Mistakes vs. Sins

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.                                               Philippians 2:5-8

The essential tenet of Christian belief is that Jesus came to earth, conceived in a miraculous way, and died to save a sinful people. He was a divine being who gave up the privileges of Deity in order to save a mankind that had turned its back on God. He took on the humility of being a human being, and gave up the privileges he owned and deserved.

This is a very hard concept for us, and understandably so. It involves miracles and faith, and it stretches our understanding of both God and man. That Jesus was fully human and fully God is a theological concept that is way beyond my ability to explain or even understand. Yet, in so many ways it is a beautiful way of understanding the world. It is an elegant explanation of how God loves his creation, and it also challenges our humility to say, “I accept this, but I do not really understand it”.

It also, for me, begs the question, “so, if Jesus was fully human, did he make mistakes?”  My answer is yes, he certainly did. He made mistakes but he didn’t sin (Hebrews 4:15). Sins involve deliberate behaviors with selfish or prideful motives. Mistakes are, well, mistakes.

In 1973, the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The book discussed the moral decline of America which had taken place over the preceding decades before the publishing of the book. As a psychiatrist, Menninger was keenly aware of the moral dimensions of human failures and the price that people pay emotionally for such failures. He took to task the society which had excused moral excesses in the name of freedom. He asked the simple question, “Is anything considered to be wrong anymore?”

That was a good question then, and it still is today. It brings to mind to me the important distinction between mistakes and moral failures. I will share with you that a pet peeve of mine is the juxtaposition of the term “mistake” for what are obvious moral failures.

One does not have to look too far to see this subtle refuge for those who have crossed a moral boundary, and who cover it by claiming the innocence of a “mistake”. After all, everyone makes mistakes, right? Allow me to expound.

Let’s say you file your income tax and you have made a math error on the return. As a result, you are due a refund of an extra $100. That was a mistake.

Your friend also files his tax return, but he deliberately fudges a number which results in his receiving an extra $100 on his tax refund. That was cheating, a moral failure. The results were the same, but the intent was different. That is the difference between a mistake, and a moral failure, or, if you will, sin.

How many times have we heard athletes or actors, or politicians, caught in a transgression, plead that they have “made a mistake” and ask to be forgiven. The politician is caught in an affair, becomes contrite and accepts that he “made a mistake.” The athlete takes steroids, gets caught, and then pleads that he “made a mistake” and asks the public to embrace him again.

Let’s be clear that the above examples are NOT examples of mistakes. They are wrong behaviors watered down to “mistake” so that the behavior can be mitigated and the crime minimized. My mere suggestion is that we be clear about what is a mistake and what is a sin.  I believe in forgiveness, no matter if it is a simple mistake, or if it is a moral failure. However, for the sake of the individual who needs the forgiveness, it is crucial to understand that “sin” is of deliberate intent, and it needs to be acknowledged as such.

As a counselor, I try to help people get moral clarity. I do not judge people, but I do help them to take a moral self-inventory (the 4th step of 12 Step programs) so that they can move ahead from past failures.  Acknowledging our failures, as well as differentiating them from honest mistakes, is important in the healing process- it is the start of it.

We all indeed make mistakes, and we all make wrong moral choices at times. I believe that if we can understand the difference, and own what we do, we are then able to heal and move ahead.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for forgiveness, no matter if we make mistakes or sin. Help us have the discernment and humility to know and own the differences, Amen.

One thought on “Mistakes vs. Sins

  1. So, aren’t moral failures a mistake also? Intentional misdeeds (selfish acts of the flesh) with or without the realization of the consequences jeopardizes our eternal life. When our time comes, we will realize that our moral choices we made were good choices or mistakes and we will be judged accordingly. Who will deliver me? Thank God he will.


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