Permanent ink on a white shirt is no fun. I purchased a stain remedy not long ago. It boasted of being able to remove virtually every cloth stain on the planet. When it didn’t do the trick on my collared shirt, I read the fine print on the bottle. Asphalt, blood, grass and wine stains all made the list, but not ink.

A friend then put me on to rubbing alcohol: “Just blot it on there gently, Peter. Don’t rub it in. Keep doing it over and over.” Given my impatience with this frustrating blemish on the pocket of one silly shirt, I wanted to skip the blotting technique and go straight for the rub. Never mind that rubbing a stain in fabric only tends to embed it further. I just wanted to be done with it. But I blotted, which takes patience and time, and was eventually rewarded with a gleaming white pocket. 

The psalmist turns to language of the laundry room when addressing human sin. Here is his Introduction to Stain Removal 101: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love … blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin … wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:1,2,7). 

God the launderer, who covers us with the fabric of steadfast love and abundant mercy, has the patience to lift that “sin stain” from the most complicated threads of our life. Blotting out, not rubbing in, is the Lord’s way. No casual over-the-counter stain remedy will undo the ugly stubbornness of our deep-down sin.

God, with soapsuds everywhere, busy obliterating the grime of sin, makes for a striking image. The only caveat to keep in mind with this image is fair warning that we not reduce sin to mere external behaviors. This is a favorite habit of ours, cataloging sins according to their juiciest appearance, as if Christianity is really a cover for moralism stuffed with “dos” and “don’ts.”

We seem especially adept at noticing the saltiness of other people’s sins, perhaps because, as theologian Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, that exercise “takes the heat off the rest of us.” Exposing someone else’s sin to light is a clever trick for avoiding a candid look at the soiled or unseemly self that resides darkly within us.

What if we were to pay more attention to what goes on in that out-of-the-way chamber of our own heart — the duping, the self-deception, the covering of lies — than on the fascinating wickedness we like to point out in others? Jesus cares mostly about this internal character to sin. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart,” he said (Matthew 15:18).

It might help to think of sin as a condition as inescapable as our nationality or blood type. Best intentions will not eradicate sin. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” laments Paul (Romans 7:15). Only dying and rising with Jesus, to borrow his language, will keep sin from becoming our defining feature.

Note my persistent use of the word sin. The Bible does not focus on the bag of tricks we are capable of deploying. “Mistakes were made.” “I used poor judgment.” “It was an unfortunate lapse of good sense.” The Bible does not depict God forgiving mistakes, poor judgments or lapses of one kind or another. God forgives sin. And sin is what keeps us from becoming the people God wants us to be.

The varieties of words for sin in biblical Hebrew are mind-numbing in number. Yet all of them point to a hardness of heart or stiffness of neck that cause us to miss the mark, stray from the fold or overstep a line. However nasty or disrespectful we may be to an unsuspecting neighbor, stranger or friend, every sin is fundamentally a sin against God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” utters the psalmist (Psalm 51:4).

Perhaps this is what hurts most about sin — the daily rupturing of an otherwise precious relationship with the living God. So unintended in consequence, yet so personal. Only a gift as big as forgiveness can rectify the mess.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

Read more about: