Christianity's Most Common and Subtle Sin | Sojourners

Christianity's Most Common and Subtle Sin

Rational thinking illustration, phipatbig /
Rational thinking illustration, phipatbig /

Christianity’s most common and subtle sin is … rationalization.

‘Rationalization’ is defined as: an attempt to explain or justify (one's own or another's behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate (Wikipedia).

Essentially, rationalizing is a way of making excuses.

Ever since Adam tried to blame Eve (Gen. 3:12), Moses tried to downplay his ability to lead God’s people out of Israel (Exodus 3), Aaron tried to deflect blame for the Golden Calf onto others (Exodus 32:22), Gideon’s self-deprecation (Judges 6), and Jeremiah’s excuse of being too young (Jer. 1:6), people have rationalized their rebellion to God.

Creating logical, plausible, and valid explanations to justify our sinful actions — or inactions — is easy. We do it all the time because instead of being obviously and visibly wrong, it’s covert, motivated by fear, doubt, shame, and guilt, and mixed with what we assume is intellect and reason — in reality it’s a form of spiritual escapism.

Rationalization is a type of invisible rebellion. It’s hidden not just from us but from everyone. Therefore, it’s rarely noticeable and hardly ever called out. People aren’t held accountable for being reasonable.

But being a follower of Christ often demands being unreasonable.

It’s almost impossible for someone other than yourself to recognize rationalization. Nobody will fault you for deciding not to go on a mission trip, not pay for a person’s meal, not stopping to help a stranger with a broken car, not anonymously donating to a charity, because these are things we don’t ordinarily do.

If God is urging you to do something, it’s often just between you and God — and this is where rationalization becomes so dangerous. Excuses make sense, and the ones we come up with usually aren’t blatantly evil or overtly bad.

Jonah had every right not to want to go to Nineveh. The Ninevites were his mortal enemies and were violent and destructive and hateful towards Jonah’s own people. Most would do exactly what Jonah did and try to avoid God’s calling — run in the opposite direction! This is commonsense, logical, and what any normal person would do — but it wasn’t what God wanted!

God routinely calls us to be countercultural and radically different than the world around us — but we always talk ourselves out of it. Every Christian struggles with this.

I’m not smart enough to teach a Sunday school class.

I’m not wealthy enough to tithe this week.

If I give money to the homeless they’ll probably just spend it on drugs and alcohol.

If I talk to my coworker about Jesus they’ll probably just think I’m a crazy lunatic.

I don’t have enough vacation time saved up to go on a mission trip.

I don’t want to endanger my family by becoming a missionary in a third-world country.

God calls us to be good stewards of our money, so I’m not going to give it away to charity.

If God wanted me to do that God would have provided me the finances for it to happen.

God didn’t give me an obvious sign, so it probably means I’m not supposed to do it.

I don’t know enough about the Bible to share the gospel with someone else.

God calls us to take care of our families, so for now I’m going to make sure they’re safe, and then I’ll sacrifice for others.

That person is way more gifted than me, so I’ll let them go in my place.

That’s not exactly what I believe, therefore I’m going to completely withdraw my support.

God will predestine it to happen anyways, so I’ll just trust in God’s sovereignty.

Yes, there are times where we need to guard ourselves and our family from burnout, and we must seek wisdom and affirmation from others regarding God’s will for our lives, but for the most part, Christians have the opposite problem — they’re too timid to boldly follow Christ’s example.

It’s not as if the world is looking at Christians and being astounded by how generous, caring, helpful, inspiring, and loving we are. Unfortunately, we often have the opposite reputation of being hateful, greedy, prideful, and complacent.

This doesn’t mean we shame ourselves or fall into the trap of endless guilt — always seeing ourselves as unworthy followers of Christ. No! We need to faithfully and joyfully be reassured about our redemption and identity in Christ!

But we must recognize the counter-Christian temptations and entrapments of the society we live in — the cultural expectations we’re inundated with.

At its worst, rationalization can be used to do horrible things — like promote sexism, racism, discrimination, fear, and hatred — all under the false pretense of being “biblical” and “godly.” But more commonly, rationalization simply enables Christians to be average, ordinary, and impotent.

To avoid the pitfalls of rationalization and making excuses, focus and meditate on the life of Christ — follow Jesus’s example. Love your neighbor as yourself, and let his model of humble service, selfless sacrifice, and gracious love motivate you to live your life as a Christ-follower who brings joy, peace, reconciliation, empowerment, and freedom wherever you go.

Stephen Mattson blogs at He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Image: Rational thinking illustration, phipatbig /