Structure of Sin

Ideas for Counseling

Armand Kruger, MA

"Sin wouldn't be so attractive if the wages were paid immediately" Author Unknown.

"The custom of sinning takes away the sense of it, the course of the world takes away the shame of it."
John Owen.

Overview: How could Cain refuse the offer in Gen. 4:7? Sin as frame; as expectation; as state; sin and the experience of time; as process; sin as frame game; counseling the Christian sinner.


Three teenage girlfriends, together in the same high school, have a serious fall-out in which two rejects the third. Over time they become so angry at her they decide to kill her. They invite her to a place where they are unobserved, strike her against the head, and put her in the trunk of a car, thinking she is dead. When they get to place where they intended to get rid of the body, they discover she is not dead, and they proceed to stab her more than thirty times while she is semi-conscious in the trunk of the car. Question: "how can you do this to somebody who days ago was your friend?" "What would you have to do in your head to think it OK to stab a person more than 30 times?"

After listening to a sermon about how sin can be likened to a parasite, I started wondering about how we as Christians still take sin seriously enough that we are prepared to threaten our relationship to God?

Let me start at the beginning. Our minister in a sermon compared sin to a parasite, where he (briefly) states that:

  • sin feeds of our desires, it cannot exist in a vacuum

  • sin hides itself in what is good and then distorts it

  • sin vandalizes the knowledge and hope of heaven/paradise

  • sin becomes a foreground and pushes God and His promises into the background.

  • In the sermon, on reading the story of Cain and Abel the following verse stuck with me:

    Genesis 4:7 "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 master it." (NIV)

    "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it." (NKJV). In my notes I wrote three things:

    How could Cain refused the offer and the guidelines of what to do to come right with God?

    How did he manage to forget this was about his younger brother?

    If he did heed God, how could he have gone about "mastering it" or "rule over it"?

    In this article I am sharing with you my thoughts on some answers for me.

    Sin as Frame-of-Mind

    Wanting to get his sacrifice accepted by God and removing the obstacles to get it became more important to Cain than anything else, including hearing from God. Whatever the content of his most intense desire, it influenced his experience about his sacrificial activities in a definitive way. His experience and what he paid attention to became punctuated/shaped by this most important desire. In NS terms, whatever it meant to him that his sacrifice was not accepted by God contrary to his brothers', became his highest frame-of-reference. This highest frame dominated and defined his experience in a devastating way. Not only did he from within this frame redefine (reframed) the meaning of his younger brother, but he was prepared to forfeit the good consequences and promises of the farther future (do good now for later rewards).

    What is there to learn from frames-of-mind (specifically, when it comes to sin)?

    1. Frames influence foreground-background

    Highest frames influences what is in the forefront and what is in the background of our minds. In this case of Cain, the content of his highest frame "backgrounded God". The outcome that he considered most important became the foreground and influencer of his actions. Sinners does not necessarily stop thinking about God, He is just not important enough when I sin. Maybe Cain did the kind of thinking which can be described as "If only..., then I will be happy".

    As Ken Sande and Tom Raab says in their book Peacemaking in the Family, this "if only.." can be the source of idolatry if the answer is not Christ. For example, "if only I get love/respect/ acknowledgement then I will be happy" could be the formula in which God is not important enough. A highest frame and answer to "if only"-questions, could be what Paul said in Philipians 3:7-8: "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ."

    2. Frames defines content

    When the highest frame functions "uncontestedly" (i.e. not toned or compared with other higher frames, nor being exposed to the "next question") then we define people and things in the experience in a way that fits the frame. Abel, the younger brother, now becomes that something which needs to be removed.

    3. Frames defines expectations

    The highest frames held about an experience influences and shapes the expectations which I hold about the results or intended outcome. The pay-off of what I am contemplating acts as a reinforcer of my frame, gives it "the juice" through which I might persevere with it. Cain thought that getting rid of Abel would solve his problem. The importance and meaning of that solution backgrounded God's promise "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?"

