The Fallacy of Linear Sin

As a child I was indoctrinated with the viewpoint that every choice a person makes falls under one of two categories: Sin or Righteousness. I’m not sure this was something that was ever taught over the pulpit or by my parents, but I think it was an unspoken philosophy that was generally accepted in my social circles.

Certain things were considered sin: sex, R rated movies, murder, homosexuality, consuming alcohol or coffee, wearing bikinis, rape, gambling, driving without your licence in the car with you, pornography, missing church, swearing, etc. The list goes on and on including activities that range from very serious to very light.

Other choices were righteous: scripture reading, getting good grades, service, living a healthy lifestyle, clean houses, musical proficiency, missionary work, family activities, etc. These activities also range in intensity.

My young brain interpreted these lists as universal laws which always existed and always would continue. At some point, as a teenager, my view matured a bit. I began to recognize that some actions were more extreme on one side of the scale or the other, and some actions were neutral. I could now place them on a model using the intensity and the quantity of these choices as my criteria.

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Using this model, I was able to judge others by their choices and I could place people either on the left side or the right. I could distinguish a person’s overall spiritual worth by how far to one side or the other they were. I could then judge whether it was worthwhile for me to interact with them, be friends with them, or date them. As you can tell, this is quite a limited way to view the universe.

The weight I gave to each activity in the “sin” category was skewed. Automatically, not being Mormon put someone left of center. In fact, any person regularly participating in any of the sins was unqualified to be anywhere right of center, no matter the good qualities they had. And anyone left of center was either not worthy of my time, or was to be a project for me to pull into the right side by sharing my surplus virtue with them.

Not surprisingly, I soon figured out that I was very wrong to view my fellow human beings this way. My sophomore year in high school, I was asked to a movie by a boy named William. William was a great guy: virtuous, modest, clean mouth and lifestyle, strong family. In every way, William was the ideal candidate to take me on a date. Only one thing was missing: he wasn’t Mormon. That meant he was just left of center on my line and I turned down the date and stopped associating with him. Looking back on it, I wonder where I would have landed on the line if I had judged myself with the same criteria that I judged William?

Upon entering young adulthood, I realized I needed to throw away my linear concept of sin and righteousness. It was an over-simplification of a complex concept that completely superseded charity and understanding toward other human beings and their situations. I exchanged it for a new fool proof “What Would Lindsey Do?” criteria. I generally make pretty good choices, and if people would just make the choice that I would make, they’d be better off. Rather than it being a matter of “sin vs. righteousness”, this new philosophy would have a line depicting “Wrong vs. Lindsey”.

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This philosophy got me through the better part of college and the first few years after. It soon, and not surprisingly fell short of reality. As a young adult entering the workplace, I was exposed to other adults who made the exact opposite choices than what I would have made, and yet, they seemed to be perfectly happy. This made very little sense and I had to prepare myself for another paradigm shift.

Many of the assumptions I had made about how other people should live had proven to be false or incomplete. I had assumed you had to be Mormon to be happy- then I met scores of very happy, fulfilled adults who were not Mormon and not interested in becoming so. And thus many of my assumptions crumbled in the same fashion: people who drink alcohol can be ok, people who choose not to have children can be ok, people who cohabit can be ok… and the list goes on and on and on.

I realized that I can’t judge others based on my own set of morals.

Beyond that, I found that those who I had at first judged to be completely immoral people were actually following morals, just a different set of ¬†morals. Where I had been taught that honesty was the highest law, they believed that loyalty to their friend was higher than honesty, and would lie to protect their people. Where I thought that smoking marijuana was a terrible life choice, another was using pot to ease off his addiction to pain killers. Where I knew gambling an evil waste of time and money, another was taking trips to Vegas to distract his mind from the death of his wife of 20 years. Where I thought a teenager’s rebellious choices were an attack on God himself, another was rebellious because of deep rooted depression and relationship inadequacies with his parents.

Over and over again, I was exposed to someone who’s life story led me to believe that their choices, rather than being a matter of sin, were a matter of situation and perhaps not being prepared for life’s blows. I soon learned that each person needed a friend and a friendly ear, not someone to judge their level of righteousness and avoid them when they were not found worthy.

Indeed each person is responsible for their own actions and consequences. Yes, sometimes there are better choices and worse choices. But, it’s not my place to point out what is sin and what isn’t in someone else’s life. It is my place, however, to be charitable, kind, and helpful when they ask for help.

Remember, as we’re striving to be more like Jesus, that he didn’t shield himself from people who made him feel uncomfortable. He kept company with the worst of the worst and those associations may have helped him develop empathy for the sinner. He taught them through example and kindness- not by forcing his new radical religion on them. His converts followed him voluntarily. His disciples were often those same sinners who Jesus kept company with.

My new philosophy on judging others is quite different than my previous two. I can’t put it into a graphic, but I can make a list. It’s simple and in three parts:

1. Humans are automatons capable of reasoning out decisions and choosing the best course they can with the information they have available. Sometimes they make choices that are not what I would make, and sometimes those choices bring negative consequences.

2. It isn’t my place to judge whether someone else’s choices are right or wrong for them. The consequences of their actions will naturally be the judge. When a ¬†misdeed is serious enough, let the proper ecclesiastical, civil, or workplace judges do their job.

3. My job is to hear and understand my fellow human’s plight. I will offer help when needed, whether it’s a physical task or just a friendly ear. I can give advice, but understand that it’s their choice to follow it and our relationship will remain the same either way.

We can’t all make the same choices. We can’t all live the same life. That would be what we Mormons call, “Satan’s Plan”. We have the freedom to act in whatever way we see fit, and each action is a lesson learned. Those who are motivated to become great will become great. Those who are motivated to be happy will be happy. Those who are motivated to get immediate gain with no thought of the consequences will have their reward.

My heartfelt apologies to any who I’ve imposed my will on in the past. I understand there are a few who’s lives have been altered by my meddling. I can’t change my previous behavior, but please believe that I am a better person now.

We all make mistakes. Lets hope we can judge one another fairly.