Learning to Sin

IMG_0759This morning I had a chance in a conversation to remember Stanley Hauerwas with whom I studied in my time at Duke in the late 80’s (and early 90’s). This article begins with a reflection from a Hauerwas contention: “that sin is something you have to learn.” It is typical of his thought – startling statements that beg a question – followed by a frequently new insight. The insight of this piece is not new (at least to my regular readers) but will, I hope, be worth the read.


As strange as it sounds – human beings have to “learn to sin.” Not that we need any help doing the things that sinners do – all of that comes quite easily to us. But we have to learn that we are sinners – and this does not come easily to us.

Oddly, I first heard this when listening to one of Stanley Hauerwas’ lectures at Duke. “You have to teach someone to be a sinner,” was his statement. What he meant by that is that the Christian understanding of sin is not something we are born with. We have to be taught to understand the human predicament and the precise character of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.

Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.

In our modern world, the success of preaching the gospel may often depend upon whether anyone thinks he needs such a gospel. In a “culture of death,” is a resurrected Messiah such good news?

From the Church’s perspective, the very fact that our culture has become a “culture of death, ” a place where death can be seen as friendly, a welcome end to otherwise meaningless suffering, is tragic indeed. Some of the “extreme” character of things today (sports, etc.) has a way of taunting death and mocking it as though it were not a problem. I can recall conversations of my teen years (not particularly great moments in my life) when no one in the room seemed to think living past 30 was such a great idea. The death of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al., were seen as tragic only in the sense that there would be no new albums coming from those sources.

Strangely, it was reading history that first taught me to “sin.” I finished high school and announced that I was not going to college (what was the use?). Long story short, I wound up living in a commune (actually a Christian commune) which included among its members a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard). But they were the first people I had ever met who actually read history and had a thought or two on the subject.

It was reading the stretch of Western Civilization and realizing that it was, in fact, headed for destruction, that first awakened the despair of sin within my consciousness. If that sounds too intellectual, forgive me. It wasn’t that “heady” an issue. It was simply waking up and realizing that the things around me were the bits and pieces left over from a train wreck and not the “modern world,” that overwhelmed me. It was not so much my own personal death that awakened this sense of loss, but the fact that in the midst of the death of a culture, a single life could have so little meaning and purpose.

That “the wages of sin is death,” made sense – but not the sense that “if you do something wrong you’ll die.” Rather something much larger. I can recall reading Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” as if I’d never heard the ideas before:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

By this time the poem has almost passed into cliche. But it remains prescient. Thirty some-odd years later the center holds less and less and the shape of the beast that slouches seems far more clear – on many levels. For myself, I feel ever more profoundly the sinner, dwelling in the midst of sinners, and the beast threatens to swallow us all.

Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.

Doubtless there are many other ways to present the gospel – Christ is the Savior and the Savior of us all – and not just a gloomy historian. But to know He saves is also to know, at least in part, from what it is we are saved.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





18 responses to “Learning to Sin”

  1. Nick Avatar

    The sense of sin is lost by pride but won by prayer, specifically meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ.

    Please remember the dearly departed tomorrow. They need our prayers, the prayers of the angels and saints, and all the help they can get. Our desire for Heaven is but a pale shadow of their yearning to be with God.

  2. […] Learning to Sin « Glory to God for All Things glory2godforallthings.com/2009/11/02/learning-to-sin-3 – view page – cached This morning I had a chance in a conversation to remember Stanley Hauerwas with whom I studied in my time at Duke in the late 80’s (and early 90’s). — From the page […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by fabiolleite: Learning to Sin: This morning I had a chance in a conversation to remember Stanley Hauerwas with whom I studied.. http://bit.ly/2PESL0

  4. Romanós Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I could almost have written this post, as in our lives you and I seem to have many nearly identical experiences, and we are close to the same age (I think). Whereas you went “to the commune” straight out of high school, I went to a small town private college (Blackburn, Carlinville, IL) for three years and then didn’t go back my fourth year to “get my piece of paper” (diploma) but rather, joined a commune (New Age “Christian”), partly because I really wanted “community” and “family” really badly, and to show my contempt of the “rate race” of the world system. I also was impacted heavily by history (I changed from a Chemistry to a History major after my first year at college), and by poetry—the piece you quoted by Yeats resounding loudly in my ears.

