Published in dialog, 38:4, Fall 1999, pp. 294-297, with 5 responses and my response to the respondents. 

Sin: An Abusive Doctrine?

By Gary Pence

Almost every week, when I used to attend Sunday morning worship as a boy, our service began with a public confession that ran like this:

Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto thee, that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against thee by thought, word, and deed. Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1

The intention was that worshippers should feel the freedom and safety to acknowledge their sinfulness before God and one another and receive the comforting words of God's forgiveness. The problem was that during the preceding week neither I nor, I suspect, most of the worshippers had committed any particularly heinous deeds that might be labeled as "sins". I had certainly tried to be a good boy and, being largely compliant and eager to please my parents, pretty much did what I was supposed to do. That left me each week straining my mind to recall what "sinful" thoughts had passed through my mind or words had passed my lips as evidence of how "sinful and unclean" I was. There wasn't all that much that occurred to me. Had I said an unkind word to someone? Had I called my sister a bad name? Had I resented doing some household chore? Had I failed to read the Bible or something like that? Did any of these things truly count as the sins for which we needed to "flee for refuge to [God's] infinite mercy"? Were they the sort of crimes for which God's only Son died? Was my clinging sense that these peccadilloes were too trivial to confess and my inability to dredge up anything worse itself evidence of sinful pride on my part? Such were the unsettling thoughts that occurred to me each week as we implored God's grace in this confessional prayer, and the absolution that followed lacked, for me anyway, the persuasive power to allay the anxious misgivings aroused by the confession.

I think the weekly requirement to say this accusatory prayer exposed to me at an early age the absurdity and the damaging effect of common understandings of sin. Seminary study would later introduce me to the pessimistic assessment of the human person offered by the Augsburg Confession, which describes human beings "full of evil lusts and inclinations from their mothers' wombs" and concludes that their corrupted nature alone is sufficient to incur God's eternal wrath even before the person thinks, says, or does anything.2 Historical study of the development of Scripture and the early Church, of course, reveals that this perspective is not the only possible interpretation of the biblical record.

In this article I am proposing an alternative reading of human nature and an alternative definition of "sin." While I recognize that my proposals may appear at first view to be at variance with biblical tradition, my claim and my trust is that they both represent the evangelical core of that tradition and account more accurately and hopefully for the human situation at the end of this second millenium C.E. What I am proposing is that human beings are not "by nature sinful and unclean," but "by nature limited and unfinished," ambiguous works-in-progress that think, feel, and act in ways--both positive and negative--substantially determined by the evolutionary legacy of millions of years. From this perspective, "sin" is a word that describes our mistaken and irrational belief that God expects us humans to be something we are not, namely, some sort of perfect, flawless being that millions of years of evolution has, of course, not produced. The ensuing self-condemnation that issues from such belief is also projected outward as condemnation of a world interpreted as a "fallen" and "corrupted" environment distorted, degraded, and debased by human malfeasance.

I hope to develop the evolutionary understanding of human nature and its implications for Christian faith and practice in a book-length treatment.3 Here limited space demands that I focus on sin as irrational belief and the counterproductive condemnation and despair that derive from it. As a marriage, family, and child counselor and teacher of pastoral care, I am relying on psychological argument in support of my proposal.

It is, of course, possible to construe the traditional doctrine of sin with approval, even from modern psychological perspectives. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger, in a book received warmly in the religious community, provided psychological support for a revival of the concept of sin and for the role of clergy as leaders with a special prerogative "to study sin--or whatever they call it--to identify it, define it, to warn us about it, and to spur measures for combating and rectifying it."4 Although I diverge from Menninger's positions at many points, I view this article as my attempt to take up his challenge. Psychologist Paul Pruyser, widely known and respected for his helpful book on pastoral assessment of parishioners' problems,5 understands the doctrine of sin to be an "anti-narcissistic motif," a profound response to "that basic genetic disposition which psychoanalysis conceives as primary narcissism, a disposition that must be curbed."6 Pruyser's view is rooted in the psychoanalytic understanding of humans as animals born with an amoral, greedy, insatiable id that requires rational regulation by the ego and moral constraint by the superego if the human is to be civilized into human society. Psychoanalysis is unquestionably right in its recognition of the unformed character of the human infant and its need for a process of socialization if it is to function peacefully and cooperatively in adult society. But its pessimistic language for describing that process, so akin to the Christian language quoted above, actually runs counter to the most current evolutionary understandings of human beings7 and is not retained by most psychological schools.

