"to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17).
I found myself wondering today about sin. What it is. Where it comes from. How it can be completely tempting and damning at the same time. Why I fall into its trap. How it's defined and set out for me, and for the world.
Hopefully, by the end of this post, I'll know a little bit more.
In James, sin is described as having two components: "Knowing to do good" and "not doing it."
Knowledge about what is good comes in many ways. The first, and most universal, is conscience, or the light of Christ, that imbues me, and all men, with an innate understanding of right and wrong.
"For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil" (Moroni 7:16).
I don't know exactly what the light of Christ teaches. I'd assume that, like most other gifts from God, it grows or diminishes based on my willingness to follow what it teaches me, or based on my ability to listen to its influence. The presence of ethics, moral situations, and people who make great choices in life without necessarily attributing them to divine guidance makes me think that the light of Christ is actually pretty comprehensive. That could be why good people can exist in and outside of ecclesiastical organizations, in countries where churches have never set foot, and in places where people have had to completely reconstruct the moral foundations of society.
But the light of Christ isn't enough by itself, because I don't think it actually teaches new information about goodness; it just helps me choose when I have different options presented to me.
Hence the need for the second and only other source of knowledge: God Himself.
The light of Christ allows me to choose between the options that I see in life. But God does something more. He can see the pathway that I walk, and knows which way will lead me to happiness. So He reveals that truth-goodness to me.
That happens in a lot of different ways. In the days of Adam, it was simple. God spoke to Adam face-to-face, sent angels, gave him dreams, and inspired his mind. But as soon as Eve entered the scene, truth became transferable. And in the days that followed, God could speak to any man he chose, and those men could then teach others how to be happy.
God chose prophets to lead and guide His people to happiness, and gave them power to prove their authority to men. When the Lord speaks to prophets, it is for the benefit of mankind as a whole.
Then there's when God speaks to His children one-on-one. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, or visions, or dreams, or angels, God still speaks me individually even when there is a prophet... because the prophet teaches a broad, universally applicable set of truths that will help everyone find happiness in eternity. But to rise to an even higher level, I need to understand what else I can do, or not do, to find happiness in my daily life.
Then there was the advent of science, as God inspired men to comprehend the workings of the universe and gave them tools to understand more. Writing, wherein truth could be preserved and passed down, unaltered, from generation to generation.
Today, the truth is dispersed among hundreds of thousands of voices. A prophet that receives continuing revelation for the world. Scriptures that teach applications of doctrine throughout diverse circumstances. The Holy Ghost. Science and medicine and philosophy and art and music and language, all giving insight into the workings of eternity, all offering pathways that purport to lead to happiness.
Short backtrack: It's interesting to me that, even though I am different from anyone else in the world, the pathway to happiness has portions that look the same to me as they do to everyone else. Hence the presence of commandments.
Sometimes I wonder why they're called commandments... and what they really are. I think that looking at sin as something inherently evil is not really on the mark. Many sins do seem inherently evil, but the definition given in James is much broader. It feels like to me that anything that leads me away from eternal happiness is what he was talking about.
Anything that leads me away from greater happiness is sin.
I think the simple reason is that God loves me. And the definition of love is wanting me to be happy more than anything else, and being willing to do anything to help me achieve that happiness. Mediocre parents give their kids whatever they want. Good parents tell their kids to eat their vegetables. But the perfect Father created life as an opportunity for the perfect experience to teach me to be happy. The distinctions of right and wrong and good and evil are simply distinctions to help me find happiness along the path.
Anything less than full happiness is unacceptable to anyone who really loves someone. But that doesn't mean that life will always be happy. Because I'm sort of dense, the Lord has given me plenty of experiences that, in the end, helped me to grow and learn and appreciate life and be happier... but in the moment I was miserable. But that's a sidetrack.
Hence anything that leads me away from the final destination would be sin.
What's crazy, is that as I follow further along the path, God gives me more knowledge... and that knowledge enables me to better choose what is good. Maybe before I knew that I should eat healthily, but my thought was that "healthily" meant eating everything in moderation. Then I learn about the Word of Wisdom and am better able to choose the right things to stay healthy, and I'm happier. Then I read a study by the American Heart Association and the Holy Ghost confirms that I need to give up sugar, and I'm happier still.
So... what's the temptation then?
I think that the temptation of sin is the temptation of the known vs. the unknown. Trust in what I can see and touch and feel, versus trust in God and the things I can't see or touch or feel. Ultimately, I sin because I honestly choose to believe, in the moment, that whatever I'm doing is worth it. That of all the possible routes to happiness, this one is the best. If I'm aligned with God, then I can be sure that my actions will lead to happiness. But whenever I choose something that doesn't align with what I know, that's sin.
The difficulty comes when the pain of sin, and the happiness of goodness, don't come immediately. When a spoonful of sugar tastes good, and broccoli doesn't. If all sins were painful, no one would do them. I wouldn't. Even a few seconds of distance makes it easy to forget and to believe that the gain of sin will outweigh the pain that follows. Like when someone who is extremely lactose-intolerant convinces himself that eating ice cream is worth it, even though he knows that 3 hours of pain isn't worth 5 minutes of food. So it takes humility and faith.
I think it's amazing that God put into place so many guideposts to help me find my way. Some sins - like sexual sins - can have a lasting impact but seem to be (according to modern society) somewhat benign. They were so central to the commandments that people in Israel were stoned for sexual sin, and Christ taught that simply lusting after someone (not even committing the act) was a major sin. The reasons why could seem numerous: Science has shown that the rush of endorphins that accompanies sexual activity embeds it in the brain forever, changing the brain's function in the future. It's the power of creating life. It's the closest I get to being like God - having the ability to become a father. But the reality is that even with modern science and centuries of prophets, I don't know why the road to happiness looks the way it does. I just know it does... and that a loving God knows what things will have a profound effect on my happiness. Hence why He declares them sin.
It would be easy to stagnate in life. To do things that will give temporary pleasure and move from one stage of life to another, focusing on the things that I know will make me happy now. But God has something better in mind. He knows that eventually life's satisfactions lose their savor. That illness, disability, and sorrow won't disappear simply by indulging in life. He wants me to have the ability to be happy no matter what is happening in my life. And I have no idea what eternity is going to look like.
So there it is. I think I understand a little better. And, in my mind, I get the feeling that I need to be humble. To realize that God really does understand who I am, what I face, and the desires and pains of my heart. He knows what will help me be happy, and will always help me know the right direction to go.
I just need to make sure that, when the time comes that sin and its seduction make their appearance next, I'm willing to believe that God knows and loves me... and follow Him on the road to happiness instead of trying to make my own way.