In 1973, Karl Menninger published the book, “Whatever became of sin?” His previous work on the failed state of the American justice system had revealed him to be a compassionate progressive. That the famed psychiatrist should now argue for a view of sin considered outdated by the intelligentsia came as a surprise to many of his readers.

If the concept of sin had fallen out of favor in Menninger’s time, it has almost fallen out of consciousness now. Even the church seems hesitant to use “sin language” to talk about the world’s and individual’s problems. The result is that people have lost a logically consistent way of thinking and talking about the troubles that beset them.

When on rare occasions one hears the word “sin,” it is usually in connection to fattening foods or sexual infidelity. But this is a dreadfully inadequate concept of sin. The theologically informed will know that the church has recognized seven deadly sins, yet even these are but the merest outline — a pencil drawing — of a monster. Sin is more than the transgression of a moral rule. It is a destructive force.

The depreciation of sin is not new to our century. There are several indications in the Bible itself that teachers (within the church and without) had marginalized the seriousness of sin. Greek philosophers described it as an imperfection. But the biblical writer John has another way of talking about it: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”

He clearly regards sin as something more — and more serious — than isolated acts like gluttony or adultery. Sin, according to this apostle of Jesus, is something one does; a mess one makes — of himself and those around him. It is a state of lawlessness. But what does that mean?

What John seems to have in mind is this: The essence of sin is not just the violation of a moral code, like lying or stealing or sleeping around. It is the rejection of God’s rule over us. Sin is the “You’re not the boss of me!” attitude directed at God. This is what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he famously commented: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: He is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of sin is that it leaves people stuck in places where they feel they have no choice but to do wrong. Spouses feel like they have to hurt each other, and so do parents and children. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Employers and employees, organizations, corporations, governments, and nations all do the same. Sin is not a peccadillo to be winked at, but a monster to be destroyed.

This is the truth about sin that is often missed. It is more than the violation of a moral code. It is a tangle of knots; a backlash that immobilizes people, organizations, and nations, stopping them from doing what is right, forcing them to do what is wrong, simply to survive.

Sin ties people in knots. Overeating ties us in health problem knots. Envy ties us in financial and relational knots. When we’re deceitful with a spouse, lazy at work, or greedy with our money, we’re tying knots. When we refuse to forgive — what a knot that is — it ties us up. We can’t go to this place because that person will be there, can’t accept that invitation because his friend might come. We can’t sleep at night because we keep thinking of what he did. It is a tangle of can’ts that we can’t escape.

People think that the rules God gave are old-fashioned and don’t apply anymore. That’s what people say now, and it’s the same falsehood St. John was responding to in the first century. God gave us rules for a reason. If we ignore what he’s said about human greed, laziness, envy, anger, and sexual behavior, we will find ourselves tied up in knots that we cannot untie.

— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.