I ask every couple in marriage counseling to consider how their childhood affects their expectations of the marriage. This same topic was on the table for one particular couple whose childhoods didn’t share much in common because they were from entirely different states and cultures. The man (white, mid 40s, from an upper middle class family) and the woman (hispanic, early 30s, from a poor family) were asked who cleaned the house when they were growing up. The man responded, “Well, her mom would do the cleaning in their house because they couldn’t afford a maid. And her mom would clean our house because we could.” He grinned from ear to ear, proud of his joke.
My heart beats just a tad faster even typing out the joke because I think it might just be offensive to hispanics and women and maids. But after just a few seconds of silence, the woman burst out laughing at the man’s joke. She loved his sense of humor. I can only imagine how my wife would feel if I told an analogous joke at her or her family’s expense. It would not go well.
When a Christian tries to parse out whether or not a particular action is a sin, I cannot help but think of this man and woman. To ask “is it a sin?” is like asking “was his joke offensive?” The answer is probably almost always, “yes and no.” Yes, it would be offensive to a lot of people. But no, it was not offensive to her.
Zoom in or out on your perspective regarding just about any word or action and you will find a similar dynamic at play. Every action will hurt and help someone. No matter your intentions or desires or the consequences, we exist within so many various and competing frames of reference that there is nothing we can do to prevent a word or action from harming someone, somewhere, at some time.
The question “is it sin” is ultimately a useless question to ask. The better question is the same one you have to ask about the couple above – does this word or action build up the relationship or tear it down. The best we can hope to do is align our intentions with building up all of God’s children in love and apologize when (not if) the consequences don’t match our intent. A life of faith is not a life in which we do not tear down; it is a life in which we participate in God’s mission to build the kingdom here.