To some extent the words translated “sin” in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament can convey this meaning. In the Book of Judges we read of skilled Hebrew fighters and that “Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (Judges 20:16). The word “miss” in this scripture is the same Hebrew word chata often translated “sin.”
But this Hebrew word is by no means limited to the idea of missing the mark. The same word is often translated in many other ways. For example, we find the various forms of this word are translated as: “bear the blame,” “bear the loss,” “bewildered,” “cleanse,” “forfeit,” “indicted,” “miss,” “offended,” “purged,” “purified,” “reach,” and in other ways.
So it is certainly an over-simplification to say that the word sin means to “miss the mark” like an arrow that does not quite hit the bull’s eye of the target. There is another problem with this view. To understand sin as simply “missing the mark” makes it seem almost like not getting a perfect score on a test – to miss the “perfect” mark and only get 85% or perhaps to “only just miss” and to score a 98 or 99% out of 100. Such a view makes sin seem to be a matter of degree – only a problem to the extent we “miss the mark.” It encourages us to think that our failures are perhaps not as bad as those of others. You may well have heard people say “Well, I may do this [smoke, swear, tell “white lies” or whatever], but it is not like I do that [steal, cheat, murder or whatever].” Thinking that sin means essentially to “miss the mark” is to make sin relative and perhaps even reasonable if it is only “slightly less than perfect.”
So is there a better way to understand the concept of sin? If we gather all the instances in which sin is mentioned in the Old Testament (and in which the Hebrew word is clearly talking about sin and not something else), the underlying or common thread between them is perhaps closer to alienation. Sin is that which offends or breaks our relationship with God or with others.
The New Testament shows us clearly that anything that breaks the law of God is sin (1 John 3:4) – regardless of “degree” – and it is interesting to notice that the first time sin (chata) is specifically mentioned in the Bible we find a parallel definition: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Here we see sin is simply not doing what is right.
The earliest example of sin – even if the word is not used there – is of course the Garden of Eden story where Adam and Eve are shown to have cut themselves off from God through their sinful behavior (Genesis 3:6-8). This aspect of separation is nowhere made clearer than in the Book of Isaiah: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
So it can be a mistake to think of sin as merely missing the mark. Our unrepented sins cut us off from God no matter how small they may be, and sin always affects our relationships with others in some way. To see sin as simply to “miss the mark” may be to miss the point – “missing the mark” misses the fact that sin separates and ultimately breaks relationships. Sin is never relative, abstract or impersonal – it is always absolute, concrete and personal. That is why we should not think of sin as simply missing something. It is breaking something that we need to take to God to forgive and fix.