I suppose I've been troubled by what I've heard my whole life about sin. For the longest time, I pictured God as a divine judge with a literal book in which was written every little thing you did wrong, no matter how small. And there was another book, a giant reference manual. In this book, God took your sins and used them to look up the corresponding appropriate punishment.
The "upside" of the story, I was told, was that if you were a Christian Jesus would come along and overwrite the consequences for all your sins, a sort of divine posting of bail. You did something wrong, you deserved to be punished, but Christ got you out of it.
And for years, I've thought this is how sin works. You sin, you deserve a punishment that God's role as judge demands, but grace gets you off the hook. But I think there's something not only unhelpful in this story but actually something wrong with it.
"Karma" is the Sanskrit word for "action" and is used as "volition" in Buddhism. Karma is not what most of us think. We tend to think of karma as rewards or punishments that we've accumulated for ourselves. That view is not unlike our story of the divine judgment of God. Instead, as Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula notes, karma simply means action and it is in the nature of an action, the karma, that the effect is produced.
In this way, good action - good karma - produces good effects. Bad action - bad karma - produces bad effects. It doesn't produce these because a divine judge is dealing out rewards or punishments. It produces these because an action by it's very nature can't help but have one result. Like pushing a hockey puck in a certain direction on an ice rink, good karma has good results and vice versa. If you push the puck to the right, it can't help but glide in that direction. If you push it to the left, it can't help but keep moving left. It will never switch directions, it just keeps going where you've sent it.
It's helpful to think of sin as similar to karma in this way. While it's theologically true that sin has eternal consequences for your soul, sin's consequences are first and foremost in the here and now. People who exercise avarice, lust, or anger do not feel fulfilled. They do not exist in a happy place. You've heard "virtue is its own reward." Well, sin is its own punishment. Like karma, sin can't help but produce negative consequences. Drop a ball from a great height and it can't help but fall. Sin is like that. It can't help but have negative effects for you in the present.
C. S. Lewis said that each sin committed served to orient you slightly away from the direction of God. Each time you sin, you turn a little more and a little more until you no longer have a clear perspective of God. And that's the real danger.
The English mystic Julian of Norwich said that the reason God doesn't want us to sin is that it keeps us from seeing God as God truly is and from seeing ourselves as we truly are. That's it! God doesn't get upset with our sin because we broke rules or because we made God cry. God simply desires we not sin because doing so pulls a cloak over our eyes. It fogs our mirror. Sin's consequences punish us in the present by clouding our view of Reality.
And isn't that what heaven is - perfect seeing? Isn't the concept of perfect union with God a face-to-face vision? This is why prophets in Scripture must physically turn away from God and never look directly upon him. This is why they're only ever permitted a glimpse at God's back. And this is why in Catholicism we say that to be in heaven is to experience the beatific vision - to be able to stand the "brightness" of looking upon God's face.
Sin isn't bad because it violates a divine and arbitrary rule book, and God isn't waiting to deal out punishments that correspond to what you've done. No, sin is the punishment! Sin carries within itself the life-draining effects we often think are reserved only for the end of time. God isn't waiting to hurt us for our sin. We're the ones hurting ourselves. This seems to be a much healthier view offering us both more freedom and a more loving image of God.
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