“What is sin? Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?”
I had just told the story of Isaiah’s vision in the temple to a group of Year 6 children. The other groups had talked about sin as doing bad things and then moved on to talking about intentions. Were terrorists sinful if they acted as they did because otherwise bad things would happen to their family? Were they sinful if they had been forced into believing that what they did was right? No, it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless, everyone did wrong things.
This group began in the same way but then went in a different direction. Sin was doing bad things, but it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless. Not even God. After all they said, God created the world but what about wars and terrorists?
These comments threw me completely, and it was only later that I worked out why. “What is sin?” and “Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?” are closed questions. I have my own answers to both – hopefully in line with Christian theology!
But these children, in this context, were not used to closed questions. They treated them as open. Instead of telling me what they knew with their minds, they told me what they felt in their hearts.
And what they felt was that as God had created the world, he ought to take responsibility for it.
How can a good God allow suffering, is a question that has been asked throughout history. But even the answers we think that we know with our minds do not necessarily express what we feel in our hearts:
“You have created oceans of pain… and I cannot see how they were necessary to preserve your world…” wrote Peter Lippert, the Jesuit theologian.
The children’s discussion continued, they talked about the idea of people “who can make their own decisions.” Some of them seemed to be moving towards the idea of a good God who allows people to choose. I don’t think they were all convinced.
I came out of the session, thinking that I should have done it differently. Was it possible to have asked the question as an open question rather than as closed? I didn’t know.
The children heard two other stories that afternoon, all connected with the theme of holiness. “What is the most glorious thing that you have ever seen?” is clearly an open question and the children responded with descriptions of tiny diamonds, magnificent sunsets and the first time they held their baby brother.
But what about the question “What is healing”? The storyteller and I had had a a brief discussion and our ideas were broadly in line with each other. But two of the children responded to this question symbolically: healing is when a tree that has been split in two grows back together; healing is a maggoty apple having the maggot removed.
This has left me thinking: these children did not seem to mind sharing what they felt in their hearts even if it did not fit with what they had been told or with what they knew with their minds. But what about adults? Are adults really better at integrating what we know with our minds and what we feel in our hearts? Or are we only prepared to share what we know with our minds, hiding away what we feel in our hearts?
A few days later I told the same story to a group of slightly younger children, but allowed the question “What is sin?” to be an open one. In response one child linked the story to “the little man up a tree” (Zaccheus) and another child spoke of Jonah “running away from God.”