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The Anatomy of Temptation: Conference
The Anatomy of Sin
- Three Anti-Responsibility Theories
- The Freedom to Love or to Sin
- Learning from the Saints
- Mortal and Venial Sins
- Conclusion: Full Humanity in Freedom and Love
The Anatomy of Sin
Temptation is not the same thing as sin. After all, Jesus was tempted, but he never sinned.
Temptations come to us from various sources — three sources, really: from our fallen human nature; from the fallen world around us which tends to idolize things like money and sex and power; and from our ancient enemy, the devil.
We can’t avoid experiencing temptation, though we can often avoid putting ourselves in situations where we know we will be assaulted by temptations. Avoiding those kinds of situations is traditionally called, avoiding the “occasions of sin.”
And that’s what temptations are: They are invitations
to sin, to consent to any thought, word, or action that goes against God’s good and wise plan for us and for the world.
And that’s why it’s good for us to understand
the anatomy of temptation; it can help us identify temptations when they come, and be better prepared to resist them.
But it’s also useful for us to understand sin, to take some time to think about it. Sin is not a popular topic these days. In fact, it is a deeply misunderstood topic. But since it is an essential element in the Christian story,
we have to untangle those misunderstandings. After all, St. Paul summarized Jesus’ entire mission in terms of sin. He wrote to Timothy: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Three Anti-Responsibility Theories
One reason sin is so misunderstood these days has to do with three modern thinkers that have shaped the secular worldview so predominant in our globalized society: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin.
They all claimed to provide scientific evidence against the possibility of sin. They claimed to prove, in different ways, that feelings of guilt aren’t really feelings of guilt, that a guilty conscience is actually a mental disorder, that sin is an illusion.
Darwin suggested that human beings are essentially the same as animals or plants or bacteria: we are all products of random chance, and we are just different sized pancakes mindlessly shaped out of the same primordial batter. As a consequence, we can have no real responsibility for our actions; any sense of guilt that we might feel is pure invention,
a mere tactic by some advanced pancakes to dominate some less advanced pancakes.
Freud attributed our sense of guilt to a combination of repressed psychic drives and artificial, socially constructed behavioral norms. For Freud too, therefore, all feelings of guilt are a malfunction, something we need to overcome in order to be fully human.
Marx posited that human behavior is essentially determined by economic conditions. Therefore, our ideas and decisions don’t really belong to us; they flow from the forces of history. Any feelings of guilt, of personal regret or remorse, are only illusory; they have no real meaning, because our actions are not really our own.
These theories, and their relativistic spin-offs that reverberated through the twentieth century and beyond, apparently offer a relief from the burden
of personal responsibility. Since they eliminate any absolute, fixed moral norms, they imply that our freedom has no proper limits, that we can and should do whatever we want, whatever we feel like. Only when we throw off the shackles of moral obligation, so they say, will we experience the fullness of life. We each are supposed to define our own happiness, our own morality, our own meaning.
This view of the human person leaves no room for any concept of sin, neither of original sin, the rebellion of humanity’s first parents against their creator, nor of personal sin, the extension of that rebellion into our individual decisions and actions
The Freedom to Love or to Sin
But the Church has always taught that the real reason behind our feelings of healthy guilt is precisely our sin.
When we do something wrong, when we use our freedom selfishly, when we ignore or injure or demean ourselves or our brothers and sisters, our conscience bothers us; we feel guilty.
The Church teaches us that this kind of guilt, the kind that stems from sin, from objectively wrong decisions and acts, is something healthy, something God built into our souls in order to warn us when we are in moral danger.
Just as our physical nervous system causes us pain when our bodily integrity is threatened, so our conscience is designed to make us feel guilt when our moral, spiritual integrity is threatened.
This is the truth that God has revealed, a truth that saves us from getting tangled up in the secular seductions of Darwin, Freud and Marx.
Learning from the Saints
The easiest way to verify that this Catholic teaching is true is simply to reflect on the lives of those men and woman who have lived the Catholic faith most completely — the saints.
The men and women throughout history who have followed Christ wholeheartedly, including the part about repenting from one’s sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, have had a curious experience: they have been able to find lasting joy, real meaning, and interior peace even in the midst of immense suffering, whether physical suffering, like sickness, disease, imprisonment, and physical torture, or moral suffering, like insults, slanders, and humiliations. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that they are able to forgive those who caused them their suffering, to love their enemies.
Just think about the Church’s very first martyr, St. Stephen, who was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for preaching the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. As he was being killed, he pleaded for God to have mercy on his murderers, even as they were furiously buffeting him with rocks and hatred.
Or we can call to mind St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest interred in a Nazi concentration camp for no other crime than being a Catholic priest. In the midst of the physical and moral horrors he underwent there, he was a beacon of hope and light for his fellow prisoners, and an example for his captors. He arranged secret Masses, he surreptitiously heard confessions, and he even offered his own life in the place of a fellow prisoner who was randomly chosen for a scapegoat execution.
In a situation where personal survival had become
not only the highest value but even a maniacal obsession, this kind of heroism and moral strength was inconceivable.
In every chapter of human history, the Church has given the world men and women like that, men and woman who find happiness, meaning, strength, and peace in
the midst of life’s most trying hardships, and who share that treasure with others, leaving in their wake souls, families, and societies more joyful, more just, and more vibrant.
That’s what happens when people follow the Church’s view of the human condition, when they take responsibility for their actions, when they admit that they are free to do what is right or to do what is wrong, and when they respond to objective feelings of guilt by repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness.
