On Love & Defining Sin

by Scott D. Hendricks

Love never ends, says the Apostle; so we can be sure that it is eternal. It is the energizing force of heaven; it is God himself. Now God has no beginning, and so neither does love, since God is love. But inasmuch as God has no beginning and no end, even so love is the source, middle, and eternal goal of all existence.

Love is not only an all-pervasive energy, it is also ordered by Christ as the greatest commandment, and St. Paul says love is the fulfillment – or accomplishment – of the law. It is the whole point of the law. So we see that love not only pervades time and eternity; it is also our moral purpose.

Of course love has a subject (a lover) and an object (a beloved). True love is both a generous attitude and a gift that is given to someone. When we love things more than people, or creation more than God, we may say our love is false or misguided. So true love properly values God above all, and humans more than material goods. God is the ultimate object of our love, and likewise other humans and their well-being are the proper objects of love.

It is entirely possible, and indeed commonplace for us humans to cherish, dwell on and love lesser things before the greater things. Sin and suffering consist in misuse, or in the disordering of creation. The proper order of God’s creation has been upset through the fall. God is above man, man above creation. So God is loved and worshiped above all, then man is loved, then creation is loved and cared for by God through man. When this order is upset by angels or humans, this is when you have sin or misguided, blameworthy passion.

‘Passion’ comes from the Greek word that means suffering or illness, and can refer to an illness of soul or body. I am particularly fond of how St. Maximus the Confessor uses this word. He says, “A blameworthy passion is a movement of the soul contrary to nature” – in other words, outside of the purpose for which the soul was created. Likewise, he says “The blameworthy passion of love engrosses the mind in material things. The praiseworthy passion of love binds it even to divine things.” Maximus articulates the proper direction of our capacity to love, not unlike St. Augustine’s concept of “rightly ordered love.” Augustine basically asserts that sin is not the opposite of virtue, but the unfortunate disorganizing of our loves into misplaced priorities.

This can be a helpful corrective to a view of sin which locates the attention upon violation of commandments. Indeed, it is true that God gave us commandments for our benefit, and the church fathers would have us see the commandments as a real gift from God completely and utterly conducive and correlative to our original nature. In other words, when God commanded that the first man and woman not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was completely in accord or agreement with their natural dependence upon God and his Word to have faith in his commandment. St. Theophan the Recluse says obedience to the commandments of God places the natural faculties of humans in complete accordance with the original purpose and design with which we were created by God. It was when the crafty serpent challenged the Word of God in the mind of the humans, “Did God really say . . . ?” that they cast doubt upon their memory of God’s commandment. St. Thalassios the Libyan locates the beginning of vice within forgetfulness and ignorance, and this is what we see in the beginning of Genesis, from when the humans doubt the command of God, then disobey, and then are cast out of the garden of Eden to work the soil. After that, with their descendants upon the earth we are told that forgetfulness of God after the first few generations prevails along with lawlessness.

So sin is not only disordered love, a living outside of God’s commandments for which we were created, but it is also forgetfulness of God. I would also like to point out another primary meaning of the word sin – in Greek hamartia – to “miss the mark”. St. Nikodimos of Athos says, “Sin means failure, because it causes the one who commits it to fail to achieve the purpose for which he was created by God.” And we know from St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians that we are to “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” In Orthodoxy sin is not so much seen as a violation of a rule, or a transgression, though it is certainly that, but as failure to become what we were created to become in the first place, which divine image Christ has come to restore in us.

So what sort of hope ought this engender within us? Let me proffer a few suggestions:

  1. If sin is misdirected love, or disordered love, loving things at the wrong time, essentially idolatry, it means that we merely need to re-organize our priorities, perhaps. We ought to turn to Christ and ask him to help us redeem the time, and focus on loving God and our neighbor, more than stuff.
  2. As regards commandments, we ought to remember that a commandment is a word of God, and Jesus is the original, ultimate and final Word of God. Christ revealed the true way of fulfilling the law. Perhaps we ought to look again at the words of Christ, and endeavor to fulfill his commands, by his mercy, trusting in his Grace, with the understanding that to do the commandments is to inhabit the Word of God, and to participate in it.
  3. As we remember God and Christ’s commandments, we will hopefully move from forgetfulness of God to the remembrance of God. The Jesus Prayer can also help, to remember the Name of Jesus. As we do this, we hope with God’s help and grace through the sacraments through the church to slowly become what we were created to be – human, lowly, dignified creatures in communion with the loving Creator Trinity who made us.