Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?
I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?
First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.
Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.
Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:
(1) Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.
(2) The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.
(3) Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.
Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.