Can talking about sin be a gift?

Hi everyone,

How do you feel when you hear the word “sin”?

It might surprise you, but some of my most cherished memories of church are the liturgical confession of sin.

This version in particular is very familiar to me:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name.

Each time I pray this prayer with other followers of Jesus, it feels honest, authentic, and truthful.

However, in my cultural context, I am often encouraged to avoid such negative self-talk. Rather, I am told, we need to embrace positive thinking.

The psychoanalyst Josh Cohen points out one problem with this approach:

Positive thinking always assures us that we can be more, that we can do more, that we can achieve and attain more. This is supposed to be empowering. It’s supposed to make us feel very good about our own capacities. But in fact, it sets us up against an ideal of ourselves, in the face of which we always feel inadequate, and against which we’re always falling short of.

A false idea is marketed as empowering. What’s the natural consequence? We’re demoralized and discouraged.

There are ways of talking about sin that are also harmful. But to me, it seems that telling the truth about the human condition is ultimately a gift.

Discussion Questions:

In your context, what are the connotations of the word ‘sin’?

What are the problems with relentless positive thinking?

What would it look like to experience prayers of repentance as a blessing?


Sin has such a negative connotation in our culture today. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, much less confess so themselves. I think the main problem here is culture’s understanding of identity. It seems that what we do or how we feel now equates to our identity, rather than being separate. So if we do something based on our feelings, and then are told that was wrong, it’s easy to interpret that as an attack on our very identity.

Therefore, I think an important part of discussion about sin with people is to affirm our sense of their identity as a highly valued and loved human being regardless of whether we agree with their actions and feelings. If that is made the base level, it may be easier to enter discussion on sin.

Relentless positive thinking is so unhelpful! I think this for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s so unrealistic. There are positive and negative aspects to life, our characters, our choices, our experiences and our feelings. To constantly affirm everything in a positive way is to not acknowledge the pain and the difficulty.
  2. It absolves us of any responsibility. If everything in our life is a positive thing, or something to be affirmed or praised, there is zero incentive to work on our characters, seek improvement, or strive, no matter how difficult, to become more Christ-like, because the positivity gives me permission to remain as I am.

In Michael Reeve’s book, “The Unquenchable Flame”, the author shows how Martin Luther’s understanding of God changed as his understanding of sin changed. Previously, Luther saw God as

all Judge and no love, his righteousness being all about punishing sinners, his ‘gospel’ just the promise of judgement. Here was a God he could only ever cower before.

I suspect a great many people still perceive God in this way. As such, it might make it easier to keep in the path of positive thinking. However, as long as a person does so, the answer for peace and salvation lies within themselves, which as we know, is impossible to achieve.

It was only when Luther mediated on Romans 1:17 that he realised

forgiveness is not dependent on how certain the sinner is that he has been truly contrite; forgiveness comes simply by receiving the promise of God. Thus the sinner’s hope is found, not in himself, but outside himself, in God’s word of promise.

Therefore, I think the message of sin must always be coupled with an emphatic expression of God’s nature as loving. Hopefully then, people, like Luther, will begin to comprehend their own sin in a healthy light, discovering that the answer doesn’t lie within themselves and society’s affirmation, but from within God, trusting in His promises. To fully understand the promise of God’s love and offer of salvation should help someone to hate their sin and want to turn from it. This is done, whilst simultaneously understanding our identity is found in Christ, and not ourselves.


@alison shared some valuable thoughts on why sin has a negative connotation in our culture and where the true answer lies.

I completely agree with Alison’s comments. Recently as I meditated upon the story of the rich young ruler, I came away with similar conclusions. In our society, talking about sin is looked down upon. But Jesus, our sinless Savior talks about sin with the rich young ruler. He helps him see where he falls short and understand that by himself he can never be truly good as God alone is good.

Luke 18:19 ESV
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Luke 18:22 ESV
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Jesus exposes the idol of the young ruler, his attachment to money, the wastefulness of striving by himself as God alone can replace the idols of the heart. Jesus shows the beauty of righteousness in God and the ugliness of sin for the rich young ruler to come to repentance.

Talking about sin would be negative if it stopped at that but it can be redeeming when accompanied by truth. Positive thinking by the power of God based on truth is helpful but plain positive thinking that is not based on any sure hope is unhelpful. At the most, we may have some material success and attention because of our positivity but it can’t solve the root of most problems which is the heart of a person.

Its not our job to judge others but talking prayerfully about the consequences of sin, perhaps with an example and the hope available in Christ, may give room for God to work in their hearts to come to a conviction. So talking about sin can be a gift and may even be redemptive.

Talking about our past sin may also encourage believers struggling with sin. The bible does not hide the sin of people like Abraham, Noah, David, Jacob etc. who are praised for their faith in the bible. This gives hope that God who called us will complete His work in us as we trust Him, despite our failures.

Though some ways of talking about sin can be judgemental and crush our spirit, in many other ways, talking about sin is a gift.