Personal responsibility

This is going to be short, since I’m mainly hoping to start a conversation.

In view of stuff on other threads, I have to wonder: are belief in the idea of sin and belief in personal responsibility mutually exclusive?

I’d say no, because even though I no longer believe in “sin,” I was once a Born-Again Christian and even then I thought people should take responsibility for their actions and the consequences thereof. Those who blamed SAAAAY-tin for their misdeeds were, I thought, copping out.

But then, I think that even in my Christian days I was a pagan at heart, so I’d like to toss the question out to others, from the rich variety of traditions we have represented here on the Street :-).

What say you all?


Are beliefs in sin and personal responsibility mutually exclusive?
It’s not that simple
The ubiquitous “other”

Votes: 27 (results no longer available)


Cookie Jar (4.00 / 12)


by Morgan on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 14:46:22 PDT

I just finished (4.00 / 9)

typing a reply to this in Poli’s front page thread.

“The Devil made me do it” is a cop-out — one can claim to be “tempted” into an act that separates one from God or his/her neighbor (which is my definition of “sin”), but one must take responsibility for saying “Yes” to that temptation.

I can be “tempted” to have that second piece of pie — but then I have to take responsibility for that when my doctor looks at my blood sugar readings. Same thing if I do something that harms my relationship with God or my neighbor…

Walking In Darkness

by Cali Scribe on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 14:49:49 PDT

Excellent diary (4.00 / 5)

And an excellent question. I wouldn’t go so far as to say blaming a sin on Satan is a cop-out, since it’s simply a different belief system. It’s not for me to judge whether somebody else’s view of the world is more “right” or “wrong.”

Question: is “sin” here being limited to “the devil made me do it?”


PS I don’t know if it was intentional, but this is a timely diary. We’re between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we should be asking people who we have wronged this year to accept our apologies.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

by risasperson on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 15:01:49 PDT

Good question (4.00 / 7)

My answer is an unequivocal and resounding “NO!” ¬†

In my tradition, sin is a state of brokenness, the state of being alienated from God, from one another, from the “universe,” and from our true selves. ¬†Our “sins” are merely results of that state of being in broken relationships. ¬†We must take reponsibility for them, because they are wrong, because they contribute to further brokenness, and because very often they affect others negatively. ¬†We take responsibility for our sinful actions by repenting, by begging for forgiveness, by believing the good news of our forgiveness, and by vowing to do better. ¬†The Anglicans used to have a nice line in their rite of confession (I don’t know if it’s still there or not). ¬†“I absolve you. ¬†Go and sin no more.” ¬†

We will inevitably fall short, because we are human beings and not perfect. ¬†But we are called to live a holy life, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be, as Luther put it, “Christ to our neighbor.” ¬†The Christian life is always lived in the tension between sin and grace – we’re never only sinners and we’re never only saints; we’re always both. ¬†

The idea of sin somehow negating personal responsibility is not good Christian theology, in my opinion. ¬†We have a responsibility to our neighbors, to our environment, to our nation, to our world. ¬†To say that sin makes my actions inevitable and then meaningless because they are forgiven is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” ¬†Grace is not cheap, and sin is not trivial. ¬†It grieves the heart of God and nails Christ to the cross. ¬†If that’s not costly and serious, I don’t know what is. ¬†

All of the above, of course, is very specifically Lutheran. ¬†Other Christians will have different understandings of sin, and Jews will have still different understandings of sin. ¬†I’m not aware of any other religious tradition having a concept of “sin” like it’s defined in the Jewish and Christian traditions. ¬†But I could be wrong about that, and I would be very happy to learn more!

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. – Galileo

by Mahanoy on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 15:04:47 PDT

Cali Scribe’s short answer (4.00 / 3)

and Mahanoy’s long one are both excellant.

Actually, I think it would be difficult to find a christian theological position that said we can blame evil for our evil. I posted this in AL’s diary on the Problem of Evil:

This is the best definition I have heard recently on evil:

  1. God is the author of everything
  2. Evil is something
  3. Therefore, God is the author of evil

The first premise is true. So it appears in order to deny the conclusion we have to deny the reality of evil (as the pantheists do). But we can deny that evil is a thing, or substance, without saying it isn’t real. It is a lack in things. When the good that should be there is missing from something, that is evil. After all, if I am missing a wart on my nose, that is not evil because the wart should not have been there in the first place. However, if a man lacks the ability to see, that is evil. Likewise, if a person lacks the kindness in his heart and respect for human life that should be therem then he may commit murder. Evil is, in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid.

