Fr. Tim trying to decide whether to listen to the devil or the angel on his shoulders. Sometimes it’s a tough choice!

                  During Lent, it is very common for Christians to reflect on our sins. We know that it is important to be mindful of our sins, and we know that it is important to strive to do better. The Church even offers us some tools that can help us to find forgiveness from our sins. As John writes in his first letter, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-10). Following this lead, we participate in the sacrament of reconciliation, which involves making a confession of our sin, and then receiving an absolution from a priest. The sacraments of holy baptism and unction (anointing of the sick) also have graces that bring the forgiveness of sin. Remember, however, that baptism can only be received one time. This is why superstition once led people to seek baptism only on their death beds. They wanted to receive the cleansing graces of baptism at the end of their lives when they were sure to avoid committing any further sin. But what is sin? And why does it seem to have so much power over us? What does it mean for us to say we are sinners? Why should we avoid sin and how do we do it? Theologians have debated about the nature of sin for generations. After a decade of formal theological study and ordained ministry, I have reached only two incontrovertible conclusions about sin: sin is bad, and Jesus is good. So what does this mean for his followers?

                  It can be easy to fall into a trap of suggesting that the sins of others are the sins we ought to worry about. In fact, I hear from non-believers that one of their biggest problems with the faithful is that they often feel judged for things that they do not believe to be wrong. I find this practice off-putting as well. It comes across as, “I don’t like this, therefore, I don’t think you should do it either!” This type of attitude can be hurtful and even harmful to others, but the prevailing attitude can be that the end justifies the means. In other words, “sure, I might have hurt your feelings now. But I saved your soul!” In realty, it doesn’t exactly work that way. Remember, after telling us that we are not to judge others, Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). In other words, worry about yourself. If you believe something is wrong, then it’s up to you to avoid doing it. Am I suggesting there shouldn’t be laws? Of course not. But laws need to exist to protect people from other people, not to protect us from ourselves. If, for example, I believe it is wrong for me to drink alcoholic beverages, then it is appropriate for me to choose to avoid drinking them. However, it doesn’t really make much sense for me to suggest a law saying no one is allowed to drink. At the same time, it is perfectly reasonable for me to support a law prohibiting driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Drunken driving impairs our ability to drive safely, and it can cause major property damage or bodily harm and even death. It can have consequences for others, even those who do choose to abstain. Each of us gets to discern for ourselves how we wish to behave and then act accordingly.

                  Why is it harmful to protect people from themselves? Because it appears that someone is taking the moral high ground. It can sound like this: “Oh you silly person. I know this behavior is wrong and you clearly don’t. So I’m going to tell you that you can’t do it any more so you don’t keep digging a deeper and deeper hole for yourself!” See how that’s condescending and pretentious? It’s also a major turnoff. I do not appreciate being talked down to. I’m sure most of us don’t. So how do we navigate sins? And is what is sinful to me always sinful to you? And am I responsible for your sins if I tell you something isn’t a sin and then you do it, only to realize it is a sin after all? The answer is, it’s complicated!

                  Did you expect me to have a simple answer for you? I sure hope not. Because sin is complex. But if we’re going to talk about sin, we need to know what we’re talking about. So what is a sin? In simple terms, a sin is something that separates us from God. It’s choosing ourselves over choosing God. So the question we need to ask ourselves about everything we do is, “Will this bring me closer to or farther away from God?” Depending on the answer, we can be pretty sure about whether something is sinful. Each of us has unique circumstances which means that something that to one person is sinful might not be sinful to someone else. Hence, Jesus tells us to worry about our own problems instead of focusing on someone else’s. This also informs us why we can obtain forgiveness of our sins. If we’ve moved away from God, we can always turn around and try to move closer. The word repent means to change direction. When we repent, we literally change our course so that we can be closer to God.

                  So, Fr. Tim, are you telling us anything goes? No! Absolutely not. We have to do our homework. In the Church, we call this discernment. This means we must be honest with ourselves all the time. We need to ask ourselves, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” and “How does this action serve me in my relationship with God and with others?” What are my motives? What is my purpose for behaving this way? For example, did I behave out of character because someone cut me off in traffic and I reacted out of anger? If I did, then it’s a good idea to acknowledge it. And then I need to remain mindful of my behavior in case I’m ever cut off in traffic again. Hopefully, if I’ve done some sincere discernment, then I will be in a better position to avoid an overreaction next time. The unfortunate traffic incident explains, but does not excuse my sin. Discernment helps me to understand why I behaved a certain way. Now I get to analyze the effects of my behavior, and to change my behavior accordingly. And as difficult as it may be, this is what the Church means when it teaches us to “go and sin no more.” As the kids say these days, now that we know better, we do better.

                  Sins are usually those behaviors and actions that harm others (or ourselves). A good starting point is the Ten Commandments. Most of the commandments focus on stewardship of the earth and of our relationships. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lie. Take time for rest and renewal. Don’t covet things that don’t belong to you. Don’t be envious of other people. All of these behaviors harm other people. Other commandments keep us close to God. There is only one God. Don’t worship false idols. Don’t curse God’s name. Are these intended to protect God’s feelings? I would argue that God’s feelings are not hurt by petty things like these. Instead, failing to honor these commandments interrupts our relationships with God. We can always make amends when we commit sin, and we can always make efforts to avoid sin in the future.

                  God gives us something called free will. Because of this free will, he permits us to make up our own minds. He doesn’t interfere when we commit sin, and I don’t even know how accurate it is to say he punishes us for our sins. Instead, sin, by its very nature, is punishment enough. Our separation from God when we commit sin, and our failure to decide to repent and return to him leaves our souls feeling sad and incomplete. Our continued discernment gives us the opportunity to be honest and critical about our behaviors. Maybe something we used to do in the past is something we no longer do because we now know it is sinful. Maybe something we’re doing now is something we won’t do ten years from now because we’ll have access to more details at that time than we have now, informing our decisions. The bad news is that we all commit sin. The good news is that God doesn’t want us to be in a state of sin. We are called to evaluate our actions from the past, to discern whether those actions were sinful, and then to behave accordingly in the future. It isn’t easy, and the path isn’t always linear. But as long as we’re making constant efforts to avoid sin and to repent and return to the Lord, then I think we’re on the right track.  

Go and Sin No More