Washing line theology

Sin is an old fashioned word. It also a word we now longer like to use. There are good reasons for this. We can use the word sin to categorise ourselves and others. The very word sin under this scenario can be used to create in and out groups and, as a means of creating feelings of guilt and, confirming where power and influence reside in a given community. Sin is in this sense an absolute term, such and such an act (often sexual) is deemed by me / us / whoever to be sinful. The subliminal message being ‘if you want to belong conform.’ Sin in this schema is reduced to moral conduct.

Now in Christianity there is a clear moral and ethical code. The Ten Commandments give us our morals and, disobeying them is presumed to be an act of sin. The Golden Rule, which by contrast with the Ten Commandments, is expressed in the positive provides us with our ethical code. Liturgically the General Confession provide worshippers with the opportunity to confess failures to live by the standards of our moral and ethical sins, after all, we ask for forgiveness for both ‘what we have done and what we have failed to do in thought and word and deed.’ 

Liturgy also reminds us, however, that sin cannot, should not, be reduced to moral and ethical failures. The Collect for Purity makes precisely this point in its proclamation: ‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’. Before, through its intercession, asking that God ‘cleanses the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.’

I recently discovered that the Collect for Purity predates the Book of Common Prayer (it formed part of the Sarum Rite). The implication of this being that the collect takes us back to an earlier era where sin was, in part, understood as ‘disordered passion,’ (Augustine’s definition). Normal everyday sin is about the direction of our hearts, revealed to us through our desires. Our desires need not of course be sinful, desire is healthy and motivational. Sexual desire, for instance, allows us to partner with God in the ongoing project of creation. Sexual desire can also, of course, lead to hideous crimes and abuses. Money also can be used for positive or negative ends,was the banking crisis in reality the result of disordered passion? (No need to answer this one!)

So how can an understanding of sin as disordered desire help? What are the practical implications for the Christian life? 

Well, I think before confession it is worthwhile examining our desires and just checking whether they are healthy or otherwise. Perhaps asking ‘do our desires help us partner with God in building the kingdom here on earth as in heaven.’ Or, ‘would acting on our desires help affirm another person as being made in God’s image’ or, possibly, how do our desires measure up against the standards of love?’

What we can, of course do, is to offer all our desires back to God for his blessing, confirmation and cleansing (right ordering in other words). We can allow God to metaphorically wash all of our desires and hang them out to dry, in the light for all to see. The Psalmist takes precisely this line (really bad pun – I know – sorry:)

‘But you delight in sincerity of heart, and in secret you teach wisdom. Purify me with hysopp till I am clean, wash me until I am whiter than snow,’ (Psalm 51, 7&8). 


Are you prepared to let God hang out the washing?


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