The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: According to Your Tradition, What is the Worst Sin?

Connor asks, "What is the worst sin, in the opinion of your religious tradition?"

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

Idolatry, that is, giving allegiance to or worshiping anyone or anything other than God. 

Hypocrisy is a close second, that is talking the talk without walking the walk. Jesus didn’t stand for it and neither should religious folks today. Sadly, churches have spent more time on sins of the body rather than sins of the soul.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Presbyterianism teaches that, ‘Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come' (Shorter Catechism, Q. 84). At the same time, ‘Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others’ (SC, Q. 83). ‘Heinous’ refers to the degree both of the sinfulness or criminality of the particular sin, and the odium or atrocity that attaches to it. The ‘several aggravations’ include the character of the sinner and the circumstances of the sin. For example, it is more heinous to sin knowingly and willfully than to sin ignorantly or unintentionally.

While many other sins appear more atrocious, the worst or most heinous sin of all is unbelief. Faith is the key that unlocks all knowledge, experience, and blessing in the Christian life. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him’ (Hebrews 13:6). Not to believe God is the supreme insult to Him; for He is altogether worthy of our trust and obedience. ‘God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent’ (Numbers 23:19).

All things in Scripture are promised to those who believe, that is, to those who receive God’s Word as truth, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives. Unbelief takes many forms, from professed atheism to the more subtle ‘practical atheism’ of professing to believe while refusing to act upon what you profess, and frame your life according to it. James asks a question and then answers it, when he writes, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?  … Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone’ (James 2:14, 17). A dead battery will not power your phone, and a dead faith will not save you.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

To be silent or look away in the face of injustice I believe is the worst thing a Unitarian Universalist can do. Our faith calls us to see the inherent worth and dignity in every person. We not only affirm this in our own beliefs and behaviors, but we must also promote it in the world. Our faith calls us to speak up, and to resist evil acts.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

In the Catholic religious tradition, there are two classes of sin that are the greatest. These classes are capital sins and sins that cry to heaven.

Capital sins are named such because they ‘engender other sins’ and these are ‘pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia (spiritual or mental apathy)’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 457).

Sins that cry to heaven are the blood of Abel (cf. Genesis 4:10); the sin of the Sodomites (cf. 18:20; 19:13); the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (cf. Exodus 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (cf. Exodus 20:20-22); and injustice to the wage earner (cf. Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

In essence, the two classes of sin above focus on our relationships with God and one another. This parallels what Jesus teaches are the greatest commandments. Loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength is the first, and loving our neighbor as ourselves is the second. Violations of these two commandments may well fall into the above classes of sin and are considered the greatest in the Catholic religious tradition.

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

Sin is part of the human condition. All sin is bad. The ‘worst sin’ is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This is the one sin Jesus himself declares ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mark 3:29). 

This ‘worst’ of all sins is a conscious, intentional rejection and denial of God. It is disordered love that embraces and celebrates what the Apostle Paul calls ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19-21). It is rejection of the way, truth, and life of God incarnate in God’s Son, Jesus Christ; the way of self-giving, self-emptying love; the truth of God’s love for the world given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the life of God in all people created in God’s image and the God who gives and sustains life on planet Earth. 

Knowingly spreading lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories is an example of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. A good example of this sin is the spread of lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and vaccines. Knowingly spreading such lies causes great harm to human community and health. Rejection of objective truth (The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Taking them saves lives and is how the pandemic will be ended.) is a rejection of God who is the Truth.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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