When *Not* Doing is a Sin

Some time ago I posted an article listing all the “sins” of the New Testament. There I argued that if committing an act is actually sin, then we ought to use New Testament words and categories to discuss it.

One major question that arose from that article, however, was this:

“Those are all the sins of commission (things you do when you shouldn’t), but what about sins of omission (good things you know you should do but don’t do)?”

How can we identify those? Are they the same for everyone?

How can I inform my conscience to know when I’m not doing what is good for the sake of actually doing what is best? How can I tell the difference?

How can I know when it’s OK to not do something good? How can I know when not doing something is actually sin?

1. Ensure you’re working in biblical categories.

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then love your neighbour as yourself. That is the law that must govern you. Nothing else. Recognizing you’re bound by this law, and then freed to do as you please, is remarkably liberating.

2. Realize you have gifts and you are a gift.

You are a gift to the church, a part of the body and you have gifts that must be used for the building up of the body. No one else can be you or use your gifts. So the specific ways God has gifted you and the specific needs of the specific family, church and community in which he has placed you need to be taken into account.

If God has gifted you musically (but not me!) then it may be that you would be committing a sin of omission by not using that gift for the building up of the church—but it wouldn’t be sin for me, because I haven’t been given as a gift to the church in that way. God will hold us to account for whatever he has given us and whatever he has made us.

Take stock of the ways he has gifted you and given you as a gift to those around you, and invest your time and energies strategically.

3. Be fully convinced.

With issues relating to conscience and preference, Paul doesn’t say, “unthinkingly decide based on what you feel or what others tell you.” He says you must be fully convinced in your own mind. That means you must use the tools he’s given you (the priorities of the Bible, the desires of your heart, the insights of your friends, an awareness of your cultural and relational context) to determine what you ought to do. Consider the facts, pray, then make a decision. Be decided.

I don’t mean you should close yourself off to the input of others (especially not those who know you well), but I am saying Satan will tempt you to feel guilty about whatever you’re not doing anyway, and if you’re not fully convinced, it will be that much easier for him to tempt you.

4. Remember good is the enemy of best.

There will always be more things to do than there is time to do it. That’s the nature of life in a fallen world: frustration and futility. Sometimes we need to cut off good things deliberately because we realize in the grand scheme of things there is a hierarchy of what God is calling us to do. If we fill our days with good, we still might miss out on best—and then, in some sense, we’d be sinning even by doing good things.

Even we can tithe our mint and cumin but neglect the weightier matters of love.

In short, there is no easy answer.

But when we think hard, seek counsel and pray about these things, making love of God and others our goal, we’ll never be too far off. Though we’ll never actually do all the good we should, we’ll at least have a clean conscience with regards to those things we aren’t doing.