Most of us don't use the word "sin" very much; it has a rather distasteful ring to it. But the concept, I believe, is deeply embedded in our psyches. What is sin? I am not versed in theological treatments of it, but I think I have a good grasp of the popular concept, the one lodged in our psyches. That concept seems to me to have three elements.
First, sin usually has an interpersonal dimension. We sin against our fellow human. The idea is that there is something selfish in us that seeks to gain at another's expense. We hurt our brother to help ourselves.
Second, sin is the breaking of the laws of God. As such, our sin not only injures our brother, it damages our relationship with God. What breaks God's laws also breaks relationship with Him. If God is holy, then what is sinful cannot abide with Him. Sin therefore creates a yawning gulf between us and our Creator, leaving us out in the cold, away from the warmth of His Presence.
Third, sin corrupts our own soul. When we hurt our brother and break relationship with God, our very identity seems to change. Some essence at the core of us seems to become tarnished with guilt. Our purity becomes tainted. The guilt we feel at this point is more than just a feeling. It seems to be a direct experience of the defiled condition of our soul.
In summary, sin, as conventionally understood, wounds our brother, destroys our relationship with God, and soils our identity. It is a powerful destructive force.
A Course in Miracles talks a great deal about sin. The concept of sin, in fact, is a fundamental part of the Course's thought system. Yet the Course has taken this concept and transformed it, acknowledging its power in this world, yet denying its ultimate reality. In this article, I would like to explore how A Course in Miracles has reframed the traditional notion of sin.
The Christian tradition has always acknowledged some essential darkness in human nature, something that opposes God. Though this perspective has always been unpleasant, I believe it remains a rational explanation of all the darkness in this world. How could our natures be filled with nothing but sweetness and light while we have been tearing each other limb-from-limb since the dawn of time?
A Course in Miracles also sees profound darkness in human nature. It sees at the heart of our human personalities something actually intent on murder, of others and even of God. Deep within us, it says, lies a "murderer, the secret enemy, the scavenger and the destroyer of your brother and the world alike" (T-27.VII.12:2). These are harsh words, perhaps even harsher than what we have heard from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Yet they do explain a great deal about our experience. They explain, for instance, why, despite our best efforts, our relationships so often disintegrate into hostility, and our nations so often end up at war.
In fact, says the Course, these words explain all of our pain and suffering. According to the Course, our fundamental sorrow is that our sins have irreparably defiled our original innocence. We believe our sins have made us forever unworthy to stand in God's Presence. However confident we are on the surface, however certain we are it is the other guy's fault, in the buried depths of our mind we point the finger unwaveringly at ourselves. We believe we "have made a devil of God's Son" (W-pI.101.5:3)—God's Son being ourselves as we were originally created.
This, I believe, is the buried root of our low self-esteem. It seems to me that we all carry around a nagging feeling which says, quite simply, that there is something wrong with us. Rather than feeling whole, we feel lopsided and defective, riddled with faults. We may attribute this to not having the perfect figure, the highest income, or the quickest mind, but I think the real source of this feeling is our submerged belief that we committed—indeed, that we are—a fundamental crime against God. We may not think this way consciously, but I can attest to the fact that the belief is down there. As I look deep within my mind, there is a picture of myself as a separate being clawing to meet my separate needs at the expense of all else. In this picture, I represent an offense to what is good and holy, a wart on the face of reality. Based on this, I can relate to the medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing when he spoke of the "foul stinking lump" of self.
All of this seems like very bad news indeed. Yet here, just where despair seems like the only valid response, is where A Course in Miracles brings in the good news, news that seems too good to believe. The good news is not that we sinned but can be forgiven. The good news is that we never sinned. We are incapable of sinning. "Sin is impossible" (W-pII.359.1:7). Sin, like the unicorn, is a concept which we all carry in our minds yet which does not actually exist in reality. Not only have we not sinned, no one ever has and no one ever will. It simply is not in our nature to do so. The Course flatly states, "Sin does not exist" (M-10.2:9).
How can this be? It is one thing to blithely claim that sin does not exist, but quite another to explain this claim in a way which makes it truly believable. We said at the beginning that sin is a destructive force, damaging other people, our relationship with God, and our own soul. The only way that sin can be actually unreal is if it does not really do this damage. As the Course says, "What has no effect does not exist" (T-9.IV.5:5). Sin can only be unreal if it has no effect. And this is precisely what A Course in Miracles teaches.