Mortal and Venial Sins
Whenever we choose something radically opposed to God’s goodness – like sabotaging someone’s reputation, using pornography, or purposefully refusing to worship God on the Lord’s Day — we are rejecting God’s friendship.
In those cases, we destroy the theological virtue
of charity in our soul — we cut ourselves off from friendship with God. That constitutes a mortal sin, which God will readily forgive if we sincerely repent and go to him in the sacrament of confession.
Whenever we give in to temptations that are opposed to God’s goodness in less radical ways — like procrastinating on our basic duties, over-indulging in food or other material pleasures, or stealing small office supplies from an employer for personal use — we aren’t outright severing our friendship with God, but we’re distancing ourselves from him.
We’re making small concessions to selfishness that
close off certain sectors of our heart from his love
and thereby weaken the theological virtue of charity in our soul. That constitutes a venial sin, which God will readily forgive if we sincerely repent even if we don’t go to confession, but which, if left un-repented, could easily snowball into the outright rebellion of mortal sin.
It’s not always easy for us to distinguish between mortal and venial sins.
Mortal sins require not only serious matter (stealing a candy bar wouldn’t be serious matter; embezzling $100,000 would be), but they also require what theologians call full knowledge and full consent.
Someone who has never been told that purposely skipping Sunday Mass is a mortal sin doesn’t commit a mortal sin if he skips Sunday Mass. And a teenager who has an abortion because her parents and her friends and her boyfriend are exerting extreme pressure on her may not be fully responsible for her actions.
The gravity of the sin, like the very possibility of sin in the first place, depends on the exercise of our God- given freedom, on the degree of our responsibility.
Sometimes we have difficulty distinguishing between sins and simple mistakes.
If I sincerely forget to send my mom a Mother’s Day card, I may have strong feelings of regret, but I shouldn’t feel morally guilty about it, I shouldn’t feel remorse. If I do, it’s a sign that my conscience may be overactive, or scrupulous.
If, on the other hand, I purposely avoid calling my mom on her birthday because I’m nursing self-righteous resentment about something she said five years ago, then I ought to feel guilty; Christians honor their parents, they don’t hold grudges against them.
Conclusion: Full Humanity in Freedom and Love
It’s worth mentioning that our freedom — that capacity which makes sin possible for us — is not unlimited. We cannot choose to be squirrels, for instance, or to travel back in time.
And we don’t always see the right choice clearly — especially if our conscience has been negatively affected by a society that doesn’t believe in sin in the first place. But that’s one reason why God left us his Church; in cases of doubt, we can look to the Church for guidance, consult its teachings and its pastors, and they will bring our conscience back to good health.
Freud and company would have us believe that we are simply victims, that we can’t really control ourselves, that we have no responsibility, no ability to resist temptation, no way to form and strengthen our character, no chance of becoming saints.
The Church disagrees. It realizes that choosing what is right is hard for us — which is why it gives us so many helps, like the Eucharist and confession and the Catechism and prayer and spiritual direction — but it never insults us by saying that sin is just an illusion, that we really can’t sin anyway.
The Church is too wise for such a diabolical copout, too experienced; it knows that if it is impossible for us to sin, it is also impossible for us to love, since both require freedom and responsibility. And if it’s impossible for us to love, well then, life doesn’t really matter anyway.
I mean, even Darwin, Marx, and Freud wouldn’t want to marry a robot.
Take some time now to prayerfully go over the personal questionnaire — it may provide the Holy Spirit with
a chance to give you some new insights about the anatomy of sin in your own spiritual life.
1. What struck me most in this conference and why? What did I learn that I didn’t know before?
2. Think about the times I have experienced guilt and forgiveness in a particularly intense way. What did I learn from those experiences? What does God want me to learn from them?
3. In what ways do I sometimes evade taking full responsibility for my actions?
4. Explain in my own words why it is dehumanizing to deny the reality of personal sin — in other words, why philosophies like those of Darwin, Freud, and Marx can do damage to human communities.
5. When we sin, we choose to do something wrong because we think it will bring us something good or help us avoid something bad. Think about my most common temptations: What is the “wrong” thing that they present to me? What is the “good” thing that they present to me?
6. Some spiritual writers identify three “root” sins, or sinful tendencies, that tend to make us vulnerable to temptation. Each root sin consists in hoping
to find our fulfillment in something besides God: “pride” seeks fulfillment in personal excellence; “vanity” seeks fulfillment in the approval of other people; “sensuality” seeks fulfillment in material comforts and pleasures. Which of these three root sins seems to be most active in my life?
7. Traditional Christian spirituality identifies seven capital sins – sins that give rise to other sins. Here are the seven capital sins. Take some time to think about each one in the following terms: Does my culture encourage or condemn this capital sin, and how? What specific sinful actions could flow from this capital sin? How present is this capital sin in my own life?
8. Sin matters because it affects my relationship with God and with others. How aware am I of this relational aspect of sin?Pride (arrogance and self-righteousness)
Anger (the emotion is natural and can be healthy, but when we let it drive us to disordered thoughts and actions, it becomes sinful)
Lust (the disordered seeking of sexual pleasure, especially outside of the marriage covenant)
Avarice or Greed (the disordered seeking of possessions and/or riches)
Sloth or Spiritual Laziness (the disordered reluctance to perform good works, whether spiritual or corporal)
Envy (the disordered displeasure at another’s success)
Gluttony (the disordered over-indulgence in pleasures of the palette)