Things done and left undone: what I know about sin

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Long after I knew my first marriage was over, yet before I was able to muster the ability to leave, I struggled for months with my faith, my vocation, my religion, and the impossibility that I was about to be a divorced person. I am an Episcopal priest; I had waited until age 38 to marry; I had joked that I had 'skipped my first marriage' so that I would not settle down too early, too rashly, before I knew who I was and what I was doing. I had taken my time in discernment because I take marriage in general, and my marriage in particular, so seriously as a sacrament. It seemed an utterly cruel joke that despite all my efforts, I did not, in fact, skip my first marriage. And I was, indeed, about to become a divorced person. And a divorced priest. As I tried to sort out everything on both an emotional and a spiritual level, I had dinner one night with a friend who had gone through her own divorce some years before. She gave me advice I have not forgotten: people were very kind and supportive of her, more so than she had expected, but there was one way that people tried to be helpful that really was not. 'I hated when well-meaning friends tried to tell me that I was not a failure at this,' she said, 'and also when they tried to say that divorce is not a sin.'

That's when it hit me. I had been avoiding this word, even though I knew that it was true. Not just that I knew my own sinfulness had contributed greatly to the demise of my marriage. Of course I knew this: the ways I refused to be honest with myself and the person I married about things that were not right from the beginning; my own pride and selfishness in the actual partnership; my refusal to be as kind and patient and loving as I knew I should be. But I also knew, I still know, that divorce itself is a sin. And that even as Christians, especially as Christians, at least the kind of Christian I am, we generally avoid saying so.

And I know why. For one, we associate 'divorce is a sin' with casting divorced people, especially women, out of our churches. With judgment and shame and ruined lives and moralism. And I also think that although Christians acknowledge that we are all sinners, and we confess our sins in church every week, to speak specifically of how we are sinful is much more difficult. It can be agonizing to get specific and be honest about the ways we have not just made mistakes, but that through our own fault, we have caused pain and suffering to others. It can make us feel beyond forgiveness and deeply afraid of losing our relationships with God, and with others, if we acknowledge that because of us, there are things that are broken.

And yet I realized that in my first marriage, something was broken. And in my attempt to find my way back to right relationship with God, the man I married, and my community, something else had to be broken: the very covenant I had made with God, the man I married, and my community. And to do this is itself a sin. To say otherwise is to deny the importance of the covenant to begin with, and this is something that I could not do. I know, because I believe in the sacrament of marriage, that to leave it is not something God wishes for any of us.

And I understand that to say this is to possibly imply that it is all my fault, or that I can judge others' relationships and what went wrong, or that people should stay in loveless or terrible marriages. Yet what I mean is simply this: I have broken the bond I made, the vows I took. Despite all of the reasons this took place, I have taken back the words I pledged to another person, to God, and to the community in which I pledged them. For this, I know I need to ask for forgiveness.

And from this place, I received it: from God, from my community, from my former husband, from myself. Sin is a difficult topic, even for Christians, and yet if we take it seriously, it is also the source of our salvation. Because sin leads to repentance, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. It is a key part of recognizing the grace of God and the ultimate good news of resurrection. Sin separates us from God's love, but the recognition of our sins, and the confession of them, brings us back to God, again and again. One of the key themes of the Bible is that God never gives up on us, but continues to reach out to us in love, whenever we turn away. And thus recognizing the times and ways we turn away from God is a key component to recognizing the enormity of God's love for us.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Canon Rhonda Mawhood Lee, recently wrote a powerful article about her mother's death by suicide, and in it she also acknowledges that suicide is a sin, because 'it violates God’s commandment not to kill, and it rips the web of relationships that sustains us all.' Some readers of this article took exception to the use of the word 'sin' here, and seemed to think that it implied blame. I heard it as respecting the dignity of every human being, and that within that dignity is the fact that we all make choices, big and small, that can alienate us from God's love. To acknowledge the sin of this choice is, to me, not a denial of her mother's belovedness, but an acknowledgement of it, a belovedness that extends beyond whatever pain or circumstances contributed to the choices she made.

We live in a time that feels troubled in our larger community. We are grappling with the sins of racism, violence and injustice, in increasingly public ways. It is heartening to see and hear so many of my brothers and sisters take stands for peace and reconciliation. And of course, so much of this is also acknowledging our own sin, both corporate and personal. It can feel extremely frightening and vulnerable to take responsibility for our own contributions to the systems and events that oppress others, that cause pain and injury, even death. And yet I believe that this also allows a path for all of us back to the arms of a loving God who always forgives us, and that this is the true path to a peace beyond our understanding.