The world generally struggles with the concept of the existence of ‘sin’. We are, the world tells us, ‘generally good people’ who – for the most part, live ordinary lives and don’t really do terrible things. And that may indeed be the case – in which case this view is broadly correct; but regardless, it says little about the existence of sin in itself.
For the Catholic and for the Christian there is no real doubt about it – sin exists.
Further, it exists not only at the grand level but also at the very personal level. Regardless of the varying types and degrees and categories, still it is sin.
But what exactly is ‘sin’?
The Catechism tells us that “Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile.” Of course, we can see the effects sin, the reflection of its presence amongst us. But to understand it’s nature, the Church tells us, “one must first recognise the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him, even as it continues to weigh heavy on human life and history” (Catechism, para.386).
So there we have it – sin is nothing less that the rejection of God.
Such a rejection can take any number of specific forms and it may present in a spectrum of degree – but at it’s heart, it is always the same thing; that is, a rejection of God and of His divine will. And this, usually because we prefer our own will – in other words, we choose self over God.
Straight away we can begin to see the personal nature of sin, at its earliest point – we are making a choice within ourselves. No matter the specifics of the choice, it will go on to have consequences; it will inflict some damage on our relationship with God, first and foremost, and that damage will ultimately require acknowledgement, repair and reparation. Further, many sins, although essentially ‘private’ in nature, will extend outward to have a communal aspect.
Here is an example. If we continually make choices which are essentially selfish in some way, this will eventually have an impact upon our general character – if I think only of myself, how can I expect that in a situation where I might be able to help someone else, I will choose anything except me and what I want? How can I believe I might be generous, compassionate, giving – if I have no real thought for anyone else?
At the broader level, sin affects not only the individual person, but can influence a house, a community, a church, a nation – even an entire world. And as with the individual, the character of any of these groups can begin to change as a result.
Sin is also very insidious – you might describe it as being rather sneaky. It creeps us on us in an incremental fashion. It does not immediately present us with the worst possible choices – instead, it gradually de-sensitises us to lesser evils us so that we are more inclined to gradually choosing greater evils. I once heard a priest describing this as “the architecture of sin”.
Beyond all this, there is a further element we need to think of – if there is no such thing as sin, then we are in no need of salvation nor of a Saviour to obtain it for us and offer it to us.
We often look at the world around us and wonder what went wrong; how can something created so beautifully seem to have strayed so very far from that loveliness? The answer is, needless to say – sin.
From the very beginning, we – that is, humanity at both the individual and at the general level – have preferred our own will over the will of God, in a multitude of small and not so small ways. Each such choice turns us just a little further away from God and increases our need to repair the damage we are inflicting upon ourselves and upon our relationship with the Almighty. Thankfully, God in His great mercy provides the means for us to undo that damage.
What might be clearer by now is the place of choice in all this – God gives us free choice and does not force our decisions. But each choice has a consequence.
And it is the consequences of our choices – whether as a single person, as a parent, as a community, as a church or group, or as a national or world leader – which colours the world we live in and make it what it is.
Earlier, I had mentioned that ‘architecture of sin’ – what does that mean in practice?
Think of it this way.
We do something that is sinful – as an example, think of stealing. We steal something small and fairly insignificant; we do not get caught, and at some future point, we steal again. And so it continues – after all, we can get what we want, seemingly without consequences. Time goes on, we haven’t changed our ways and what was initially an isolated incident was repeated often enough that it became a pattern of behaviour, or a habit.
With time, that habit begins to form or change our character – stealing is now a real part of who we are. And while to begin with we considered that it had no real-life consequences, now it does indeed have a very real effect on us; we have lost friends, perhaps even family, and we are thought of by others as a thief, if only by reputation.
Here, then, the ‘architecture’ of sin becomes more apparent; it has been a bit like scaffolding on a building – it may start small and slow, but it builds with time until you cannot see the building except through the scaffolding which surrounds it.
Of course, there is one further effect – whether it is stealing or some other issue, ultimately sin is about selfishness; we choose the love of self over anything – perhaps even everything – else. This damages relationships, because it is hard to maintain a relationship of any sort when we are thinking only of ourselves.
The habit part of sin proves problematic, also. There may well come a point at which we see the error of our ways and feel some desire to make a change – Christians see this is a potential point of interior conversion, a ‘kairos’ moment. Yet it may be that this habitual nature of our sin, now deeply ingrained within us as a habit which has gradually dented our character, which prevents that conversion taking place or greatly limits what it can achieve within us.
Despite all this, everything is not lost.
Scripture reminds us explicitly that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners”(Romas 5:8). Conversion was not necessary for redemption, or the Cross would have no power. But redemption and salvation are not the same thing; and so, while we may have ben redeemed, there is no guarantee in this life that we are ‘saved’. Any idea that we are in some way ‘saved’ through one action or moment of conversion of our own is nonsensical, because conversion is process, not an event. And it lasts a lifetime, as any of the Saints will tell us. Even they were not certain of their own salvation – had they been, they would not have been Saints.
Conversion has its own architecture and it is built from two distinct things, usually working together. The first necessity is the grace of God – we ourselves cannot ‘earn’ salvation; it is a free and gratuitous gift from God. The Psalms, like the Gospels, make this abundantly clear. And the second necessity is our compliance with the divine grace – the Almighty gives us free will and will not, therefore, force our hand. The choices are ours – but He will grant us all we need to choose wisely and to support us in that choice.
The message in all this should be fairly clear by now. In all we do, we should consider our options thoughtfully and make our choices very carefully, whether the matters under consideration are great or small. Every choice we make has an effect – and it also has a consequence. Some of those consequences we will see now – others, we will perceive only later. If we need a rule of thumb by which to make our choices, think of the one given by the Lord Himself –
“Love the Lord your God will all with all your heart and with all your soul and with al your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it – you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt.22:37-39)
But that sounds so simple – can it really be that simple?
Yes, it can. And it is.
Sin is always about self; love, on the contrary, is always about the other, whether the ‘other’ is God or our neighbour.
And so as we go through life, we will all build scaffolding of one kind or another around who we are as individual human beings, for good or for ill.
And our architecture always begins with those small, seemingly insignificant and repeated choices we make – these characterise our personal architecture.
The nature of that architecture is entirely up to us.