Remember the song lyrics: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love!” It’s hard to disagree with such a sentiment, especially at the present time when nations and people are at war with each other. Love is a beautiful thing, and we could use more of it. However, the world is in need of something else too: a healthy sense of sin. In fact, I am sure that having a healthy sense of sin and loving one’s brothers and sisters complement and strengthen each other, and together they provide a good foundation for peace and stability among men and women and even nations.
So what is a healthy sense of sin? We can try to answer that question first, perhaps, by looking at what a healthy sense of sin is not.
7 Pitfalls of Sin
This is in direct contradiction to sacred Scripture. For instance, to offer just one citation from St. Paul: “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The objection, however, will be raised, “What about Mary?” Indeed, Mary was without sin by a special grace from God, who desired to use one of his creatures to bring about salvation for all by having her give birth to the world’s — and her own — savior. Yes, her savior, too. Remember what Mary says about herself: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.”
The Church understands Mary’s words to mean that she too had to be saved from sin, but in God’s eternal plan, the merits of her son were applied to her before they were given to the world. We must also remember what Mary did not say about herself: She never declared herself sinless, but instead continued to ponder the word of God throughout her life and to say “yes” to the grace given to her. On the matter of personal sanctity, it’s always best to let God be the judge.
Someone who is not sinning would not have to declare it, for the fruit of such munificent grace would be evident in the person’s life and in the life of the community in which the person lives. Grace is not simply a cork we place on our behavior to stop sin; rather, grace is the power of God in our lives that enables us to persevere in acts of love and justice. Yet, we have to admit that with the help of God’s grace to stop sinning is possible: “How can the young keep his way without fault? Only by observing your words” (Ps 119:9). Nevertheless, it remains a wise decision not to speak about the purity of one’s soul: “From arrogant ones restrain your servant; let them never control me. Then shall I be blameless, innocent of grave sin” (Ps 19:14).
With this declaration, one has to be careful to understand precisely what the speaker is saying. On the one hand, the speaker may be describing the state of his or her soul after a lifetime of obeying God’s words and producing much fruit. In this case, “I don’t sin seriously” is a grateful acknowledgement of God’s mercy that the person has received and then applied to his or her life. The speaker does not mean to suggest that some sins can be taken less seriously than others. The lover of God tries to please him in all things, small and grand.
St. Teresa of Avila said that even venial sins committed freely and knowingly are serious matter. On the other hand, if another speaker says, “I don’t sin seriously,” and means by it that the little sins are not worth worrying about, then the statement is very unhealthy indeed. No sin, big or small, should be tolerated. Just because “I haven’t murdered anyone” does not mean that I am free to disregard “little” sins. The danger is sinking into the quicksand of moral relativism, not to mention the possibility of a habit of “little” sins growing into a very large vice. While the Church rightly distinguishes between venial and mortal sins, she has never suggested that the former should be taken less seriously than the latter. Jesus used the strongest and most vivid language to communicate the destructive power of any and all sin: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna.” Jesus also said, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shall not murder,’ but I say to you do not even grow angry with your brother.” All sin, mortal and venial, is serious and should be avoided with the help of God’s grace.
This is a poor sense of sin because it leaves out the entire body of Christ of which we are all members. Sin is certainly an offense against God, but it damages our relationships with our brothers and sisters, too. Sin is never simply a matter between me and God. One of the reasons Jesus instituted the sacrament of reconciliation is that the penitent receives forgiveness from Christ and the community in the person of the priest, who represents both. Now, I admit that it can be more difficult to see Christ in a particular priest than to accept that bread and wine becomes Jesus’ body and blood. Nevertheless, the priest (however weak and sinful he is in himself) is God’s instrument. (Remember, too, what Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees who had taken the seat of Moses: “Do what they tell you, but do not follow their example.” Moreover, we cannot forget that the priest represents the community that we have hurt by our sin and with which we need to be reconciled as well. When we pray the Our Father, we make ourselves accountable to God and to our brothers and sisters.
This is one of the more famous senses of sin, often dramatized in movies and novels. Usually when we make this statement, we have just committed one of the so-called BIG sins (and in the movies and novels BIG sin almost always means sexual sin). The particular sin is so grave and so serious that, in the moment following it, we can think of nothing else: “How could I have done such a thing? Why was I so stupid? Oh my God, I’m lost!” In the midst of such emotion, it is difficult to keep in mind that Jesus Christ died and rose to pay the debt of all sin.