"Primary narcissism," for example, is replaced in the "self psychology" of Heinz Kohut with the "grandiose self," the "normal, early infantile, exhibitionistic self, which is dominated by the blissful experience of being the omnipotent center of all existence."8 What is important about the shift in his understanding is his conclusion that this "grandiose self" must be not curbed, but served and fulfilled if the child is to develop a "coherent self" in adulthood. In Kohut's view, the child is unable to perceive its environment as anything but an extension of itself, its parents as having any other function than to serve its needs. In other words, the child's narcissistic egocentrism is a feature of its primitive cognitive development more than a result of its id impulses. The role of the adult is not so much to curb or stifle these needs, as to fulfill them.9

Therefore, parents from the earliest period following the birth of their child need to support their child's infantile grandiosity by attuning themselves as far as they are able to the child's moods, feelings, and behaviors, "mirroring" them back to their child as a form of empathic understanding and affirmation. This "mirroring" begins on day one as the mother nurses her baby and, as she does so, fixes her own eyes on her baby's eyes and replicates ("mirrors back") in her face the expressions on her baby's face. In the weeks and months after birth the young children's parents will ideally, in Kohut's view, show themselves to be head over heals "crazy about their kids,"10 treat them like the apples of their eye, dote upon them, respond to their every plea for food or attention, gaze at them, coo at them, admire them, adore them. When the parents--inevitably--are unable to respond perfectly to their children, however much they may be able to do so much of the time, their children will learn slowly to provide "mirroring" to themselves and eventually wean themselves of their original all-encompassing need for parental attention. They will have acquired in the process the foundation for a healthy self-confident adult self.11

In this understanding, human beings are not experienced or understood to be "totally depraved," "full of evil inclinations," but as creatures with enormous potential for good or evil who will nonetheless grow up to be reasonably responsible, dutiful, sociable, morally sensitive adults provided they receive even a minimum of the positive parenting just described. British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott has emphasized that a child's parents do not need to be perfect in order for their children to become healthy productive adults; they need only to be "good enough" parents, where "good enough" implies a capacity to provide a "holding environment" that offers a preponderance (not a perfect, unremitting supply) of care, comfort, and constancy.12

One needs only to observe oneself and others to see the truth of Winnicott's perspective: Even though we know that the parenting most people have received (and provided to their own children!) is seriously flawed in any number of ways, the overwhelming preponderance of adult behavior is nonetheless positive, productive, "good." It takes an extraordinarily vicious, punitive, violent, toxic kind of parenting to produce the minority of extremely wounded, sociopathic adults who commit the bulk of violent, destructive acts that harm individuals and disrupt the peace of civil societies.13 Such acts we commonally characterize not as typically and quintessentially "human," but as uncharacteristic and aberrant examples of "inhumanity" inflicted on fellow humans.

My psychotherapy clients, like just about everyone else I have ever met, want very badly to be good people. When they do great injury to others, they often seem clueless that it is injury. At the same time, they may condemn themselves and suffer unremittingly intense feelings of guilt for trivial actions that hurt nobody. Mothers engage in endless self-recriminations because they have not been able to provide absolutely every possible support to their children, while they forgive their own mothers the considerable insults and injuries they suffered in their own childhoods. A teenage boy is perplexed that I decline to contradict or criticize his ever so mild and restrained expressions of frustration with his parents. After weeks of denying he has had to suffer anything in his 40 years, a husband finally breaks into tears as he acknowledges as much to himself as to me the humiliations he endured from a relentlessly demanding, critical father while his passive, acquiescent mother stood mute.

Of course, the Christian concept of "sin" is, in fact, not so much about evil inflicted by humans on one another as about our relationship to God. That confessional prayer of my childhood made no mention of sins against other human beings. Our "sinful and unclean" nature was the source of sin against God. The Augsburg Confession describes that sin as the inability to have "true fear of God and true faith in God." It says nothing of sin against oneself or other human beings or the planet. In traditional understandings, "sin" essentially describes a broken relationship between creatures and their Creator. "Sinners" are understood to be enemies of God, however much they may manage to get along with one another.