In some cases, though, evil is more easily explained as a case of bad relationships. If I pick up a good gun, put in a good bullet, point it at my good head, put my good finger on the trigger and give it a good pull . . . a bad relationship results. The things involved are not evil in themselves, but the relationship between the good things is definitely lacking something. In this case the lack is because the things are not being used as they ought to be . . . Bad relationships are bad because they are lacking something, so our definition of evil still holds. Evil is the lack of something that should be there in the relationship between good things. — When Skeptics Ask, Geisler and Brooks

Sin to is not a “thing” or an “action”: it is a lack of a relationship with God; or a turning away from that relationship to something else.

We are responsible for the “lacks” we have in this area – especially when we know what the “lacks” are.

Bible in a Year for the Week of October 23rd

by JCHFleetguy on Sat Sep 30th, 2006 at 08:38:47 PDT

My viewpoint (4.00 / 3)

I don’t believe in “sin”… it’s not a big part of the Wicca package.

What I do believe is that people make VERY bad choices in the way they behave. Which is all about personal responsibility, no?

That said, I can think of some few instances in which we may not be responsible for our behavior. Which is why we have psychoactive medications and psychiatric hospitals.

But the upshot is, I believe in personal responsibility.

Thanks for asking! ūüôā


by LunarEclipse on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 15:49:48 PDT

My definition (4.00 / 4)

has nothing much to do with my religion. ¬†Sin is hurting other people. ¬†I think one can always choose one’s reaction to a situation, and if you can’t, then maybe you should do some self-examination and figure out how. ¬†I mean, I’ve done it, so this isn’t belief, it’s knowledge. ¬†So, given that you choose your actions and behaviours, then sin is a failure of personal responsibility. ¬†God comes into it for me because he gave us marching orders to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. That’s what I think.

“There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.” –Neil Gaiman

by appleblossombeck on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 16:08:51 PDT

The human mind (4.00 / 4)

is capable of compartmentalizing anything.  So, whether or not these notions are compatible, we can believe them both at the same time.  Easily, really.

But I think that the Christian notion of sin is about condemnation by God while the notion of taking responsibility is about recognizing one’s own faults, self-condemnation in a certain sense and not the self-defeating sense. ¬†So, I think that they are not the same thing.

Caveat, I don’t experience God as condemning so I don’t find any juice in the notion of sin.

I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind.Ecclesiastes 1:17

by DanielMN on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 16:18:49 PDT

I never understood the argument (4.00 / 5)

that Christians don’t think this through further (about personal responsibility) because they are absolved from sin (the Devil made me do it).

In fact, I was always brought up to believe the exact opposite!

We are MORE responsible for our actions because we should know better.

I know that there are some Christians who believe “once saved always saved” but there are just as many Christians who believe if you “backslide” that means you are no longer “saved” and you have to make amends for your transgressions.

To me, sin is deliberate separation from God.  It is when your conscience tells you not to do something, and you do it anyway.

by Sarea on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 16:37:01 PDT

sin and free will (4.00 / 2)

To me they are not mutually exclusive, for I define sin as a choice, made of our own free will, to do or permit harm. ¬†I believe our nature is “sinful” in that we are all born with a mind that first sees itself as the center of the universe. ¬†But as we begin to understand that we are not at the center, we acquire the ability to recognize right from wrong.

Accepting personal responsibility means accepting that we have been given free will, and are thus responsible for the choices we make.  However, it is our nature to elevate our own needs and wants above the good of creation and the needs and wants of others.  This nature leads us to sin, but that does not relieve us of responsibility for the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Grace is the transformative force that allows us recognize God/good as the center, and in doing so to experience redemption.

by homeland observer on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 16:56:57 PDT

You probably took that from my post in the thread (4.00 / 2)

And I answered the poll no. What I was saying wasn’t that they’re mutually exclusive. Mutually exclusive generally means that you can’t have one without the other.

That concept is just absurd. It’s saying because you like grapes you can’t like oranges.

