We usually think–with good reason based on our experience–that the thing that separates us from God is our sin. Without question, it has that effect. But if St. Paul’s statement is true that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness,” part of what that means is that our separation from God, and our sin, are both significantly different than we think. As we recently described, grace is bigger than we think–it's accessible in abundance, long before we know anything about it, and it is available every day of our lives, to every single human being.
Because of that, I think James Bryan Smith hits the nail on the head when he says, "It is not my sin that moves me away from God, it is my refusal of grace, both for myself and for others."*
The practical difference this can make in our lives is monumental. If identifying and avoiding sin is our focus, and if we are dedicated people, then we may become obsessed with trying to figure out the right place to drawn the lines about what is sin and what isn't–so that we can be sure about what things belong on the “don’t” list (both in our own lives and–Lord, have mercy–in the lives of those around us).
In this way that we normally think about sin, it’s as if God has his official "don't do these things" list, then we make our best guesses at what is supposed to be on our copies of the list, and then we 1) hope that our list is close enough to God's to get us by and out of too much trouble, and 2) even if our list turned out to be right, we wonder if we'll really be able to stay away from the things on it.
Anyone who's tried approaching the Christian life that way, as I have, knows that it doesn't work very well. Our list is never exhaustive enough to keep us out of everything, and then we keep getting back into the things that we know are on the list anyway. So, I propose we take a completely different approach and get rid of the conception of sin as the list of “don’ts," and instead, start to think of sin as anything that chokes God's life in us and keeps it from growing, anything that puts a plug on the grace that's available to flood our lives and our world.
When we stop refusing grace and begin to arrange our lives around cooperation with it, then we’ll progressively become more aware of different kinds of things in our lives that might be obstructing its flow. Some of these things may be of the obvious types, which would have appeared on everyone’s copies of the “don’t” list–if we’re involved in recreational drug use, temple prostitution, or strategizing for genocide, for example, it won’t be hard to identify a good starting place in removing the grace obstructions.
But if we’re focused on learning to run our lives on the fuel for abundant life known as God’s grace, and we realize that anything that chokes God’s life in us is sin for us, then we’ll also begin to be aware of some more subtle blockages to grace, and they could be anything, even innocent or legitimately really good things. It could be a socially acceptable time-sucker like social media, or giving too much attention to our favorite sports team, or our work, or to volunteering to help people.
It gets particularly tricky when we can misuse something spiritual so that the very things that are given to us to be the channels of grace into our lives can paradoxically become its deterrent. I’ve previously had to publicly confess to being so concerned about praying in ways that I committed to that I was inattentive to my kids–on Christmas morning, nevertheless! (This idea that good spiritual practices can get twisted and become hindrances may seem surprising, but it is neither new nor original to me: see Matthew 6:1-18.)
When we look at sin as the big list of don’ts, probably none of us would put “prayer” on that list, but I have prayed in ways that were obstacles to grace rather than opening its floodgates. And I’ve done innumerable things that wouldn’t make anyone around me question my character yet were still done out of a choice to try to satisfy myself rather than find my satisfaction in God, and therefore choked God’s grace. And of course, I’ve also done some of the things that would appear on nearly everyone's copies of the “don’t” list.
Thankfully, though, I’ve opened the grace-gates enough to get a taste of the abundant life it brings, and now doing the stuff on the “don’t” list simply doesn’t look as appealing as it once did. Once that happens, then, like a stream that slowly and gradually, yet forcefully, removes the obstructions in its path, God’s grace also naturally goes through the process of dealing with the more subtle kinds of obstructions in its way. They’re never completely gone–every time grace wears one away, another becomes apparent. But all the while, the channels become more open for God’s grace to do what the gracious God always intended: bring abundant life.
*James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God