Who is in need of rescue, and from what? If life is meant to be educative, and we are learning from our errors, why does the threat of divine retribution loom over our heads? Even if we admit that we are responsible for our own poor choices, why would God punish us for mistakes made along our path to moral growth and betterment?
Job’s visitor Elihu asked this same question, trying to fathom the link between Job’s behavior and his standing before God. His question still rings loud in our ears: “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you to him?” Why do our actions, for good or ill, matter to God, in other words, and why would He choose to punish or reward accordingly?
We have already established that God is invested in our lives and happiness, because He chooses to be a Father to us. His concern with human sin is with the pain and suffering it produces. Sympathy and sorrow, not anger and vengeance, are the emotions we must look to in order to plumb the nature of the divine response to sin. In the biblical book of Judges, Israel repeatedly forsakes the worship of Jehovah, and suffers defeat and oppression at their enemies’ hands as a result. Eventually, the Israelites repent and cry unto the Lord for mercy. In reply, He reminds them of their recurrent faithlessness.
It is not the injured pride of a tyrant that we see here, but the pain of a suffering parent. “Ye have abandoned me,” He responds. Then we read, “and He could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” (“His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel” in the King James Version.) In the language of scripture, this is God’s response to human sin, an underlying sorrow, not anger. Sin is pain, and the intensity of His response to sin is commensurate with the intensity of that pain He knows sin will entail, and in which He has already chosen to share. For He is the God who weeps.
Sin itself is a condition we assume when we place ourselves in opposition to those moral laws that undergird the structure of reality. This condition is naturally one of alienation from God, from those we love, and from “the better angels” of our own nature. Sin is not an arbitrary category God imposes. And it is not synonymous with simple error or misjudgment. This is a truth, like others we are examining, that is best revealed in the searchlight of honest introspection. We know the difference between regret and remorse. We regret giving erroneous directions that get the stranger lost. We feel remorse for the slander deliberately spoken. We regret an action that leads to harm. We feel remorse for choosing that action to inflict harm. Legitimate guilt, the kind we cannot explain away or therapeutically resolve, involves more than bad judgment or human error. The degree of guilt we experience is proportional to the deliberateness with which we cause hurt. Herein lies the clue to the meaning of sin, and the way beyond it.