An Old and Surprisingly Helpful Definition of Sin

The Soul of Therapy

An Old and Surprisingly Helpful Definition of Sin


What if we define sin as “anxious self-centeredness”? When we empty ourselves of lower energies, what takes their place?

Years ago a patient told me she awoke every morning feeling like God was dangling her by a thread over the eternal fires of Hell. “I’m not even sure I believe in God anymore,” she said. I assured her I wouldn’t want to believe in that kind of God either.

Like my patient, what I learned about sin growing up Catholic was that I could do or not do things that would anger a God who might punish me forever if I didn’t get my act together. Many years later I wondered why the God I was taught to address as Father seemed far less loving than the average human parent. I mean, I’ve been upset at my kids, but so far I’ve never wished them unending torment for their inability to perfectly follow my directives!

In my formative years, sin became strongly associated with a sense of shame, defectiveness, not-good-enough-ness. “Sin” has its roots in the Old English word “synn,” which meant a crime or offense against God. Many people, like me, gave up on the word because, I suppose, we got tired of feeling like criminals for just being human.

It was in a recent meeting with a patient, a retired minister, that I was introduced to a new way to think about sin. She told me that Paul Ramsey, in the 1950 book Basic Christian Ethics, offered “anxious self-centeredness” as one way to define sin. This was so different from anything I’d been taught that I was immediately intrigued. What if early in life I had been instructed that self-centeredness is a basic human tendency that flows from our anxiety about not having enough or not being good enough? Presumably this definition of sin might have motivated parents and educators to help me realize I am inherently sacred as I am—and so is everyone else—so we need not be so anxiously self-centered about getting or being more.

It seems like the opposite of “anxious self-centeredness” would be “peaceful other-centeredness.” That sounds right, but from my work as a psychologist, I know many people center their lives so much on others that they lose awareness of their own worth. Perhaps the opposite of anxious self-centeredness is mindful Self-centeredness. The capital S here signifies that I long to live a life centered on a Self that is larger than my small ego self—what Carl Jung called the Great Self or what some call God.

In the 14th century, the Dominican monk Meister Eckhart was in trouble with the Inquisition for suggesting that when we empty ourselves of ourselves, God is compelled to flow into us. (Those in charge of orthodox belief objected that God could not be compelled to do anything.) Eckhart said we are like a pitcher already completely filled up with ourselves, which prevents God from filling us.

I’ve begun to state Meister Eckhart’s idea this way: When I empty myself of anxious self-centeredness, I am free to live a life of mindful Self-centeredness—that is, to be a channel of love and compassion into the world.

Meister Eckhart was also in trouble for saying, “I pray to God to rid me of God.” What he meant is that our beliefs about God can fill us up so much with anxiety-driven certainties that the non-judging, accepting, compassionate energies of God cannot find their way into our lives. Our rigid ideas about God can block us from living as a God-presence in the world.

Oh, how I wish the priests and nuns who did their best to instill a sense of God and sin in me had known about Paul Ramsey and Meister Eckhart! Like the patient dangling over Hell, I had to stop believing in a dark, angry God to be obeyed and feared before I could aspire to live a mindfully Self-centered life.

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