The re-statement of the concept of sin which I am proposing has in its favor its characterization of sin as a tragic human dilemma rather than as a vile human act. It describes the very burden that therapists encounter in their clients and themselves--the difficulty we all seem to share accepting ourselves and one another realistically and happily with our limitations and flaws.

Psychologist Albert Ellis, the originator of rational-emotive-behavior therapy, has suggested that the disturbed feelings and self-defeating behavior that to some degree plague all of us result from variations of three fundamental "irrational beliefs" about ourselves, others, and our world:

"I absolutely must, at practically all times, be successful at important performances and relationships--or else I, as a person, am inadequate and worthless."

"Other people absolutely must practically always treat me considerately, kindly, fairly, or lovingly--or else they are no damned good and deserve no joy in their existence!"

"Conditions under which I live absolutely must be comfortable, pleasurable, and rewarding--or else it's awful, I can't stand it, and the goddamned world is no good!"14

These beliefs--about self, others, and world--share in common the expectation of, and demand for, perfection: "I must act perfectly." "Others must treat me perfectly." "My world must be a perfect paradise." These beliefs are irrational because our experiences of ourselves, others, and our world repeatedly and consistently confirm their imperfection, our "finitude" (Tillich). So it makes no sense for us either to expect perfection or to damn ourselves and others for failure to achieve it. Nor does it seem any more rational to believe that God expects perfection of finite, imperfect, unfinished humans and damns them for failing to achieve it.

Ellis' therapeutic approach is to dispute such perfectionist beliefs empirically (What is the evidence for this belief?), logically (How consistent is this belief with the assumptions on which it is based?), and pragmatically (Where will this belief get you?). He then helps clients find rational alternatives, such as:

"I would prefer to do very well, but I don't have to."

"It would be pleasant if others treated me with respect and care, but the evidence is that I can't expect that of them, and I can tolerate it when they don't."

"I wish the world were always pleasant, happy, and painless and I feel sad and regretful when it isn't, but since this is the only world I have, I can choose to focus my attention on the good in the world, expecting good to come with the bad."15

Once we recognize the irrationality of our own perfectionist expectations and the rage and despair that they induce in us, we can see that those biblical passages which portray a God injured, insulted, betrayed, and diminished by human disregard and disloyalty in fact represent our own human projection onto God of our despair about our own imperfection and our rage at the imperfections of others and the world we share. WE feel injured, insulted, betrayed and diminished when others treat us disrespectfully and disloyally. WE are enraged when we are not given the love, attention, appreciation, and gratitude we think we deserve. Moreover, parents teach their children the apparent legitimacy of such feelings by punishing their children for disobedience, "stubbornness," "obstinacy," and "rebellion." Is it a surprise, then, if human beings imagine that God must be like their parents and like themselves--hurt, angry, and vengeful in the face of intractable imperfection?

In traditional Christian teaching, the solution to the human dilemma has been God's "forgiveness" of the "sinner." God "forgives" the "debt" that sinners owe to God because of their rebellion against God, rejection of God's will, and disobedience to God's law. By forgiving sinners, God reconciles them to Godself, reestablishing the relationship with them that their sin had broken.

Given the Bible's repeated protestations of God's unconditional and steadfast love for the creation, however, it is more reasonable to describe the solution as God's unconditional acceptance, even wholehearted delight, in humanity, exactly with the finite imperfections that we find so distressing in ourselves and others--the unconditional acceptance and wholehearted delight preeminently portrayed by the waiting father in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Actually, in practical terms, the solution to our problem with sin lies with us. We can choose to continue to rake ourselves over the coals, wallowing in guilt and shame for our mistakes, failures, foibles, and peccadilloes. We can choose to fume and rage and drive ourselves to despair and depression over the seeming unfairness of the world and the annoying idiosyncrasies of others. We can choose to berate ourselves, criticize others, and carp and complain about the world's injustices. We can project onto God these punitive attitudes so that we are left to fear God, appease God, and live in the shadow of God's wrath even as we "flee for refuge to [God's] infinite mercy." Or we can choose to accept ourselves and others and the world unconditionally for the flawed, fallible, exasperating, and yet magnificent works-in-progress that we are, regretting the harm that we do to others and that they do to us without being immobilized by guilt or rage and at the same time marveling at the heroism, courage, patience, and care of which we and others are capable when the conditions are right for our virtues to flourish. With that we are freed to love God for bringing us into being within a world of extravagant beauty and endless possibility.16

