Home » SIN: What Is It? Why Do We Do It?

SIN: What Is It? Why Do We Do It?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
18 minutes read

As a young boy, I did not know I suffered from iron deficiency and lactose intolerance. For a long time, I felt fatigued and exhausted. I suffered from frequent headaches, could barely wake up in the mornings for school, and performed poorly. To make things worse, as a creative kid, I would often daydream. My imagination would run as fast and wild as an antelope escaping its predator. So, concentrating for a long period was impossible. People around me (teachers, family, friends) considered me a lazy bum and a slacker who had nothing but contempt for everything and everyone. As people judged my “sinful” external behavior, I would suffer the consequences accordingly (some of which would make the Pearls proud). Can you imagine how frustrated I became? My energy level was already minimal, and so was my motivation. I felt misunderstood, discouraged, and depressed and wanted nothing but to get out of this world. I was convinced there was something wrong with who I was. But the real problem I had was physical. Many years later, I learned about it and started taking iron supplements, which I still take to this day.

Why do we sin? The wrong view

Some preachers promote the idea that all human behavior is evil and that people are nothing but evil. Here’s an example by John Piper:

All men are in total rebellion. Everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God but only part of their sinful rebellion…Man’s inability to submit to God and do good is total.[i]

This view not only turns people into pure evil beings but unconsciously undermines the existence of God’s image in people. In Calvinistic theology, this is called “Total Inability,” meaning that all non-Christians are nothing but evil. In his book, “The Five Points of Calvinism,” Steele explains:

Inasmuch as Adam’s offspring are born with sinful natures, they do not have the ability to choose spiritual good over evil. Consequently, man’s will is no longer free.[ii]

Likewise, in “Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism,” Spencer explains:

Natural (soulish) unregenerate men cannot comprehend the things of God. They are the unborn dead (spiritually) who know only darkness. They are totally depraved, wholly incapable of thinking, perceiving, or doing anything pleasing to God.[iii]

While I agree we are completely depraved in the sense that there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift of grace), I object to the idea that people are born depraved in a way the image of God is no longer in them and as such are “wholly incapable of thinking, perceiving, or doing anything pleasing to God.”

Sure, people can be evil, but they are not inherently evil themselves. The image of God still very much exists in mankind and produces many good deeds. Otherwise, from a moral perspective, killing an “unregenerated” person would be just as bad as killing any other animal or insect. But life experience also disproves the Calvinistic Total Inability doctrine.

Holland is a country known for hiding Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Once, as I flew there to deliver a speech, I sat next to a lovely old Dutch woman traveling back from Israel. A sweet old Dutch woman visiting Israel? She must be a Christian, or so I thought. Well, she wasn’t. The reason she gave was interesting. Back in the day, some of her Christian friends and acquaintances refused to hide Jews from the Nazi authorities because they said, “it is a sin to lie.” Meanwhile, some of her non-Christian acquaintances did hide Jews, risking their own lives. If they were caught, they would be executed alongside the Jews. It is hard for me to imagine how someone who has completely lost the image of God in them and “does not have the ability to choose good” would be able to do such a self-sacrificial act.

And what about non-Christian parents adopting autistic kids or a non-Christian donating their kidney? Are all of these acts, too, to use the words of John Piper, “a product of rebellion” and part of people’s “inability to do good”? I beg to differ. I believe these and other acts are very pleasing to God and prove that the image of God is still very much alive and kicking in non-believers too. In fact, even the New Testament acknowledged some non-Christians as being “righteous and God-fearing” (Acts 10:22).

The fact that people can and do make bad and evil decisions doesn’t contradict the fact that God’s image is in people who can choose to do things that are good and pleasing to Him.

Why do we sin? An alternative view

It’s by no accident that most sociopaths and psychopaths were severely abused as small children.[iv] [v] Our brains are a network of neurons that form associations with every life situation since we were babies. These associations, for better or worse, subconsciously affect our worldview, reactions, decision-making, and who we are – in ways we are unaware of. For example, if a dog bit us as a child, we are likely to fear dogs as adults. If we grow up only hearing criticism, we will likely become hypercritical.

But it’s not just about our past. Our brains are holistic, which means that we have much less patience when our battery runs low. For example, if we are hungry, sleep deprived, or stressed, we make far worse decisions. This is because we are a holistic body-spirit organism. The interplay between what is happening inside and outside of us affects our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. Our physical state affects our mental state, and vice versa.

