I’m fumbling for a third way to define sin. I recently led a Sunday-morning discussion in our church on the topic of the social gospel. In that discussion, I found it helpful to distinguish between two different ways of understanding sin.

The first understanding sees sin as personal moral failure. If I commit bad acts, or have bad thoughts, or deliberately fail to be a good person, then I have sinned. For example, when I was younger and living at home, if I went out drinking with friends at a bar and told my parents that I was at Bob’s house, I was intentionally deceiving my parents into thinking I was not out drinking. In my heart I knew I was sinning; I was lying in my heart.

If I went “too far” with my girlfriend, either in my mind or with my hands, I knew I had sinned, because sex before marriage was against the will of God (according to youth leaders and pastors). If I saw someone drop a five-dollar bill and kept it for myself, it was stealing—a sin. A sign of faithfulness was attending church on a regular basis.

At that time, I did not see other forms of sin. I didn’t see the beer ads as promoting a view of men as macho and women as sex objects. I did not see the church’s narrow allowances for physical intimacy as a form of patriarchal and heterosexist control. I did not see any problem with relatively wealthy Mennonite bosses hiring cheap labour to make large profits as a form of stealing or exploitation.

A second understanding of sin occurred to me when I discovered the social gospel. This is a gospel that brings good news to groups of people: those in prison, those who suffer under male domination, those who are poor and unemployed, those who hunger in cities where food is abundant, those whose skin colour does not give them special benefits. In my mind, it’s also a gospel that brings good news to the salmon who can’t swim upstream because of dams and to the trees which long to set roots and not be ploughed under.

A sign of faithfulness in this case would be to go to church without the use of a car: walk, bike or bus. These types of Christians care more about how they get to church than if they go at all.

The problem with seeing sin as a social structure is a lack of hope; it’s hard to have a sense of spiritual vitality when human-caused suffering and destruction is so prevalent. As people of privilege, we can’t escape our participation in social sins.

This leads me to a third understanding of sin. It is a sense of despair and alienation that comes from withdrawing from full participation in our life situation. This can be a personal sense of resignation, aloofness, a nebulous decision that nothing matters. But it is also a society-wide pattern of behaviour that sets personal gratification and material aspirations over against love of neighbour and connecting with a Spirit of Life among us.

This is where spiritual exercises become necessary once again. Personal actions such as prayer and contemplation, while nostalgic for some, become surprisingly refreshing when they include awareness of social sin and the need for grace and courage. Communal actions—such as gathering on a Sunday morning to sing and hear stories of failure, faith and forgiveness—become life-giving exercises. They become conduits of salvation. We begin to feel hope on a personal level, and, if we are faithful and wise, we begin to live in a way that embodies love and a more just and sustainable future.

Aiden Enns welcomes your feedback and ideas. He is a member of Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man., and the co-editor of Geez magazine. He can be reached at aiden@geezmagazine.org.