Sin, Covet, Judge
It is very common to hear Christians define “sin” as “missing the mark”.
Sin then becomes a word for any kind of imperfection or flaw, for basic human fallibility itself. And it becomes very easy to see how everybody in the whole world could be sinners. After all, nobody’s perfect, right?
But I’m convinced that the scriptures aren’t talking about simple mistakes. They’re talking about destructiveness - about our tendencies to harm and violate others, our desires to hurt and kill. This is a far more serious issue, and comes from a much more dangerous place. There is no crime in being fallible, but there is something very disturbing about the ways in which we destroy other human beings.
This explains the bible’s odd emphasis on covetousness. It would seem to be a minor sin; don’t we all wish we had our neighbor’s car, or our banker’s house? Don’t we all wish we had a little more money or time? But the scriptures aren’t condemning ambition, they’re identifying something much more problematic:
Our desire to destroy that which we don’t possess.
We’ve all seen it -
If I can’t have you, nobody will!
I hope that celebrity falls flat on their face!
Dear God, if you can’t make me happy, at least make my friends miserable!
This desire is one of the darkest we have. And so it makes the list of the ten commandments, the apostle Paul’s major concerns, and even Jesus’ main teachings. In the gospels, Jesus famously told the Pharisees that whoever looked at a woman lustfully (another word for covetously) was committing adultery.
Believe it or not, this was not said to make teenage boys feel guilty. Instead, Jesus is identifying how coveting turns the person of our attention into something subhuman, an object to be used and discarded at will. It is that which inspires us to destroy others - it is that which has destroyed our already broken relationships.
But here’s where things become deeply ironic. It is often those most concerned with sin who are the most covetous, and the most involved in the destruction of others. Using the Law (or whatever other moral code we happen to have), we decide to evaluate the world. But that very evaluation poses a problem, because it requires us to judge by an external standard. And when that external standard blinds us to our own internal covetousness, our desire takes over, and uses the Law to destroy everyone around us.
This is the upshot of most of Paul’s comments about the Law. This is what Jesus meant when he told the Pharisees that they were trying to pick out a speck in someone else’s eye, while carrying a log in their own. This is why we are told not to judge.
It is not just that judging is not nice. It is that judging blinds us to the real face of evil, both within ourselves and in others.