Let’s talk a little about sin. It often creeps into our discussions, and this can be confusing unless we are clear what we mean by it.
My first point is that sin is a misleading word. The reason for this is that it is a label, and labels can stop us thinking. If we go to Scripture, in both the Hebrew and the Greek, we find that its etymology is missing the mark. That by itself is enlightening because it indicates that sin is damaging – and damaging to us. It doesn’t offend God because, by definition, God is not affected in any way by what we do – he is unchanging. It is we who suffer because our aspiration to reach the good has been foiled by our mistaken action. We have missed the target, and our arrow falls to the ground.
We could of course describe it as an offence against God. That makes it sound a little bit like breaking the bylaws in the park. It doesn’t indicate what breaking God’s law really means. Let’s take an example.
Telling a lie will serve for this. Why is that missing the mark? The simple answer is that we owe each other the truth – we damage our neighbour’s interests by misleading him. It is an offence against love, as well as against justice. And offences against love damage us – every time we tell a lie we, so to speak, shrink a little further away from that very good which is our target.
However, the more that I learn about human nature the more I realise that the actual act of sin is often an outcome of the sort of person we are, rather than a deliberate choice at the point of decision. Using the same example, we can see how this might occur in the sin of lying. Thus, if we are the sort of person who is careless about truth, or puts a low value on our duty to our neighbour, or is low in the courage which telling the truth can sometimes demand, we are likely to lie without making any conscious decision to do so. We have developed the habit of lying; it has become at least our second nature – sometimes our first nature. And we can apply a similar analysis to all the classes of sins to which we are prone. Thus, in the matter of sexual sins, the root cause may be that we have focussed on sensual pleasure as the objective rather than the physical expression of our committed love, for which sensual pleasure is the worthy handmaiden.
Pope Francis describes the Church as a field hospital. As Paul put it (Rom 3), we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We, and he includes himself, are all sinners. And where do you find the doctor in a good hospital? With the sick, of course. Why are we sick? Because our lives have so much in them which “misses the mark”. But being a sinner is not just a question of looking at a list and ticking all the sins. What I suggest we should be doing first of all is attempting to grow in virtue. One who loves, does loving things; one who is just does just things; one who hopes and believes points himself at the true target. The sins we recognise are, above all, indications of our perennial sickness, and our virtues are the medication which puts us on the right path – travelling in the right direction.
I am not suggesting that we should ignore the commandments – but we should put them in the right place. To use another metaphor “Christ is the harbour light and the laws are the buoys which mark the entrance to the channel. As one theologian described it: “the ten commandments protect the outer periphery of the realm in which Christ will be formed in us.”
The last Confession I made (to a priest I have known all my life) was not a tick box. Instead we sat down and I explained to him as best I could all the ways I had fallen short in my love towards the people who surround me. And then, through God’s power, he healed me. I wish I could tell you that I have sustained improvement ever since. Time for another check up, I feel.