07/18/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Sin Is a 5-Letter Word

One of the biggest gripes some Christians have about recovery programs which operate outside of church is that they don't use the word "sin" enough, or at all. I think the worry is that people who need God most won't know they're sinners and reach for the forgiveness Jesus bought for us on the cross.2013-07-18-shutterstock_11023759.small.jpg

I won't try to defend any particular program of recovery. But I do know people who came to know God through such communities who would have rejected a message that emphasized sin. Not because they don't think they sin, but mostly because they know they do.

Let me explain. The original meaning of the word "sin" is to fall short of an ideal or to "miss the mark." That's all of us. Every day. But these days, we're more likely to equate sin with evil and immorality. We imbue the word with a dark and loathsome intent.

The result is that for many folks there's little or no space between a realization of sin and an experience of shame. And I'm guessing that this might be part of why many recovery programs avoid the word, since shame is so counterproductive for most people. It doesn't make an addict reach for God so much as run from him.

No wonder shame is our enemy's favorite counterfeit for true remorse. Healthy guilt or conviction about sin leads to repentance that carries with it the hope of forgiveness. But shame usually leads only to secrecy and lies. Shame screams at us that God is in the garden, so we better hide.

One of my favorite stories in the New Testament is only two sentences long. When Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee, we're told "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." (Mark 14:52, 53)

This brief flash of bare buns has always struck me as funny. I imagine this guy's mother exclaiming, "But son! Why weren't you wearing a loincloth?"

The scene also takes me back to Adam and Eve in the garden: It reminds me how much of our faith journey is about trying to find our way back to "naked and not ashamed."

It reminds me that Jesus came to free us, not only from the consequences of "original sin," but from original shame, too.

It reminds me that God asks us to take radical risks to return home clothed not in leaves or tunics, but in Christ alone.

In recovery, we often remind one another that hurt people hurt people. In a similar sense, I think scared people scare people. And ashamed people shame people.

For that reason, I don't think a message about God should always lead with sin. What if instead, we lead with love? What if we focus less on the ugly thing Jesus came to defeat and more on what his victory won?

Forgiveness. Freedom. Relationship. A chance to hear God coming near and to cry out with relief, rather than shame, "Here I am, Lord. Save me!"