Sin, Out of Fashion? A Meditation on an Unpopular Word
Sin has a serious effect on our inner happiness and sense of peace.
Sin, a Three-fold Effect
I have not specialised in the study of Moral Theology, so I wonder why I hear some moral theologians say that we should not use the word ‘sin’ any more. Jesus’ message included the command to turn away from sin. Presumably the word comes across as judgemental and makes people feel guilty (the latter is not a bad thing!). I would like to propose that sin is something which has a three-fold effect, namely it offends God, it hurts someone (even a solitary sin is love wasted on myself which could have been given to someone in need), and what we are often not aware of, sin hurts us, our personality, our soul, our psyche.
Sin Hurts Us
I would like to develop the theme that sin is something that hurts us. We do get some advantage, or pleasure, but the end result is a serious loss of inner peace and deep joy, negative feelings that persist well into the future, until we are somehow healed of this effect on our inner self. If we do not worry about offending God, or our neighbour, we should be truly concerned about hurting ourselves. There is the forgiveness of our loving God, who always pardons us when we ask him. But repetitive sin and a serious sin can result in a significant loss of inner peace, which will take more than one confession to restore, it will need reparation in order to open oneself to the Lord’s healing.
God Punishes Sin
For a start, God punishes sins, as we know, when we die, by purgatory or hell. But we can also receive punishment in this life, as did King David, for his sin of adultery and murder (2 Samuel, chapters 11 and 12). Appropriately, the Letter of James 1:15 seems to refer almost directly to David’s sin: ‘Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and when sin reaches full growth, it gives birth to death’.
‘Death’ may also mean inner suffering, sadness. In 1 Thess. 4:6b, we read that ‘the Lord always pays back sins of those sort’, referring to selfish lust. It is not clear how the Lord ‘pays back’ but it is my contention that one result is a loss of peace and abiding joy, and a tendency to be more self-centred. In this way we pay for our short term pleasure by becoming, perhaps surprisingly, more irritable and restless, the contrary of what we would expect from the sinful act. People who abuse gifts such as alcohol, or sexuality, drugs or food, seem to become more anxious, even irritable, and at worst begin to build their social life around their particular pleasure, and wonder why they frequently feel dejected and empty. James 4:5 argues that ‘Anyone who chooses the world (sin) for a friend is constituted an enemy of God’. So we can see how sin threatens our personal happiness, our relationship with God, and with our neighbour.
Sin Leads to Other Sins
Paul, in Rm 8:7, refers to sin as disordered human nature, as the ‘flesh’ winning against the ‘spirit’ (Rm 8:14-23). In Rm 1:32, Paul writes that God abandons the godless who give in to degrading passions, and the result of this is ‘all sorts of injustice, rottenness, greed, and malice, full of envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite, libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude arrogant and boastful, enterprising in evil, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour love or pity’. It seems clear from this that one sin can lead to other sins, reinforcing our compulsion to sin, and thus can lead to a serious moral breakdown and a profound diminution of peace and joy.
Again, in 1 Cor. 3:3, Paul states that living by our ‘natural inclinations’ causes jealously and rivalry. This is echoed by James 3:16, who links jealously and ambition with disharmony and wickedness of every kind. We sow what we reap (Gal 6:7). ‘If his (sic) sowing is in the field of self-indulgence, then his harvest from it will be corruption; if his sowing is in the Spirit, then his harvest will be eternal life’ (Gal 6:8). This verse confirms that sinful indulgence leads to corruption of a person, quite possibly also to a wider range of sins, to a more profound corruption.
If we open the door to sin by indulgence, it seems that a person will be tempted to further sin. Thus if we drink or eat too much, or take drugs, we open the door to sexual sin, or violence, or sloth or some type of reckless behaviour. One sin flows from the other.
The danger of giving into sin then, is that it leads to other sins, increasing our inner turmoil.
Sin Leads to Addiction
Paul also shows that sin can lead to slavery (Rm 6:16-18). In 2 Peter 2:11-16, we learn that self-willed people are like animals, they become debauched, adulterous, seductive, greedy, ‘people with an insatiable capacity for sinning’. Here too we can see how one sin leads to another, and how a person can become addicted to sin (an insatiable capacity for sinning). In Rom 8:21 Paul refers to freedom from slavery to corruption and entering ‘into the same glorious freedom as children of God’.
Sin Hurts Us
In a general sense, the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), demonstrates that a sinful life can easily lead to misery and unhappiness. It is surprising that the prodigal son was not addicted, and that he did not relapse into his old habits but perhaps his confession was deep and his father’s forgiveness was also a healing from the effects of his experiences. I am reminded of the old pop song ‘The House of the Rising Son’, in which the singer warns listeners not to spend their life in misery, in the ‘House of the Rising Sun’, which provided gambling, liquor and sex. Even the pop world gets it right now and again!
Paul states that sin leads to feelings of shame (Rm 6:21). In the letter to the Galatians (Gal 5:16-24) we are told that self-indulgence leads to other vices, and the letter lists 15 results of sinful self-indulgence (Gal 5:18-21, such as sexual vice, impurity, drunkenness, bad temper, quarrels, jealously, and so on). These desires of self-indulgence are in opposition to the Spirit (Gal 5:17, 18), and the fruits of the Spirit on the other hand are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Gal 5:22). This is a clear statement of the negative effects of sin on us, we lose the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
We are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17, 1 Cor 6:18-20), and when we sin, (for example, against our body, by sexual immorality), we grieve the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s gifts are diminished within us. In losing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we also fail to build up the Body of Christ, the Church, for which our gifts have given to us. In this way, even a solitary sin can affect other people, by rendering us less able to build up the Church. In 1 Pet 1:4 we are told that we are meant to share in the divine nature and escape disordered passion. Clearly, by serious sin we cannot participate in God’s divine nature, and suffer the consequences. Constant sin makes us more self-centred and less loving.
We should be killing sin everyday – before it kills us
If a person is constantly feeling agitated, restless, anxious, perhaps this is the direct of some ongoing sinfulness. We need a form of apologetics which demonstrates how sin hurts us. A person may argue, for example, in our highly promiscuous society, if we can protect ourselves from disease or unwanted pregnancy, why not have sex? Certainly, from the quotations I have cited above, we diminish the fruits and gifts of the Spirit within us, and accumulate restlessness and lack of deep joy, as well as, I contend, we become less loving. We need more input from believing psychologists on the theme that sin damages our personality to our detriment, especially in relation to sexuality and substances, where there is surely a lot of harm done to the soul and the personality, or character. I think we need more than the Theology of the Body, we need some astute psychological analysis.
It is not necessarily an easy task. How do we argue from my point of view, that stealing a lot of money will leave a strong residue of anxiety within us, when money is so highly valued and seen as a source of security? I remain convinced, however, that apart from social controls such as imprisonment, we disturb our inner self significantly.
If we are not scared of offending God, or of hurting our neighbour, we should at least fear serious harm to ourselves. The damage can be healed by the Lord, but we may have to do some serious penance. In the case of addiction we may need therapy. It is interesting to note that a person who underwent therapy for sexual addiction, was given the task of visiting sick people. This is an outward, selfless activity which fights against the inward self-centred desire to gratify oneself.
This adds new meaning to the saying, that in giving we receive, we do learn to become less selfish and more caring. It is a path to healing, to opening ourselves to God’s healing, to God who is willing to assist us to become whole again, who does allow us our free will and notes the harm it does to us when used wrongly. But it may well be that we need to make a serious effort to be purified, to be healed of the corruption we have caused to our soul by sin. God will work with us, but we will have to do our bit as well. Updated from August 2011