How can sin have no effect? Let's explore this by going down our list of those three things that sin seems to damage. First, our sins appear to damage the other person, whom the Course calls our brother. Our attacks can appear to destroy his property, bruise his ego, and even injure his body. Yet A Course in Miracles makes the radical claim that our brother's true Identity (which the Course capitalizes in honor of Its magnitude) is none of these things. In reality, says the Course, our brother is a changeless, eternal being, who has mistakenly identified with his ego, his body, and his property. This idea has the most sweeping implications. One of these is that, by definition our brother cannot be hurt, for he is changeless. Speaking of his reality, the Course says, "The winds will blow upon it and the rain will beat against it, but with no effect. The world will wash away and yet this house will stand forever" (T-28.VII.7:3-4). Our "sins" have no real effect upon our brother, and so they do not exist.
The second effect of sin was that it seems to damage our relationship with God. Yet what if God does not want our relationship with Him damaged? What if He wants to remain at one with us regardless of what we have done? Doesn't He get His way? He is, after all, God. The Course says, "Sin is perceived as mightier than God, before which God Himself must bow, and offer His creation to its conqueror. Is this humility or madness?" (T-19.III.7:6-7). We would do well to ask ourselves this question. Believing that we have sinned seems like an expression of humility. Yet is it really? The concept of sin implies that we have overpowered God Himself. Even though He willed to remain forever close to us, we supposedly had the power to distance ourselves from Him. Is this humility or madness?
According to A Course in Miracles, our relationship with God is changeless. Nothing can affect its eternal harmony and beauty. All we can do is fall asleep to it. Yet even while we sleep, we sleep in His Arms. Our "sins" have no real effect on our relationship with God, and so they do not exist.
The third effect of sin was that it seems to damage our own soul, to tarnish the core of our identity and stain it with guilt. This rests on the idea that we injured other people, but, as we saw, that never really happened. How can we be guilty if we never actually hurt anyone? Moreover, if we really believe that our identity was created by God, doesn't the idea of tarnishing it again imply that absurd notion of overpowering God? The Course teaches that despite our worst mistakes and most angry attacks, our true Identity remains forever pure, because that is the Will of our Creator. This means that our feelings of guilt are not a direct experience of our defiled soul. They are a psychological illusion, created by our belief in a defilement that never happened. Our "sins" have no real effect on our Identity, and so they do not exist.
Can you see what liberating news this is? If the Course is correct, our deepest sorrow is the pain of lost innocence. In some sense, all of the tears we shed are tears for an innocence that, in our eyes, can never be recovered. We appear to have so defiled our original purity that there is no hope for us; we can never go back home. The Course does not deny that we have made mistakes. It does not even deny murderous intent on our part. It does not deny the darkness in the human heart. It simply denies that our attacks and our mistakes had any real effect. And that means that there is hope for us. There is a way out of sorrow, for our sorrow is actually groundless. It is based on a false premise. We have never injured our brother. We have never separated ourselves from God. And we have never defiled our soul. We are free of all the sins we ever thought we committed. We are sinless.
This is a radical point of view, one which may take us a long time to accept, if we accept it at all. My teaching partner, Allen Watson, found that for him this was perhaps the single most objectionable idea in A Course in Miracles. He wrestled with it for years. Accepting that there is no sin can feel like a betrayal of God. Yet I believe it is an acknowledgment of God, of His absolute sovereignty. Sin is not the Will of God, and His Will is all-powerful. There is no sin, because God is God. The innocence we thought we lost has never been tainted. It shines within us still, as brightly as the instant God created us. If we can accept this idea, we are accepting cause for endless gratitude, in which the following prayers become the joyous outpouring of our own heart:
We have misunderstood all things. But we have not made sinners of the holy Sons of God. What You created sinless so abides forever and forever. Such are we. And we rejoice to learn that we have made mistakes which have no real effects on us. Sin is impossible, and on this fact forgiveness rests upon a certain base more solid than the shadow world we see. (W-pII.359.1:2-7)
Father, my thanks to You for what I am; for keeping my Identity untouched and sinless, in the midst of all the thoughts of sin my foolish mind made up. And thanks to You for saving me from them. Amen. (W-pII.229.2:1-3)