Recently several people asked me questions about sin, what it is and what is serious or mortal sin. I have also heard many people say that they feel the teaching on sin has become too watered down. Is that true? Has the teaching on sin changed? The answer is ‘no’. Sin is still sin. However, our understanding of these things is all the time changing and hopefully maturing, especially as we get a deeper understanding of how complex we are as people.
Before he was made Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger said an interesting thing about mortal sin. He said that probably not that many people commit mortal sin, because in order for it to be ‘mortal’—meaning it causes the death of the soul—three things are needed. You must know that it is something very serious, you must deliberately want to do it and you must be completely free to do it. It is not often that all those categories are met, especially the freedom. All of us are driven by compulsions and are affected by the stresses and strains of what is going on around us and all of that affects our freedom. Sin is always something for us to try and avoid of course, because it is what separates us from God and only in God will we find total fulfillment. If sin didn’t matter Christ would not have had to die for us in order to break the power of sin, but it’s also important that we keep it in perspective or else we can feel overwhelmed by our own weakness and become disheartened.
There is also a big difference between falling into sin because of our own weakness and deliberately living a double life. For example, a man (or woman) who is happily married, enjoying his work and life and then one day he meets someone who really turns him on. And he decides to have an affair with this person just because he feels like it. That is very different from a man or woman who is in a very difficult marriage, under great pressure at work and generally finding life very up hill. One day they meet someone who is very understanding and compassionate and they end up in a relationship with them. They certainly didn’t intend to, but that’s what happened. Both of these things are sinful and adultery, but the circumstances are very different. I think we often forget to take all the circumstances into consideration, but God does because God sees everything and God is always trying to help us, to bail us out and help us start over. That is one of the reasons why God has given us the extraordinary gift of confession, so that we can begin again as often as we fall and maybe more importantly so that we don’t become so discouraged as to give up. Satan is the one who tries to discourage us, to tell us that we are useless, hypocrites, a bad example and that there is no point in trying to live the Christian life. The Lord does the opposite. Jesus is the one who continually helps us to get up again and start over, assuring us of his mercy and compassion.
In today’s readings we are reminded that we have a choice. We can choose for God or not, for sin or not. God has given us that freedom and it is ours to enjoy. Hopefully we will use it to choose for good, but even if we do fall we can turn to God and ask for his mercy.
In the Gospel Jesus challenges us not just to live on the surface in a legal way, fulfilling the minimum requirement of what is asked, but instead to live from the heart. Why was he so critical of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the time? Because they lived the law perfectly but they had lost a sense of compassion and mercy. There was no longer any room for our humanity. We can easily fall into the same trap. We can fulfill our religious obligations by going to mass on Sunday and giving to charity, but if the rest of our life doesn’t reflect our faith in some way, then our religious observances don’t mean a lot. Here is an example, although it is an extreme one.
A few years ago at a conference I heard a lady give an extraordinary testimony about her life. God had healed her from terrible abuse that she had suffered at the hands of her father from an early age. She had grown up with incest, abuse and pornography all around her. She had even been sold to other men. And yet this family went to mass every Sunday. Obviously there was something seriously wrong there. Now that is a very extreme example, but Jesus is telling us that just filling outward obligations is not enough. It must go deeper than that.
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
The same thing can easily happen in religious life; we can life the ‘rule’ perfectly while becoming monsters underneath. It would be better that we don’t live the rule perfectly but that we learn to be compassionate and merciful, because our love for God is expressed by how we treat the person beside us.
Finally, I think the most important thing is that we strike a balance. Focusing on sin too much is not healthy and we can easily feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Our life in Christ is not about sin, it is about freedom from sin. At the same time pretending that we never do wrong is naïve. In St. John’s first letter he says:
‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 Jn 10).
We are sinners and we will always be sinners, but that is why Jesus came for us. That is what the mass is all about: ‘So that sins may be forgiven’. So we do our best and we continually ask for God’s mercy, which God promises He will always grant us if we are sincere.
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
If you trust in God, you too shall live;
He has set before you fire and water;
To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.