Sunday, May 4, 2008

Is It a Sin?

Many discussions in the LDS community (and perhaps the Christian community in general), relate to the question: Is it a sin, or isn't it? Here are some examples of some such debates:

Is it a sin to drink caffeine? What about coffee if the person is not a member of the LDS church? What about eating meat in the summer?

Is it a sin to buy myself something that I don't really need once in a while, instead of using that money for more productive or charitable causes?

Is it a sin to go into debt to make what you believe to be a wise business investment?

Is it a sin to get a tattoo? How about a small one? What if you aren't a member of the church? (This is actually the question that inspired this post).

My purpose it not to debate any of these specific arguments, but rather to talk about the debate itself.

First, we should consider the question: What is sin? If you ask random people to define sin, you might get these two general responses:

1) Sin is disobeying the commandments of God.
2) Sin is doing something that God doesn't want us to do.

On first glance, these two definitions might seem like two ways to say the same thing. However, they are really very different. The scriptures tell us that there are many things God wants us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us to do. There are also many things God does not want us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us not to do. So we can see that there is plenty of room for debate between "disobeying the commandments" and "doing something God doesn't want us to do."

Another related issue is what we should do with "advice" or "encouragement" that we get from our spiritual leaders. Here's an interesting example from the LDS website (thanks again to the discussion from this post):

"Latter-day prophets strongly discourage the tattooing of the body. Those who disregard this counsel show a lack of respect for themselves and for God."

This is interesting since it seems to support both sides of the argument. On one hand, it uses the word "encourage," which suggests it is not a commandment, which some might use to argue that it is not sinful. However, it also says that by ignoring the advice, people show a lack of respect for God. Clearly, that is sinful, isn't it? But on the other hand, if ignoring the advice or encouragement of a prophet is a sin, then why make a distinction? Why not just command it?

Another example is the prophet's encouragement to get out of debt. This is usually communicated as advice, but if it is sinful to ignore the prophet, what's the difference?

So I've raised a lot of questions and shown how opposite views of the spectrum are reasonable. So what's my answer to this dichotomy? It's simple: We're asking the wrong question. The question should not be "Is this a sin?" It should be "What are the consequences of this action?"

All actions have consequences: good, bad, temporal, and spiritual. From this perspective, I would define "sin" as something we do (or don't do) which has negative spiritual consequences. In other words, we sin when we do something that separates us further from God and makes it more difficult to achieve his plan. The seriousness of the sin is proportional to the magnitude of the negative consequences. That definition is purposefully vague, because the word "sin" itself is a generality. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk in terms of consequences, rather than in terms of sin or righteousness.

Consider the question: Is it a sin to go into debt for non-essential reasons? Debating this question glosses over the more important question: What are the consequences? Interestingly, when the prophet gives us this advice, he doesn't say "because God said so." He says, "because here are some of the bad things that might happen..." (I'm paraphrasing here, of course. See this talk for an example).

Perhaps the prophet is more concerned about helping us make choices that will have positive consequences in this life and the next, and less concerned about what we should place the "sin" label on. Perhaps we should be too.


Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughts. I'm afraid I have nothing else to add, however. :)

Bruce Nielson

Anonymous said...

Sin is willful disobedience to specific commandments. There is a difference between that and transgression which is an unknowing breaking of the law or an unintended mistake. And there are many gray areas, which is why we need the help of the Holy Spirit so badly!

I know it was my comment at Mormanity about having gotten a tattoo prior to coming to the Church that inspired this. lol I'll say that I did not believe I was committing sin when I got them.

Even if it was a sin, my baptism would have washed the sin clean although the consequences would still remain.

Now that I'm a member, I'd say that directly ignoring the counsel of a Prophet would be sin. Especially since getting a tattoo is something SO meaningless to living one's life.

Concerning the WoW. When I read it I get the message that meat should only be eaten in times of famine. Since in these days we don't have famines (at least in USA), I don't buy meat at all. I do eat it sometimes while dining out or if I'm invited to dinner and they serve it. If there are enough 'side dishes' I usually opt for those. But I would never tell anyone else they had to make a choice like that.

Concerning debt to start a business I've heard Prophetic counsel that it is one of the okay reasons to have debt. Where would we be if everyone was an employee and there were no employers?

I wish I could see the original post while typing this answer. lol

Maybe focus on one question at a time. lol ;)

That's all I can type for right now.

Anonymous said...

Sheeesh. I missed the whole bottom section of your post so I commented on some things you already dealt with. Sorry! lol

sans auto said...

From this perspective, I would define "sin" as something we do (or don't do) which has negative spiritual consequences. In other words, we sin when we do something that separates us further from God and makes it more difficult to achieve his plan. The seriousness of the sin is proportional to the magnitude of the negative consequences.

-Isn't the separation from God the most serious consequence? So wouldn't that make all sins equal in magnitude? ( I have non-member friends who argue that all the time from Galatians.) IN which case it would matter if it is a sin. I agree with Jayleenb that a sin is knowing the will of God and not doing it, so it takes knowledge before you can sin. And the more you understand, the easier it is to sin.

Just some thoughts, I liked the post.

Mike said...


Yes, it was partially your comment as well as mine (weird--I inspired my own post) at Mormanity that got me thinking about this issue, eventually to conclude that talking in terms of "is it a sin?" is not very productive.

san auto,

The "all sins are equal" argument never sat very well with me. It's true that all sin separates us from God to some extent (by definition--that is the main negative spiritual consequence I talked about in my post), but I don't see why that has to mean that all sin separates us from God to the same extent, or that it is equally difficult to reconcile with God after any kind of sin. So I do think there are varying magnitudes. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

On what do you base the presumption that it is sinful to not heed advice or encouragement?

Mike said...


I'm not presuming that. I'm only pointing out that some people would consider it to be a sin to ignore the advice or encouragement of the prophet. And I believe that point of view is supportable, as I tried to point out in my post. However, I also believe the opposite position is supportable, as I also tried to point out. I was setting up the dichotomy to lead to the point that the answer doesn't matter so much, since we perhaps should be thinking more about consequences and less about "is it a sin?"