    Thanks for posting these auto-biographical insights. It makes me feel a little less alone in my inner struggles.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Father Stephen, thank you for posting this concept of sin. Like you, I feel myself a profound sinner, living in the midst of sinners. Recently I had a conversation with a fellow parishioner about how I felt I was truly a sinner and felt absolute joy at what Christ has done for me–and the rest of humanity. This person did not understand what I said in that she was confused in the way I spoke of myself as a sinner. Her idea was simply to be happy and live life to the fullest. And I did agree that we had a choice to be happy in this world, but that does not diminish the fact that I am still a profound sinner who needs the mercy and love of God.

  6. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was just thinking, this morning, that I hope you will write a small series on sin. Then I read your blog for today. This is a good start.

    How should one think about sin?

    I grew up, as a Christian, with a certain template. Sin was just simply my own individual choices for which I deserve punishment. And one beats himself over the head constantly for continuing to make bad choices. And keeps hoping that God will not be too angry at him. But then I am just bad, and how shall I ever become good?

    Another way to think of sin is as a disease. Like a virus that one is born with. We are sick. And must take our medicine. But that isn’t my fault, is it?

    But sometimes sin seems more like an addiction. Like something that you chose at one time to do but can no longer control. Like being addicted to alcohol, or cocaine, or sex. But then sin is just misfortune, so can it be cured by mere therapy? And why, then, does God make such a big deal about it?

    And, then again, sin is sometimes just another great mystery that, I suppose, I will never fathom. Like an invisible force that one has to constantly struggle against. But, then, why bother?

    What is it? Is it a combination of all the above?

  7. Nemanja Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I have been visiting your blog for a while and I like your attitude and stance on theological issues. Therefore, I wanted to ask you a question, as there is an issue which makes me a lot of trouble, and I can’t find a satisfying answer anywhere. Since I couldn’t find any other way to contact you, I chose to put a comment on your most recent post. Please forgive me that my question is not directly related to the blog post above.

    I have read “River of Fire” by Kalomiros and several other similar texts about the nature of hell and eternal fate of the unrepented. Still, there is one question which nobody can answer me. The way I see it, God KNOWS that the unrepented will be tormented by His love. Why doesn’t He simply destroy them, make them stop existing? A movie scene comes to mind… when a person shoots and kills a wounded animal, to spare it from suffering any further. Why wouldn’t God do the same?

    I thank you in advance for your understanding and help.

  8. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    I admit that it disturbs me when I hear Christians proclaim that they are profound sinners living in the midst of sinners. Especially when said half bragging. Or stated as though it were the goal of the Christian life. I, too, am a sinner, but I say so with shame. I don’t think that it is a normal state of being. And I don’t think it is something that should be said very often, not by Christians. Not in public. It’s embarrassing.

    What we ought to be saying is that we are holy in the midst of a holy people. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. And the goal of the Christian life is union with God. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are achieving that goal. As free persons we are becoming (not only becoming but, in a certain sense, we already are) one with Him and one another. Let us proclaim that. Who wants to be in a Church that has no power to change our lives?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your question is quite fair – and sort of “pushes the envelope” on a mystery. That is to say, the Church has never had a definitive answer to the question. We know what has been made known to us but don’t know what has not.

    That said, there are some among the fathers who hold that this love of God which some experience as a torment, is still a healing love. As to the final state of all who hate God – God alone knows. But that some (or all) might be healed from their torment (come to love God) is a possibility that some few among the fathers hold to be the case.