    4. Frames influence our perception and experience of time.

    In Cain's example, the present and short term future (dealing with Abel) became more important than the rewards and implications of the longer term future. The highest frames we hold influences and bias our perceptions of consequences over time in line with the outcomes we intend from it. If our outcome is "knowing Christ" it implies both ongoing short and long term outcomes. If the outcome is feeling-bound, it would seem the tendency is to think shorter term since feelings are by definition "in the now" or "real time" outcome-events. The more abstract our emotions become (the more they are "meta-states" resulting from high level frames about frames - see Michael Hall et al. at for more reading on meta-states), the further the person's thinking about the future may reach.

    5. Labeling solidifies frames

    Labeling the frame with an acceptable word or concept, becomes a way to linguistically solidify and verbally justify the frame. For example, if something is "in the name of love/righteousness/justice/etc" one can now talk about it in those terms and frame it as such. The more you talk about it in those terms, and come up with different reasons why it is that, etc. the more you solidify the frame linguistically. "Loading it with words" reinforces the content of the frame (because the content is now linked to more and more content, eg. beliefs, reasons, convictions, motivations, values).

    The frame represented by the label of, for example, "love" allows one to justify and verbalize the "goodness/rightness/etc" of the frame. Justifying the label is justifying the outcome, and, frequently, the "goodness" of the behaviors that flow from the frame, regardless of the nature of the behaviors. Think for a moment of all the "good" reasons for killing people, or abusing them. Even if the behaviors required to achieve the outcome is maybe not the "most acceptable" options, it is justified in terms of the "goodness" of the frame. It is like a couple who are having an extra-marital affair goes to the pastor to ask for his blessing because they "really love each other and it must be from God the love we feel." The "goodness" of the frame justifies the sinful behavior.

    Job 15:5 "Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty."

    6. Framing God "defines" God.

    Whatever "short hand version" we hold about God's attributes is how we frame God. The frame (how we "punctuate" God, which attributes we priorities) we impose on our knowledge of God will determine how we respond to God and to God's promises. I wonder what Cain's frame of God must have been for Cain to think about God's personal offer and promise as less compelling than his own plans for Abel.

    Sin as Process.

    There is an "ongoingness" when we sin which deserves that we consider sin as a process rather than as only an attribute of our nature. From the lessons listed above about the frames from which we operate as we sin, it is clear that we need to maintain those frames for as long as we sin. Repentance therefore requires a renewing of the frames-of-our-mind. Simply put, if the frames we hold does not result in the following, we expose ourselves to the parasitic effect of sin:

  • God the Foreground: His Being, His glory, His wanting to have a personal relationship with us, His concern for our spiritual well-being in Him and His ways to be uppermost in our minds will help in backgrounding sinful options.

  • Defines people and things with the heart or vision of God. Even if the definition initially is unclear or unknown, it is implied through the action God requires from us to please Him. A question like the popular "What would Jesus do?" can also help in bringing us closer to the correct definition of what we are dealing with.

  • Our expectation is to be conformed to Jesus Christ, and through our expectation of "what we are getting" to claim the full promise of Romans 8:28-31: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (NIV).

  • Longer Time perspective. Emphasis on the fact that our prize is not completely in the now, but that we are racing for those indescribable rewards in heaven. As Christians we need to put effort into remembering that we have a conviction that we strive for rewards later rather than sooner. We are on a time-line that extends into the everness of everlasting. It is the rationale and certainty of this "everness" which is counterpoint to the immediacy of benefits from sinning. It is also counterpoint to some of the current sociol-cultural mores to which our youth is exposed to.

  • Sin as "Frame Game".

    Think of "Games" as the way we are interfacing with the world. Hall and Bodenhamer qualifies the use of the term "games" as "describing the actions and transactions that we engage in with ourselves and others." (When using "games" in the context of being a Christian I am speaking metaphorically, using the meaning as defined by Hall et al and in no way in a way intending to demean being a Christian).