I propose a prayer for Sunday morning worship as an alternative to the one I endured through my childhood. It might go something like this:

Compassionate One, we are so often hard on ourselves and one another, imagining that we should be capable of perfect love, perfect harmony, perfect truth. By your calm and kindly presence deep down within each of us help us to accept ourselves, one another, and this good world without resentment, reservations, or irrationally inflated expectations, and release us from all annoyance and anxiety to enjoy the company of one another and to create compassionate community in the brief time and narrow place we have been given. For from the beginning you have looked with delight at us all, the whole universe, the work of your hands, and declared us very good!



  1. The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia, 1941) 6. On communion Sundays (once a month) we confessed: "O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being." (p. 16)
  2. The Augsburg Confession (1530), II.
  3. For an initial orientation to the viewpoint, see Edward O. Wilson, "The Biological Basis of Morality," The Atlantic Monthly (April 1998) 53-70, and Wilson's new book, from which his article is excerpted, Consilience: Unity of Knowledge (Knopf, 1998).
  4. Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn, 1973) 192f.
  5. Paul W. Pruyser, The Minister as Diagnostician (Westminster, 1976).
  6. H. Newton Maloney & Bernard Spilka, eds. Religion in Psychodynamic Perspective: The Contributions of Paul W. Pruyser (Oxford, 1991) 71.
  7. Wilson argues, for example, that the impulse toward cooperation is a powerful asset for survival that is now a genetic part of human identity.
  8. Burness E. Moore & Bernard D. Fine, eds. Psychoanalytic Terms & Concepts (American Psychoanalytic Association, 1990) s.v. "Self Psychology."
  9. Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (International Universities, 1971); The Restoration of the Self (International Universities, 1977); How Does Analysis Cure? (U. of Chicago, 1984). For a readable introduction to Kohut's thought, see Crayton E. Rowe, Jr. & David S. Mac Isaac, Empathic Attunement: The "Technique" of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology (Aronson, 1989).
  10. I am grateful to Herbert Anderson for calling attention to this common phrase. See Herbert Anderson & Susan B.W. Johnson, Regarding Children: A New Respect for Childhood and Families, Family Living in Pastoral Perspective (Westminster John Knox, 1994).
  11. Kohut is not advocating "permissiveness." Obviously parents cannot accede to their children's every demand or request and should not do so when those demands or requests are dangerous or contrary to their child's interest . Children need appropriate structure, protection, and containment when they are "out-of-control." For a helpful guide to the provision of structure within a context of affirmation and support, see Anthony E. Wolf, "It's not fair, Jeremy Spencer's Parents Let Him Stay Up All Night!" A Guide to the Tougher Parts of Parenting (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995).
  12. D.W. Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (Tavistock, 1965).
  13. See Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1983).
  14. Albert Ellis, Better, Deeper, and More Enduring Brief Therapy (Brunner/Mazel, 1996) 13.
  15. I acknowledge that the "rational" alternatives I have illustrated here may seem naïve, elitist, perhaps even callous. However, the roots of Ellis' approach lie in the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, a Roman slave. See Enchiridion 5 (trans. George Long in Marcus Aurelius, Meditations; Epictetus, Enchiridion [Regnery, 1956] 172f.): "Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. When then we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us not blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself."
  16. In Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy (Dell, 1973) 123, Walter Kaufmann has suggested that the appropriate response to our faults and misdeeds is not guilt, but regret and a fusion of humility and ambition for which he coins the (rather awful) term "humbition." He writes, "What is needed is a combination of humble regret with a resolve to change. What is crucial is to liberate oneself from the tyranny of an irrevocable past and to ask what can be done here and now and tomorrow."

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.