Our Muslim friends do not feel the weight of the word sin when we use it. There’s a reason for this. Islam has a different definition for sin, one more akin to mistake, flaw, or excusable offense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had local friends shrug off the concept of sin. “Of course we sin, we’re all humans after all. God understands! He made us like this and he’s full of mercy.” Missing is the deeper understanding of depravity. We are not just good beings that make mistakes. We actually have evil natures and without Jesus we commit evil continually from those natures. Sin has mercilessly infected every part of our lives. And this sinfulness has rendered us eternally incompatible with a holy God. Whereas the Bible presents sin as a disaster of eternal proportions, my local friends talk like it is something that can be remedied by a quick trip to the pharmacy.
We have found that while the concept of sin is shrugged off, the concepts of shame and uncleanness are felt keenly. Thus, these are good avenues to start with when explaining the biblical idea of sin. Sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us ashamed (Gen 3:10) and unclean (Is 6:5) before a just, honorable, and pure God. Leveraging these categories that already exist for fallenness can help us as we work to build new biblical categories that are absent or undeveloped in the local worldview. Someday our local friends will feel the sinfulness of sin after their minds and affections have been renewed by biblical truth. But it might take years. But they already feel the concept of shame deeply. And they feel uncleanness.
We should chew on how we can take this into account, how we can take a multi-faceted approach when explaining the biblical concept of sin to our Muslim friends. At the very least, we can use the biblical words for fallenness in clusters. We can regularly speak of sin and shame or of sin, shame, and uncleanness. By clustering these words like this, not only are we presenting a more holistic understanding of fallenness, we’re also sharing in a way that is more likely to pierce the heart. “What’s that? Jesus also cares about my secret shame? My constant uncleanness? That’s what separates me from God? This is not as easy to brush off as I thought it would be.”
I once did a home-stay with a Muslim immigrant family in the US. They were pretty moderate in their faith overall. But one day the teenage daughter brought home some takeout given to her by a friend. She didn’t know what the meat was and innocently put it in the fridge. Her mom later discovered the leftovers and was raving about how good they were. Then she looked at the receipt. It was pork. Immediately, the color drained from her face, she started muttering prayers of contrition, and she started trying to make herself throw up. She had become unwittingly unclean and that prospect left her terrified. She pleaded again and again for God to forgive her. This immigrant mother would debate for hours that humans are basically good, and yet she was very much alive to the concept of spiritual uncleanness.
Because of these things, I’ve come to start using an analogy on sin and uncleanness that I learned from a coworker. I like it in particular because it illustrates biblical truth in categories my local friends can understand. It meets them where they are at. The analogy is a simple one designed to help in conversations where Muslims are struggling to understand why sin is such a big deal. It goes like this: Imagine a delicious pot of rice, rich, steaming, seasoned, and ready to eat. Now imagine that one tiny piece of pork is mixed into that pot. What has happened to that rice? By nature of the tiny piece of pork, all the rice has become utterly unclean, or haram in Arabic. (Good Muslims should vehemently agree on this point. Islam abominates pork as the filthiest of foods). In an analogous way, one small sin pollutes and corrupts our entire nature, making us totally unclean and unworthy to be in the presence of a pure and holy God.
I’ve been able to try out this analogy with some of my local friends and so far have found it readily understood. Then from there, it’s just one step to telling the story of Jesus healing the unclean leper from Matthew chapter 8. Jesus touches the unclean and instead of himself becoming unclean, he makes the leper clean! Each of us needs him to do that for us also, to touch us and to purify us as only he can. This paints a stark contrast with the teaching of Islam. It means we are cursed with uncleanness and in need of a miracle to become spiritually pure. No more weak attempts to do ritual washings five times a day. We need something infinitely more powerful and permanent than that. Something that only Jesus can accomplish. If we will come to him in faith and repentance, he will kindly reach his hand and touch us. He will once again say, “I am willing. Be clean.”
p.s. We would of course later deal with the fact that pork is no longer actually unclean. Bacon is now back on the menu, if a believer so desires. But to temporarily use pork as a step toward understanding spiritual uncleanness is not necessarily to give credence to Islam. It is rather to do exactly what the food laws in the Old Testament did.