“You know, Theresa, when you do that, it makes the virgin Mary cry!” My mother, a devout Catholic, would say from time to time about my less than pious choices.
“You hurt Jesus when you commit a sin.” The adults would tell the group of teenagers who attended youth group with me. My religious upbringing in the Catholic Church was full of this manipulation and spiritual hostage taking.
When I came to Islam, I would hear similar ideas from not so knowledgeable Muslims: The throne of God shakes when you do x, y, or z, many would repeat this weak narration or that. Why does God need us to do “x” and stay away from “y”? Some would ruminate.
But is imagining that some “far away” being is hurt by our choices enough to abstain from following whatever desire we have? To me, and most people, the answer is no.
For me, the answer is a resounding no, because I do not respond well to religious or spiritual manipulation. I am not interested in doing arbitrary things or dictating how I live my life just because it helps another being who claims to be powerful.
To that end, I do not and will not believe in a God Who needs anything from me. I do not believe in a God Who could be so weak as to require my good actions in order to be “OK” or would be weakened by my misbehavior. To me, such a being could never be God.
Despite the grumblings of not yet knowledgeable Muslims, Islam teaches, as a very basic tenet, that God is not in need of us avoiding sin or doing good:
God – there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His foot stool extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great. (Quran 2:225)
God, the All-Powerful Creator of everything, is not in need of anything. If ever you imagine a being to be a “god” and it has any need, the only logical conclusion is that it is not God.
If I, a finite being with need and weakness, can harm or benefit something, then that something cannot be God, an Infinite, All-Powerful Being.
More to this point, what a sin is and who God is are closely tied to the human purpose here on earth. Our purpose in this life is to know peace through knowing God.
Our purpose here on earth is to find our way back to our original home with God and have eternal peace. And what makes something a sin is that it gets in the way of that.
Sins are not arbitrary things some weak being has decided, hurts its feelings. A sin is a warning against traps of this world that have a great potential to be harmful, distracting, and/or destructive to the human being.
Gambling, drinking alcohol, adultery, etc.- all have serious consequences that come along with their indulgence.
These actions are fun and pleasing for a second and then lead to addiction, pain, financial ruin, destruction of families, illness, and so much worse in the long term.
Not only do they harm us, they distract us from our purpose; therefore, making them sins.
A sin is also a warning against causing fellow beings (human or not) harm, distraction, or destruction. Stealing, murdering, terrorizing, etc. all have serious consequences for the victim: poverty, trauma, death, grief, and so much more.
Even sins that hurt others inevitably hurt us. All the evil we do and the pain we cause others will come back to us. And so, showing no respect for and harming God’s creation distracts us from the path to finding peace through God.
I am sure you can understand why hurting others is a sin, but may wonder why it is a sin to hurt ourselves? It is our right after all to do what we want with ourselves!
Well, the answer is that it is not our right to harm ourselves because we belong to God. He created us and everything that sustains us.
If we were truly our own property, then we could create, from nothing, ourselves and everything we need to live.
Or were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]? (Quran 52:35)
But we cannot and will not ever be able to do so. And so, as a part of the creation, we must respect and do no harm to all parts of the creation, including ourselves—body and soul—because we belong to the Creator. The only thing we have is free will and the deeds we choose with that free will.
Since we cannot harm God, what makes disbelief a sin if it doesn’t directly harm the self or another part of creation?
The answer is a part of what makes a sin a sin- it leads us off the path to peace through knowing God. Denying God exists or worshiping a finite part of creation as a “god”, removes us completely from the path to peace through knowing God.
How can we know God if we deny His existence? And how can we have peace if we deny the Creator of peace? How can we know peace through God if we put something else in His place, something that is finite and incapable?
We cannot. We cut ourselves off from God and peace and therefore harm ourselves.
However, God is in no need of our worship. God will be God even if no one worships Him. We are the ones who need God.
And we all have a need that cannot be filled by anything on this earth. We all feel that need to know peace, to know God.
All of this is not to say that any of us could ever be perfect and capable of avoiding every sin. The human being will falter. That is a part of our nature. The beauty in our weakness is that we can also use our sins as a way back to God, to peace, to our true home:
Verily, God loves those who repent and those who purify themselves. (Quran 2:222)
The point is simply to try to avoid sins as best as we can, to try our best avoid that which will harm us, that which will distract us from the path.
Sins will happen. But they do not mean failure. When we despair and stop trying, then we have failed. The path is always open.