling me as I contemplate my mistakes, something that used to happen often. I am also trying to identify the root causes, the fear or blindness to the feelings of others or simply the realization that others want to be treated differently than I do. I find it more useful to fix the root cause than to attack the sin head on. Indeed, one of my greatest flaws disappeared completely one day when I just realized what one of the apostles was really trying to teach us about a particular sin.
    I once visited a dental school early in the training of the new dentists. That day they were practicing giving each other pain killing shots. The teacher, like God, demonstrated the correct way to wield the long pointed needle. The students, in order to progress in their training, agreed to act as guinea pigs with each other. One sat in the chair with mouth open, accepting the pain administered by an unskilled trainee. Then they changed places. It has become a metaphor for life to me. Maybe someday I will master the calm acceptance and the belief that the person harming me will one day become skilled and therefore useful. And that the needle pricks and bleeding gums will heal without a scar.
    Sin is temporary for anyone seeking to become better. It will be overcome. And the love of Christ allows us to leave it behind, to drop it off like an outgrown sweater.

  18. Sin is a complex issue for me with having mental illness. We are taught that spirit will guide your decision making, but I still have not worked out most of the time if something is the spirit warning me or OCD compelling me to obsess plus formal prayer is hard for me get answers by as well. I also see there as being a real difference between sin and transgression that is supported by doctrine. Both can take us further away from God and being like Christ and for that reason the atonement as it is in all things is there to help; however, there are moral differences between the two of intent and how they should be corrected. Sin requires repentances and transgressions correction and revaluation. The second AoF makes distinct that Eve’s actions were a transgression. Don’t ask me though if I have the difference worked out between what is what like I said is a complex issue and I think God understands that.

  19. “Off-topic” comment:
    Christian: ” *I* laid awake most of that night, thinking that whether or not the right decision was made, a man’s life deserved something more than good intentions.”
    Well, by your account, a man’s life got something more than good intentions when your father was involved. It got his doing “the best he could” which I suspect may have been a great deal better than some possible alternative members of the Board of Pardons. Perhaps his then don’t-worry-about-it attitude was a self-protective mechanism adopted only when the deed was done and in order to be able to serve again. But then, you knew him far better than I.

    Perhaps more on topic is a possible answer to the final temple recommend question “Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?”
    Some interviewees are not satisfied with a simple “yes” but can live with “yes, through the grace of Christ.” I’ve not heard of that answer being deemed inappropriate by an interviewer. For me it significantly alters one common [mis]conception of worthiness.

  20. I had heard that one definition of “sin” from ancient Hebrew was “missing the mark,” which seems in keeping with “anytime your thoughts and behavior fall short of what Christ would do.” I have found that to be a helpful way to think about the topic.

    Just to be sure I hadn’t misheard, I did some research and found (according to “Greek and Hebrew words for Sin,” http://www.theopedia.com/greek-and-hebrew-words-for-sin, and “22 Biblical Words for Sin and What They Teach Us,” http://catholicexchange.com/22-biblical-words-for-sin-and-what-they-teach-us) that there are a whole bunch of ways to think about sin if you look back at the Greek and Hebrew: debt, rebellion, being broken, in addition to “missing the mark.”

    Ultimately, however, despite lots of ways of going bad, the most important thing for me is that the grace of Christ is the only way to “go good.” Whatever sin is, we don’t fix it: It’s already been fixed. Our job (to use Brad Wilcox’s terms) is to learn salvation rather than earn it.

  21. Thanks Caroline: “I sinned. I still sin. And I am sorry.” Yes, the true companion of sin: a broken heart and contrite spirit.
    The common definition of sin as wilful or deliberate disobedience to God’s commandments, as you note, rests on knowledge of those commandments. One seeming contradiction is that those living outside the covenant of baptism, and hence the laws of the gospel, are required to repent of their sins (intentional transgressions) before they can be admitted into the covenant. The view you have expressed gives both sin and the atonement a much needed wider meaning. However, the question arises: ‘What then counts as innocence?’

  22. Apologies: Carolyn

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