I might be somewhat impatient if you nag me before my morning coffee or if I woke up sick. I am also more likely to be rude if it’s a hot and humid August day and you do not care enough to put on deodorant. However, if you came to me in the evening, smelling good and offering me a glass of delicious pinot noir and a ribeye steak, I would likely beam at you. It is not because I am evil in the mornings and righteous in the evenings. It’s because I am human. However, in the eyes of preachers such as John MacArthur, these are nothing but excuses because “God only accepts absolute perfection.”[vi] It’s no wonder that secular people view Christians as harsh, condescending, and legalistic. After all, what kind of father demands absolute perfection from his children or else denounces or kills them?

What my dog taught me about sin

In 2009, I adopted a small “dorkie” breed dog from a shelter. He is now (2023) sitting on my lap as I’m writing these lines. “Dorkie” is a funny-looking dog breed. It’s a mix between Yorkshire Terrier and Dachshund. So, mine is short, extra-long, and very hairy. And since both parents have strong personalities, “dorkies” often come with a personality that won’t shame a dictator.

The reason it was in a shelter is that the little fellow went through some severe trauma and abuse by his previous owners. As a result, he came with some weird and unacceptable behaviors. For example, whenever he sees black leather shoes, he instantly loses his mind. He turns into a bloodthirsty beast mixed with the temper of a fourteen-year-old teenage girl who lost her phone, throwing a tantrum and aggressively attacking the shoes. I told him this behavior was unacceptable in my house, but in his mind, it was a life-or-death situation because he was about to be kicked in his face by the shoes. In fact, he was probably kicked in his face with shoes a lot in his past. His past as an abused pup is why he reacts in this “sinful” way in the present. Regardless of his wrongdoings, I love my crazy little dog. His behavior sometimes upsets me, but like many others, I have decided to sacrifice my comfort, time, resources, and energy for his well-being. He doesn’t always appreciate it. In fact, not once did he repent. But even during his worst times (did I mention he suffers from separation anxiety and pees on the balcony most times he’s left alone?), kicking him (out of the house) is not an option. While far from perfect, I think of myself as a good owner. So, if I, as a good owner, will not forsake my dog because of bad behavior, I know God, who is much more compassionate and graceful than I will ever be, would never abandon me because of my stupid behavior either (I did far worse things than biting someone’s shoes).

As with my dog, people who suffered abuse as children often turn out to be adults who wrestle with similar issues, perhaps even turning abusers themselves. This is how sin works. It creeps through generations. Of course, we are not dogs, and we can’t only blame others for our bad decisions. However, like dogs, trauma can affect us and cause us to engage in behaviors we otherwise wouldn’t.

We sin because we are damaged

Often, obscene behavior in a person is a defense mechanism developed due to challenging life circumstances or trauma they have experienced. For example, a poor and hungry child quickly realizes that by fawning and flattery, he receives dinner invitations from friends. As an adult, they turn out to be a “people pleaser” and a sociotropic individual. A woman who was sexually assaulted as a child subconsciously believed that if she gained a lot of weight, men would keep away from her. As an adult, she suffers from eating disorders.[1] A child who has been emotionally abused develops indifference and immunity to emotions so that he may not get hurt. But as an adult, they are emotionally detached. I know this to be true because this is how it affected me. You see, words can be worse than swords, as “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21). And sometimes, even one word spoken out of place can leave scars on people’s souls forever. In many cases, words can be just as bad as firearms, as “students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly two times more likely to attempt suicide.”[vii] This is why “everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). And God knows we have spoken many empty words in our lives.

Children are most affected by their own families in many ways. For example, how likely do you think it is for a child who grew up in an environment of addiction to become an addict themselves? According to Dr. Donald W Goodwin, children of alcoholic fathers are four times more likely to become alcoholics than other children.[viii]

Some people may refer to it as a “family curse,” but scientific research has shown that negative behaviors can pass through generations, with the sins of our parents affecting us in various ways, including at the genetic level, as “childhood experiences can permanently change your DNA.[ix] Behavioral epigenetics is the field of study examining the role of epigenetics in shaping human and animal behavior.[x] And it proves that our experiences affect our genes. So, your ancestors’ decisions affect who you are today. I’m sure your doctor, too, once asked you if you have this or that disease running in your family’s history. Our physical diseases affect our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. For example, teens who suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are known for being volatile and violent. According to the CDC:

Teenagers and adults with FASDs are at a higher risk for having encounters with police, authorities, or the judicial system. Difficulty controlling anger and frustration, combined with problems understanding the motives of others, result in many people with FASDs being involved in violent or explosive situations.[xi]

Do we seriously believe we can fix these and other illnesses by whipping, caning, paddling, and belting children?

We are mentally and emotionally forged by our parents, their mistakes, and those in the society we live in. Our parents, too, are sinners born to sinner parents. In this sense, all of us are “brought forth in iniquity.” There is no way around sin. It’s a swamp from which none of us can completely escape or isolate ourselves. Everyone and everything around us constantly affects us, and we affect others in an endless loop of sin. The only fix is becoming perfect, but perfection is out of this world.

And yet, it is not only childhood experiences that affect us. For example, a man who needed painkillers due to an injury and developed an addiction that ended up costing him his job, leaving him unable to support his family; a single mother who works three jobs to make a living while her teenage son grows up on the streets, making the wrong friends because his mom is never home. When his mom got sick, he found himself dealing drugs to support her; a teacher who had a bad morning at home and later took it out on one of the girls in her class. The girl then returned home after school and took it out on her sister, who in turn took it out on their little brother, who took it out on the poor dog.

Sin moves in cycles, and trauma begets more trauma. People who are hurting tend to hurt others more, which is how sin operates. And we didn’t even mention mental conditions, brain damage, and many other things that affect human behavior and attitude (like really bad theology). Since things like mental conditions and brain damage are known to affect human behavior, it would make no sense and be cruel for God’s salvation to be limited or dependent on the condition of our damaged mental or physical bodies.

Who’s to blame?

I am not suggesting that a child stealing a piece of fruit or candy from the store’s stand because they are hungry means he is innocent of guilt or free from sin. We are responsible for our decisions and therefore bear the responsibility for our wrongdoings. But while sometimes people sin as a pure reflection of evil, more often than not, people sin because they are under pressure, in survival mode, don’t understand, or for many other reasons. Whatever the reason, there is almost always more to blame than just the person who committed the offense.

So, it seems that even a sin that came your way may act as a catalyst, causing you to sin against others. Of course, this is not an excuse, merely an explanation that humans are holistic and greatly affected by their surroundings. But this also means we are more responsible for others than we would like to admit. If you said or did something that hurt someone else, who then went and took it out on a third person, some of that is on your conscience. This is why God gave collective punishments to Israel for the sins of individuals (Joshua 7:1-13), teaching Israel that whatever we do affects even our community.[2] We are deeply immersed in each other’s sins, yet we are responsible for one another. The idea that “it’s his problem, not mine” doesn’t exist in God’s kingdom. Shutting our eyes, ears, and hearts to the pain of others because “they got what they deserve” is not a Christ-like solution. We were created to live in a community, meaning we can only progress as fast as our weakest link, and you can’t cut links off.

But Jesus taught us that we are not just a community; in him, we are a family. Family members ought to forgive one another. So, if someone in your family-community doesn’t live up to your standards, you don’t cut them off. Instead, you do everything in your power to build them back up. And if needed, you do that four hundred and ninety times. This is what love and forgiveness are all about. So, when there is an opportunity to forgive, but instead, we condemn and reject, we are virtually sinning ourselves:

Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

In contrast with forgiveness, to judge someone is to use their sins against them. Sometimes, society must use someone’s sin against them; otherwise, judges would be jobless, prisons would be empty, and anarchy would reign. But once someone has paid the consequences for their actions, we should no longer hold it against them. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). We need to enable people who have sinned against us to start anew. Forgiveness is the gift of a fresh start, time and again.

Think about it. According to James 4:17, as a Christian, you must love and forgive—even your enemies—and give sacrificially to those in need. If you don’t do it, it is a sin for you (because you knew it was the right thing to do but failed to do it). If we are honest with ourselves, we miss plenty of these opportunities to do good all the time. In other words, locking yourself in a room (so that you may never sin) will not actually keep you from sinning.

So, what is Sin?

Perhaps a better way to define sin is by considering its Hebrew term. In Hebrew, the word used for “sin” literally means “to miss.”[xii] If someone is shooting with a gun in a shooting range and misses the bullseye, in Hebrew, we would say that they’ve “sinned the target.” In that respect, “to sin” is to miss the target or to fail to fulfill a goal. This linguistic association in the mind of the Hebrew speaker connects “to sin” and “to miss” together. Therefore, I would propose that “to sin” is “to miss the will of God.” In other words, sin is – whenever we (as individuals or communities) fail to walk according to the image of God within us.

So, as Christians, we need to remind ourselves — all the time — that the image of God is in us. Otherwise, we tend to forget, and when we do, that selfish beast living inside us slowly raises its head again. But we also need a constant reminder that the image of God is in non-believers too, and therefore, love and make sacrifices for them, regardless of their faith, race, political view, or gender.

If a woman uses the best hair products, masks, conditioners, and shampoos but doesn’t keep a nourishing diet to supply her body with vitamins and minerals, her hair will start falling out. This is what some modern-age coaching feels like to me at times. Unfortunately, it’s missing the essential mineral or vitamin for self-development and improvement. We are not just to believe in ourselves; we are to believe God’s image is in us. God’s image in us enables us to be creative, strong, smart, and beautiful human beings who never give up.

A mixed bag of good and evil

Humans are a mixed bag of “good” and “evil.” I love the straightforward way Jewish psychologist Zvia Granot said it:

Each of us is half good and half bad. This is as clear as the fact that each of us is both left and right.[xiii]

Good, as in making good decisions, such as sacrificing your time and energy for the sake of someone in need. Bad, as in making selfish decisions and ignoring those in need. Some bad decisions are not necessarily motivated by evil intentions. Maybe you woke up with a dreadful headache this morning. Regardless of the reason, you have made the choice you have made, which can sometimes be a good one and sometimes not. This battle occurs every day within all of us. Acting as a Christian means seeking to do good despite your feelings and against your selfish will. It means choosing to love others and sacrificing for them, even if they don’t deserve your kindness or love.

Life brings about stress. Anyone can choose to escape. I can shave my head, buy a Kasaya (brown robe) and move to a monastery on top of a quiet and peaceful mountain in the far east. There’s not much stress up there. But greatness is not in escaping life. Being a Christian is much about making the right choices — sacrificing for others’ sake — even when life is stressful and uncomfortable. Martin Luther King said it well:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.[xiv]

Forged by Sin

One of my dearest friends had an extremely traumatic childhood, leaving some apparent wounds on her soul. But, at the same time, her traumatic life helped her develop some unique abilities you won’t find in others. As a result, she’s among the smartest, most creative, brilliant people I know. There is actually scientific evidence for it. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson explains:

There’s a famous psychologist named Hans Isaac who was the most highly cited psychologist in the world for a long time. He wrote a great book called “genius”, which is a real study of creativity…He found that early traumatic experiences are good predictors of late creativity. Now, we should also say that early traumatic experiences are also great predictors of catastrophic adult lives. But the thing that people don’t understand about creativity is that there’s no reason to be creative unless you have a problem to solve. If someone dies on you young and you’re forced to fend your way in the world and deal with that kind of trauma, you have to put yourself together in a creative manner, and it’s no joke.

And so, early negative experiences allied with high intelligence and this kind of temperament that we were talking about are one of the things that foster creative production. Parents are misinformed about this sort of thing because they think that if they just do laissez faire things with their children, you know, “you can do anything you want”, they’ll automatically be creative. That’s the stupidest thing you could possibly imagine because that isn’t how creativity works. Creativity emerges when you put serious constraints on things.[xv]

In other words, creativity is forged by hardship and trauma, which are most often caused by sin. People often tell me I’m creative and an entrepreneur. I always thank them and explain they should not be jealous, as it came with a cost. But it is comforting to know that the hardship and trauma we face can build our character. Besides, as any artist knows, the most beautiful creations grow out of pain.