We may even feel like a hypocrite for thinking of forgiveness, or perhaps we secretly do not want to get away with the sin and fear we might. Such thoughts are to be expected after committing a serious sin, but they should not be the end of our thoughts. Contrition, confession and reparation should also follow. If they do not, then something else is going on. To claim “I am beyond redemption” may be a twisted attempt to refuse the love and acceptance of God because deep down we do not love or accept ourselves. We may also claim to be lost out of a secret desire not to change. God’s forgiveness, however, calls forth from us conversion of heart and a willingness to change our behavior. A sick pride may be repulsed at the idea of asking forgiveness from God and others or at the prospect of having to make amends before the eyes of others. It’s difficult to say why we might cling to the idea of being lost, but it is certainly a poor sense of sin because it claims that God is powerless over this particular crime (or series of crimes) when we know that God has already conquered the power of sin.
Despite the infrequent use of the confessional, scrupulosity is alive and well. We have this condition when we agonize over having a passing sexual thought, lose sleep over eating a grape in the grocery without paying for it, or suspect sin behind our every thought, word and deed. We must remember that there is a difference between temptation and sin. Jesus was tempted in every way like us, but he never sinned. While we do sin, not every thought or action is sinful. Temptations and passing thoughts can be dealt with simply by letting them pass: don’t entertain them, but rather offer a prayer instead. Stealing a grape can be remedied easily by paying for it and not doing it again. In situations like these, the distinction between mortal and venial sins can be helpful: a one-time, impulsive venial sin should not exhaust more time in examining one’s conscience than a frequent, freely chosen mortal sin. We are to use a good measure of reason and common sense, honesty and sound judgment when we ponder our sins before God. A good confessor and a regular habit of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation can help us avoid scrupulosity.
This poor sense of sin is centered on the idea that redemption is desired but seems unattainable because of persistent or habitual sin. However, many of the same motivations that make us feel that we are beyond redemption may also be at work. “I’ll never change” may really mean “I don’t want to change.” We may say “it’s no use” because we really believe “it’s no problem,” and we angrily cling to what we think we should be allowed to have in the first place. Our protestations may be part of a game we play to convince God (and ourselves) that we’re really making an effort, but the sin is just too overpowering. And just maybe our twisted mindset suggests to us that God himself isn’t doing enough to match all our good efforts.
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What is a healthy sense of sin?
First things first: Sin exists
The first step is to admit that there is sin and that we are sinners, which we have already noted is not always an easy or welcome task.
However, that sin exists seems to be self-evident. Even if a person does not believe in God, the person would have a hard time denying the presence of evil in the form of wars and violence and selfishness and greed and lust and on and on. Christianity gives to all these evils the name of sin.
And it does matter what we call these evils. If they are merely social evils, or psychological flaws, maladaptation to one’s environment, then perhaps education and the process of evolution will eventually iron out all the wrinkles.
But what if sin is the product of a personal choice? Something that a human being has chosen to do? Then we are dealing with the whole mystery of what it means to be a human being.
Where did sin come from?
The Scriptures teach that sin begins in the heart of a man or woman. Sin is a misuse of the God-given freedom with which we have been blessed.
Jesus puts it plainly: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mk 7:21-23). Of course, if that was all Jesus came to do, to define the cause of sin, we would be in a poor state indeed. Thanks be to God, Jesus came with more than a definition; he also came with a solution: his life for ours. He died so that we might rise.
Seeing sin through a new lens
A healthy sense of sin, therefore, includes the acknowledgement of our fallen nature, that without God’s grace we are lost and prone to do evil. We would have to admit also that given our fallen nature, we have indeed committed personal sin as well; we have missed the mark when it comes to responding to God’s gift of salvation and to following his commandments.
However, in addition to acknowledging the reality of sin in the world and in our lives, we also acknowledge and proclaim that through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection — in other words, through his paschal mystery — we have a remedy available to us: Jesus himself.
Seeing sin through Jesus’ sacrifice tells us two things: No. 1, the awful, destructive power of sin that would require such a sacrifice to redeem the human situation; and No. 2, that God loves us so much, and values our lives to such a degree, that in the person of Christ he freely offers the sacrifice.
A sense of sin that does not include both the tremendous evil of sin and the unimaginable love of God in redeeming us cannot be healthy. If we deny the reality of sin, we are blind to the evil around us and we mock Jesus’ sacrifice. If we focus exclusively on God’s forgiveness, not only do we fail to take sin seriously, but also we make it appear as if God fails to as well.
A healthy sense of sin acknowledges sin’s reality and God’s forgiveness, and it spurs the penitent both to actively avoid sin in the future and to cooperate with God’s gift of redemption by building up the earthly city in anticipation of heaven.
The gift of God’s forgiveness is not meant simply for the individual sinner; it is meant to be shared with the world so that everyone might live in the reality of Jesus’ gift of salvation.
Father David Werning is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.