    I cannot say definitively what the Church has not taught definitively (and this because it has not been made known to us). Orthodoxy has always resisted the temptation to simply speculate on the basis of pure reason and then turn that reason into dogma. What the Church speaks, it speaks because it knows.

    Where I put my thoughts in this matter is on the love of God which I know to be merciful and kind and trust that whatever He is doing or shall do for any and all will be merciful and kind. But the depths and lengths of that remains a mystery to me. But I am certain in my heart that I cannot think of an outcome that would be more merciful or kind that what God will actually do.

    Thus, if you will, it is God we know, not the geography or ultimate mechanics of hell.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand your thought. We are in a Church that has power to change our lives. One of the changes is coming to know our need of God (though bragging about it is probably unfortunate). We are better speaking about God Himself and His goodness, than we are speaking about ourselves in any way – except as required. St. Paul seems to speak in both ways as is warranted. So long as we speak the truth.

  11. Nemanja Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I thank you for your answer. I am aware that certain fathers of the Church have had opinions like those which you mentioned… but I am also aware that those opinions were rejected by the Church…
    Indeed, I am also aware that we can’t understand God, and that no man is more loving or merciful then He is. But, I am struggling with my logical mind, and as late Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote somewhere – it is difficult for a logical person to repent (or something like that).
    Mention me and my struggle in your prayers.

  12. Romanós Avatar

    There are times when we must just let our logical mind go to sleep, and let our heart, knowing that we rest in the hand of God, yield itself to the Father’s love. All that can be done for every being has been done, and our happiness or unhappiness is only the gift that we give ourselves.

  13. Barbara Avatar

    “The world is fallen because we cannnot imagine the depth to which it is fallen.” Paul Evdokimov

    In Paul Evdokimov writing I have come across several repeated themes – the danger of all knowledge that does not become loving; the need for Christ who is coming to us today, born in us today, to be greater than the Christ of history; the importance interiorization vs. mediocre imitation of Christ .

    I’ve also come across a phrase that I’ve never heard before. He talks about the “communion of sinners” as inseparable from the “communion of saints”. The communion of sinners is found in humility. So while I agree with Dusty Henry that the world needs us to become the light/face of Christ, the world also needs our willingness to recognize our sin, we/I are also the ones who are insensitive and inattentive to the presence of Christ in every suffering being. This is the knowledge that becomes love. In think, in relation to Fr. Stephen’s comments above, the communion of sinners are those who have been taught to sin.

    Paul Evdokimov wrote the above in a message to the churches of Christ. For those who are interested, the essay is available in a book called, “In the World, Of the Church.” The entire book is a profound challenge to those who, like Fr Lev Gillett said, do not want Christ’s word to be a sanctuary or cloister of separation from the world.

  14. […] from: Learning to Sin « Glory to God for All Things Posted in Jesus Will Answer | Tags: comes-out, Heart, hope-whether, logical-person, […]

  15. Praxis I test Avatar

    Though “learn to sin” title seems strange but it is true. We are neglecting the path of God and religion for the sake of progress. Moral values are going down with passage of time. And, it is happening in all the religions, that hurts me most.

  16. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Are you drawing also from the works of Fr. Behr here? Much of what you have written could easily summarize the book, “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death”. His concept of the work of Christ especailly regarding sin and death, really challenge the assumptions that I grew up with, which I also find diffucult to shake. The book I mention and much of what you write about does much to help the cause.

  17. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Up above, Dusty asks a few questions about sin and how we are to think about it. Could you take a look at that again and see if there is not a simple way to explain those questions?
    When I mix together what I was born with, both mental and physical defects, with personal failure and an inability to change circumstance, there does not seem much hope for turning this around. So I wonder, what our relationship to sin is? How can we truly repent of things that we feel we were born into or learned from being put in an environment that leads us anywhere but toward God? Thanks and please pray for my heavy heart.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I like and highly recommend Fr. John’s books – though for a variety of reasons I was already saying this before his book came out (possibly reading the same church fathers and the Scriptures).

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