But some parents are so afraid their children will sin and suffer that they would rather keep them locked away, sheltered, and under a strict regime. This is an excellent recipe for destroying innovation, creativity, and courage in children. They fear their children will sin and that some god will strike them down from the heavens with his wrath. So, they would rather punish their children severely than have the wrath coming down on them from the skies. As a result, children of legalistic parents are often afraid to come clean because they know they will be punished.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, was incredibly influential in developmental psychology. Winnicott argued that many children of parents who demanded army-like obedience without hesitation would appear “obedient” to the eye as they fear punishment. However, in return, much of their inner instincts are suppressed and shut down. Winnicott argued that most adults unable to be creative were children of parents who harshly disciplined them in a regime of absolute obedience without tolerating non-obedient behavior.[xvi] This is probably why most of the super-creative people of the 21st century are usually not very religious. However, God is not a religious legalist. In fact, he allowed Abraham and Moses to bargain and argue with him, and he did not punish them for it.

Keeping children in a sterile environment where they always have what they need and want and are never tempted to make mistakes or sin is also problematic. Legalism creates children who later often turn legalistic themselves. Keeping a child in a protected bubble may turn them into dull, bland, shallow, and spoiled adults. Winnicott also showed that “helicopter parenting” is much more likely to create children who become narcissists with feelings of entitlement, unable to coop with real-life struggles.

The external human behavior we see is only the tip of the iceberg of what is happening deep inside our souls, which is always more complex than what might meet the eye. We are not that different from the beasts of the forest, trying to survive one more day. Like them, we also often act out of fear, trying to avoid experiencing trauma. But in contrast to animals, the pain and suffering we as humans experience help us grow and mature (“Run Forrest, Run!”). Learning through experience is learning through feeling emotions. When we feel, we learn. If it’s true that we can’t grow without pain, just imagine what we can learn from a lifestyle of sacrifice. Perhaps our suffering in this world even prepares us to live in the next world.

We have a dark humor joke in Israel. Its army related and goes like this: “If it doesn’t kill you, it will forge you. If it does kill you, it will forge your mother.” Pain and suffering change and build us. Sometimes, they can break us. But, even when we feel broken, the thought of the afterlife reminds us that everything will one day be okay again.

So, we learn through experience. We will only know how to give grace if we’ve first experienced grace ourselves. Imagine you have been somehow wronged by a leader. You will become a better leader, at least in the area you’ve been wronged, because you know what it feels like to be wronged. John wrote, “we love because he first loved us” (1st John 4:19). It is because we first experienced God’s love that we learned what love is and how to show it to others. And as we saw, to love means to suffer. Christ suffered for our sake, so we can now suffer for the sake of others. But the sad truth is that there is no suffering without sin.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] According to brain researcher, Dr. Yossi Chalamish, “Eating disorders are linked to problems with the self-esteem.” (The Brain Ways, pp 170).

[2] “The butterfly effect” (the idea that small, seemingly trivial events may ultimately result in something with much larger consequences.)

[i] John Piper, in his explanation of the Calvinistic doctrine of “total depravity” (monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/piper/depravity.html).

[ii] Steele & Thomas, Five Points of Calvinism, P & R Publishing, 2004. Pg. 19.

[iii] Duane Edward Spencer, Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture. Baker Books, 2002. pp. 35.

[iv] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0272704

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4801766

[vi] https://faithgateway.com/blogs/christian-books/no-merit-of-my-own-righteousness

[vii] Hinduja & Patchin, “Connecting Adolescent Suicide to the Severity of Bullying and Cyberbullying“, 2018.

[viii] Donald W. Goodwin, A Prospective Study of Young Men at High Risk for Alcoholism, February 1985

[ix] Title of an article publish at the science section of Smithsonian Institution magazine, covering a 2017 research by professor Thom McDade: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-childhood-environment-can-permanently-change-DNA-180964869

[x] Miller Greg, Jul 2010: “Epigenetics. The seductive allure of behavioral epigenetics”. Science. 329.

[xi] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/secondary-conditions.html

[xii] Strong’s Concordance, 2398: “chata: ‘to miss’ חָטָא”.

[xiii] zviagranot.co.il/%D7%92%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%A9%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%94%D7%9D/%D7%9B%D7%9C-%D7%94%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%AA-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%9E%D7%A2%D7%A8%D7%9B%D7%AA-%D7%99%D7%97%D7%A1%D7%99%D7%9D/

[xiv] In his sermon, August 1958.

[xv] ‘Lectures Exploring the Psychology of Creativity’. A conversation between Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and Dr. Jordan B Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which took place March 9, 2017 at the National Gallery of Canada.

[xvi] Marc Vernon, “Developing through Difficulty – What you need to know about Donald Winnicott”, YouTube, 2020.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist