All day long, and all the days of our life, we are sliding, slipping, falling away—as if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting.

—C. S. Lewis

I ain’t got to, but I can’t help it.

—William Faulkner

Sin. The very word has a slithery, reptilian sound to it. For me, the word summons up overtones from the past, when heavy-breathing Southern revivalists would stretch it out in full two-syllable fury. “Siiiiii-yun,” they would shout, and raise their fists in defiance against the Satanic force that lay in wait for each of us, that lay in wait inside us.

I trembled as a child when I heard about sin and the horrors of its punishment. Subconsciously, my images of God were forming as I listened to those revivalists. God was no Father to me, for I had no image of father to draw on—mine died of polio just after my first birthday.

So God was more like the authority figures I knew, especially the tanklike German matron who inspired fear in the hearts of any first-grader daring to whisper or throw spitballs in her domain. Only, God was far larger and stricter, the strictest teacher imaginable.

Martin Luther grew up haunted by a stained-glass window from his boyhood church, a window depicting Christ as a stern king with a raised sword. The sword appeared to Luther exactly like a rod. To my child’s mind also, God loomed as the great Enforcer who brought swift and terrible punishment to all who misbehaved. And it did not help that church members told me my earthly father, now in heaven, was looking down on me to help spy out my hidden sins.

Now, looking back, my early, oppressive encounters with the word sin almost ...

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