On the Complexity of Sin and Human Action

On the Complexity of Sin and Human Action

You might be familiar with the classic scene from Winnie the Pooh where Pooh gets stuck halfway through the window in Rabbit’s house. It occurred to me recently that this is a great depiction of how many of us find ourselves in the world. From the exterior of Rabbit’s house, Pooh appears fine for the most part—albeit a bit frustrated. He talks with his friends as they come by, makes request for honey, and doesn’t appear to be in too much distress. Behind the scenes, however, he is completely stuck and immobilized.

At first, Rabbit tries to help Pooh by giving him a few shoves but remains rather unsympathetic and mostly wants the inconvenience of Pooh’s unfortunate circumstances to be quickly resolved for his own peace of mind. (You have probably encountered some “Rabbits” in your own life.) There simply wasn’t room for Pooh’s complexity. When Pooh’s troubles don’t go away and are much too close-to-home, Rabbit attempts to disguise Pooh’s predicament and cover it up. He tries to decorate Pooh’s misfortune with a vase of flowers, puts a picture frame around it, and draws a smile on it. Do you have experience with that sort of gentrification of suffering?

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of being with others in their suffering rather than trying to fix or explain it. While this might sound like it is heading in the same direction, I want to get at another but equally important point.

People are complex. When a member of society changes their opinions based on education and research it is usually called growth or learning. When a politician does this it is called flip-flopping, and is quickly attacked and deemed untrustworthy (as if they are supposed to remain unchanged on their opinions for decade after decade). In politics, there’s little room for the complexity of growth, tension, or dialect that might seek mutual understanding and compromise. I suppose the world outside of politics isn’t much different.

When someone behaves badly, and it is caught on video, they are publicly shamed—their “sin” displayed for all the world to see and mock. Very rarely does anyone ask what might be going on in that person’s life that might have lead to such “misbehavior.” We are quick to jump on the sins that people commit toward others, but how often we forget that people have been sinned against, too. Yes, we are responsible for our actions but we all carry the burden of figuring out how act and react through the complexity of our own woundedness.

The posting of a Facebook comment, a tweet, or a YouTube video can bear a striking resemblance to the adulterous women in the gospel story found in John 8. Like this women, they are brought into the public square where commenters, rocks in hand, are swift to implement their judgment and execution. Are those stones being hurled from hands that have not committed sins themselves? Maybe even the same sins they are throwing stones at? How lucky they are to not have their sins, their thoughts, their actions brought into the public area.

Elaine Heath uses the Korean word “han” to talk about this mysterious complexity of sin and human action. In her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach she writes that han is defined as, “the brokenheartedness, shame, bitterness, and other consequences that result from being sinned against.”1 We are all subject to the complexities of being sinned against. The extent to which we are able to see others through this lens of “han” is the extent to which we can offer forgiveness, compassion, empathy—and ultimately love others in a way that can reset those boundaries that have been destroyed by past abuse, neglect, damaged self-esteem, depression, loss, and emotional turmoil. In fact, failure to acknowledge this cycle of han in one another may actually exacerbate the very problems so many people are quick to judge, condemn, and throw rocks at.

Wendy Farley so aptly expresses the complexity of this human experience that we are all privy to:

The world is a hard place, and distortions, injustices, and cruelties preceded us and bind us to them. Harm done to us solders itself to the deepest recesses of our psyches and makes us its slave. Harm we do to others habituates us to a spiritual poverty that seems impossible ever to escape. This bondage refracts from the microcosm of the human mind throughout the increasingly complex orders of societies and cultures. We are mercilessly distracted from our heart’s desire and more lost in ignorance of our true selves than fabled kings and queens who are reared as orphans and servants, far from the nobility of their birthright.

If her comment ended there it would be somewhat disheartening, but she continues:

But in all of this there is nothing, not even something as thin as cigarette paper, that separates us from the tender mercy that intoxicates the Holy Trinity. We may feel separated and feel darkness around us, but we cannot create any real separation between ourselves and the Beloved, or our mighty sister, the Holy Spirit, or the Beauty Beyond All Being.2

So while the world is poised with stones in hands, there is someone else on our team saying, “Wait! Will the first person without sin throw the first stone?” And while our well-meaning friends and family try to decorate and disguise our misfortunes, Jesus steps into the midst of our han and, without judgement, invites us to cast our burdens on him. The Beloved welcomes you, accepts you, loves you, defends you, is poised to carry your burdens, and “looks upon you with pity and not with blame.”3


Photo credit: Lance Baker

1The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (53)

2The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (31)

3Quote from St. Theresa of Avila.

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