    "If we viewed our everyday actions in the world and our transactions (interactions) with others as a "Game," as sets of moves and plays, what Games do we play, for what payoff, how do we score, who are we playing against?"

    "A Game simply refers to a set of actions and interactions that allow you to structure your energies so that you can achieve some desired objective. That's why we play Games. We want to accomplish something; we want to "win" at something, express our skills, show off or discover our knowledge and abilities, relate to someone in a certain way, and/or simply enjoy the process of living and expending our energies."

    Counseling Approach.

    Step One:

    A recommended starting point would be to identify the highest frames and check what concerns might give sin an importance higher than the glory of God. Here are some useful questions to ask from Sande and Raab's "Peacemaking in the Family" (Peacemaking Ministries,  @2001, p. 19):

    How can you discern when a good desire might be turning into a sinful demand? You can begin by prayerfully asking yourself "X-ray" questions that reveal the true condition of your heart.

    i .What am I preoccupied with? What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night?

    ii. How would I complete this statement: "If only -------------------------------------then I would be happy, fulfilled, and secure"?

    iii. What do I want to preserve or avoid?

    iv. Where do I put my trust?

    v. What do I fear?

    vi. When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression?

    vii. Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?

    As you search your heart for idols, you will often encounter multiple layers of concealment, disguise, and justification. As mentioned earlier, one of the most subtle cloaking devices is to argue that we want only what God Himself commands.

    Step Two:

    Based on the work of Hall and Bodenhamer (Hall: Frame Games: Persuasion Excellence Meta-Publications, @ 2000; or Hall: Games Business Experts Play Crown Publications, @2002.) here is a way to think about frame games we as sinners play, especially if the sin persist:

  • pay-off or outcome: what will the game get you? What is the end-result of going ahead with your current thinking or behavior?

  • effect: what effect will this thinking or behavior have for you and on the people involved?

  • reason or conviction supporting the "game"; what makes it OK to play?

  • who is involved

  • the rules by which you "play": what would you have to do, and what would they have to do, so that the "game" maintains it's validity? What would they have to do for you to stop playing the "game"?

  • how are you keeping the need to play "the game" fresh in you mind? What are you saying to yourself? What feelings are you paying attention to? What pictures support and strengthen your need to play "the game"? What other reasoning, scripture, deductions, values, convictions help you maintain the drive to pursue "the game"?

  • Step Three:

    Essentially, is to facilitate the discovery of the thought-viruses verbalized in step two and using the principle in Ephesians 4:22-24: "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

    What has to be "put off" are the frames which background God, which inaccurately defines the content of the people and things in the event, which emphasizes time spans less than "everness", which seduces with outcomes which is not in conformance with Christ and not glorifying God, and, frames which reduces God to one or few attributes supporting the reasoning of the sinner.

    Lastly, bring to the person=s notice how their labeling and justification linguistically solidify the frame from which they are giving themselves the permission to sin. This approach has much in common with the methods used to deal with emotional dragons (for further reference see the article by Armand Kruger at or Michael Hall's article of the same title at

    "Putting on" then the right view of God, the wages of sin, etc depending on the meanings and frame-contents elicited during the information gathering phase.

    Last Thoughts (for now).

    How useful is such an in depth look at sin, and such an elaborate procedure to deal with it? Firstly my thinking is that a person who is stuck in a particular sin, and yet express sincere interest to stop doing it, have created for themselves these thinking patterns which are at present more powerful to keep them in it, than is the wish to stop doing it.

    Secondly, any mere cognitive reframing of the content without prayerfully refreshing the "first love" relationship wit the living Christ, would be incomplete work. Why?

    The reason for invalidating the frames conducive to sin is because they are not reflecting the Spirit and the truth of the realness of the event. We stop because the truth is Christ. And we stop because the way is Christ.

    Contact information for Armand Kruger:

    South Africa's Institute of Neuro - Semantics
    Armand Kruger
    PO Box 494
    South Africa, 1960
    Fax: 2716-362-1559

    2003 Armand Kruger All rights reserved.