The point is not if what one does is a sin or is not or whatever. That’s just a term used for what people think of as bad actions. It doesn’t matter if you use sin, or crime, or baddie or whatever.

What’s important is the concept of what one has to do to redeem themselves of that act. That’s the point of the whole thing.

There are some people who believe that through the nature of their religious beliefs, they’re cleansed of that wrong-doing, without ever having to actually apologize or make reperations to the wronged party.

That’s where the concept of personal responsibility falls apart.

I find it more comforting to think that this life is more than just a test.

by Karmakin on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 17:44:16 PDT

Yup (4.00 / 2)

And that’s exactly what Bonhoeffer meant by “cheap grace.” ¬†It was the idea that “God forgives me, so I can do whatever I want.” ¬†

No, no, no! ¬†God forgives the repentant sinner, to use the old-fashioned language. ¬†That means a. I am sincerely sorry, b. I condemn my action(s), and c. I vow to do better. ¬†Without those three steps, it’s meaningless – just lip service.

(It’s a lot more complicated than that, theologically, but that’s the gist.)

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. – Galileo

by Mahanoy on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 18:58:58 PDT

Yup yup (4.00 / 2)

I completly understand that the theology of it is basically horseshit.

At the same time it really doesn’t matter. It’s one of those things where it’s murky enough where if you’re determined enough to come to a pre-determined outcome, you’re going to find it.

It’s the easy way out. And you know about us humans. We’re pre-conditioned to choose that path. It’s up to us to transcend our limits and choose a greater goal.

I find it more comforting to think that this life is more than just a test.

by Karmakin on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 19:14:43 PDT

Sin, responsibility, condemnation (4.00 / 2)

I voted “No” but I really wanted an option that said “Don’t be ridiculous.” ūüėČ

In my tradition, all discussion of sins that are committed by individuals is all about personal responsibility. A sin is something that you know is wrong and decide to do anyway.

The Act of Contrition that we make as part of private confession ends with the words, “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin.”

The “near occasion of sin” is the “alcoholic staying out of a bar” sort of thing: keeping yourself out of situations where you know you will be tempted to sin. That’s even more about personal responsibility, IMHO.

I was surprised to see someone above comment that he understood the Christian view of sin to be about God’s condemnation. That’s not at all my Christian view of sin!

Sin is that which separates us from God. God doesn’t condemn us and cast us out for sinning; we cast ourselves out by the very action of sinning.

I do see that people can misuse the system of sin/confession/absolution or just sin/repentance as a way of avoiding personal responsibility; but near as I can tell, there is no system that cannot be misused so as to avoid personal responsibility! Most Christians I know that take their faith seriously would make amends to a person they had sinned against as part of their penance for the sin.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

by StarWoman on Fri Sep 29th, 2006 at 21:13:48 PDT

A difference would never enter my mind. (none / 1)

I suspect I come from the same tradition as Mahoney. ¬†Free will and sin went hand in hand – that is, sin involved an affirmative choice to act (or fail to act) in a way that offended God (and invariably my fellow man as well). ¬†At no time was faith a “Get out of hell free” card.

As far as forgiveness, you could get it but you had to ask – in fact, there were two kinds: ¬†perfect contrition (I’m sorry for the sinful nature of my act which has offended G-d) and imperfect contrition (I’m sorry because my immortal soul is now in jeopardy) The story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus embodies this.

That being said, after working in a variety of social service programs, particularly child welfare, over the years, I truly believe there are those individuals whose brains have been so damaged, for example, by drugs, alcohol (including prenatal exposure) schizophrenia, PTSD and traumatic brain injury that they no longer have the capacity to control their impulses. ¬†A classic example might be Jeffrey Dahmer, who continued in the murder of his final victim after being (briefly) stopped on the street by the police – the textbook definition of insanity under the M’Naghten test studied by all lawyers. The damage they do to society is indisputable, but the point at which their behaviour is “sinful” is far beyond my limited capacity to determine. ¬†

by MaryKK on Tue Oct 3rd, 2006 at 17:44:53 PDT

oops (none / 1)

Mahanoy, Sorry ’bout that.

by MaryKK on Tue Oct 3rd, 2006 at 17:46:20 PDT

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