Sacred Scripture informs us constantly about the ravages of sin. Traditionally, from a scriptural perspective, the existence of death is one sure sign that sin is omnipresent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to sin and its consequences in so many passages that it’s almost impossible to count them.
Catholics begin each celebration of the Eucharist with the invitation to “acknowledge our sins,” after which we ask God to forgive us and make us whole again.
Sin is so obviously a part of the human condition and our spiritual traditions that it would be foolish to question its existence. But isn’t it also possible to have a deeper conversation about sin, the human condition, and human behavior that doesn’t immediately assume failure? Is all human behavior marked by sin? Are acts that express strong human emotion or feeling always sins to be repented? Might those strong emotions simply mean we’re human?
Is anger always a sin? Is wanting something always a sin? Is accepting praise for a job well done always a sin against humility? Are sexual feelings and emotions always sinful? Are we ever permitted to withhold the truth to protect someone’s feelings? Does every random thought—even when disturbing in intensity—always indicate sinfulness?
In the not-too-distant past, most people probably believed that all of those examples involved sins of commission or omission. Today, many people believe that expressions of human behavior and emotion—even strong feelings—can be healthy. Some might go so far as to say that not expressing our emotions is the “sin,” because it’s unhealthy and counterproductive for human growth.
When everything is a sin, nothing is a sin. We’re overwhelmed with the idea that everything we do is sinful, so we either give up and discard the whole concept of sin or become so burdened that our quality of life is ruined.
Does that last one sound at all familiar?
On the other hand, a healthy understanding of human strengths and weaknesses contributes to healthy and joyful living. It’s important to know—and accept—the difference between deliberately choosing a sinful action and simply making a mistake.
When another driver cuts in front of me on the freeway, I get angry. Anger can be triggered by fear, so my response isn’t inappropriate. Adding a gesture toward the offending driver or speeding up to cut him off is inappropriate and dangerous, but is it sinful? The feelings are not sinful, but any actions that follow are.
Even more important than the “sin” is the lack of maturity and depth of anger triggered by the experience. It would be useful to accept the sin and ask, “What am I so angry about?”
Do strong feelings of attraction and desire automatically signal sin? No, not at all. God created us as sexual beings, and our thoughts and feelings are part of who we are. Even people in stable and loving relationships aren’t immune from spontaneous attraction and desire. Strong sexual feelings can be nothing more than an indication that we’re alive; they can also be confirmation of our relationship and commitment. In both instances, what’s important is not that we have the feeling, it’s that we have a healthy understanding of who we are, what our responsibilities are, and what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate.
Sin is an essential part of our understanding of the world and human behavior, but it’s not lurking under every rock or behind every shadow as people used to believed. Now we have a more nuanced understanding of human behavior. We feel and express our emotions. We respond to impulses and desires. We try, with God’s grace, to grow in “wisdom and age,” as Luke 2:52 reminds us.
In the process, we realize and appreciate more every day that life is not always black/white, nor is it always either/or.
More often than not, it’s both/and.
Excerpt from the English translation of The General Instruction of the Roman Missal from The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved. Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa