The Ravages of Sin
For some reason I’ve been thinking about the impact of sin lately, and I find it’s not a bad topic of reflection, as long as you don’t let yourself dwell forlornly on your own past and already repented sins. They can and do come back to haunt us, which is a temptation all its own. But clearly there are deep cosmic, social, and personal dimensions of sin. It is important to be concerned about all of them, without falling into any sort of depression or despair. Of course, sin is a large and, yes, pervasive topic, so I can hardly claim a comprehensive treatment here.
While the sins into which we are tempted to fall often seem desirable to us in times of weakness, or eagerness, or rebellion (or even simply when we are not sufficiently mindful of our own particular nature or our own state in life), as we mature spiritually we begin to recognize how closely sin and suffering are related, and that this relationship has not just personal but cosmic proportions. St. Paul highlighted this in his Letter to the Romans:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. [Rom 8:18-24]
Cosmic effects of sin
Here, expressed at both the cosmic and personal level, we get some inkling of the dreadful disruption and distortion of being separated, for whatever combination of reasons, from the full presence and action of God. Indeed not only we but all of creation “groan inwardly” as each part of creation yearns for “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. There is a fundamental disorder in all of creation since Adam’s Fall, but the order which has been disrupted—that is, the fundamental design—is still visible. We are supposed to read even in its natural ravages a spiritual lesson, even though that lesson will be fulfilled only in the new heavens and the new earth.
To this cosmic dimension, we can respond in three different ways, only one of which is fully correct, but all of which are mirrored in our response to other effects of sin as well. First, we can take a materially selfish attitude, recognizing no lesson (and even less responsibility) as long as we ourselves are comfortable. “Après moi,” said Louis XV in another context, “la déluge!” (after me, the flood!)
Second, we can devote ourselves more or less exclusively to righting obvious natural or environmental disorders with little or no recognition of the spiritual disorders they reflect, and so confine ourselves to what is essentially a natural program of liberation, which is doomed to be fruitless and fail. For in our response to every wrong, if we are not constantly realigning our spiritual perceptions and drawing closer to God (insofar as we have done our best to know Him), we are using creation to pursue purely material or purely personal goals according to our own fairly selfish lights, which is rather to miss the point of the cosmic struggle in which we are challenged to participate.
Third, of course, we can see in the cosmic effects of sin a clear call to eradicate the resonance of those effects in our own souls. In this response, all of our decisions—environmental, social and personal—become increasingly conformed to God’s will and to his general and particular purposes for our lives. We begin to see the evidence of this cosmic disruption in every sphere, not only in the environment, but in the political order, the social order, the economic order, in every human institution, in families, in persons, in ourselves. And so we do not lose ourselves in particular noteworthy or popular or fashionable causes but discern in prayer what “causes” God may call us to take up while at the same time continually setting to rights the disruptions of sin which are evident in our own persons.
In this we recall the “woes” Our Lord proclaimed to the Pharisees and lawyers: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (Lk 11:39-40).
Social effects of sin
Thanks to an emphasis on ecology (and on what Pope Francis has called “our common home”), we have learned, if only very slightly, to see some of our personal connections to the ravages of cosmic sin. I’m not sure we typically do as well when we consider the social effects of sin, by which I mean the impact of all sins, including our own personal sins, on the larger social life around us, and on all people taken as a group, in their communities, their families, and their personal way of life. Most people in the West today, for example, seem almost willfully uninterested in the manifest social effects of such things as contraception, abortion, divorce, permissive sexual conventions, media which constantly panders to our basest desires, the rejection of authentic marriage, the division and ultimate waning of Christianity, and the insistence on a purely secular model of governance and social interaction.
What began partially as the effort to find a form of governance which, being rooted in the natural law, could properly accommodate a diversity of religious beliefs has ended up in a naked public square which, in an ideological age, bids to encompass every aspect of human life. The social destruction from increasingly widespread personal sins (many of which have become new social conventions) can be ignored only through the denial of our own sinfulness. We may still be able to see the business side of sin at times—the social disintegration so often triggered by a crass commercialism in every sphere of life—but we are very hard-pressed to see how the personal and social destruction caused by increasingly totalitarian bureaucratic states can be overcome, or how to amend social and even racial imbalances through anything more personal than another layer of laughably ineffective bureaucratic governance.
This atomization of true society—the reduction of all social units except the State to a conglomeration of isolated individuals with individual votes—has led to a paradoxical deification of individual desire while subjecting everything to what we might call aggregate political whims. Make no mistake: All of this is the long-term result of a pervasive sort of individual selfishness, in which people refuse to live in ways that benefit the larger social order, or what we might call the common good, because of an estrangement from God arising from their own personal sins. The breakdown of the family and of the intermediary institutions through which the family operated in previous periods has left us grasping for increasingly selfish forms of individual “satisfaction”. This process is so far gone in Western societies today that it has become difficult to see a way out short of total collapse and even more widespread despair.
Of the rising tide of personal despair, of course, there can be no doubt for anyone who has eyes to see or ears to hear. At the same time, it is primarily through solidly sacrificial families that people are still brought to the qualities that make life worth living, including personal stability, effective community, faith, and a deep and abiding joy. And it is first and foremost in the intimacy of family life that our personal selfishness and sin must be acknowledged, repudiated and overcome in sacrificial love.
Personal effects of sin
I doubt anyone who would bother to read this account of sin would do so without concern about his or her own personal sins. Just as every reflective person genuinely struggles to eradicate imperfections, so too does every reflective Catholic genuinely struggle to do so not only through self-discipline but through the ministry of the Church, spiritual growth, and an ever-deepening process of repentance. For my purposes here I will take that for granted, and turn instead to the other side of the coin of sin—that is, how we respond to sin even after it has been repented and forgiven. If anyone is reading this as a neophyte in the recognition and rejection of sin, then by all means it is necessary to follow the standard Catholic program: Frequent and honest confession, attendance at Mass, reception of the Eucharist whenever in the state of grace, personal prayer, spiritual reading, reasonable forms of mortification in the cultivation of self-discipline, and spiritual consultation or direction as needed.
But there are also disruptions caused by sins already repented. These can impinge on us even from the inside, as it were. It may be that some family members are still struggling with the effects of our past sins. The healing of some wounds can be quite difficult. Here faith, hope and charity are needed in the deepest senses of those virtues, along with honest conversation and diligent care. But it may also be that we are haunted by our own sins, either by scrupulosity or by an ongoing shame or horror that we could ever have fallen into them, even though we know we have been forgiven by Christ Himself through the ministry of the Church. These can be serious struggles, or at least recurring sources of unnecessary sadness, which must be met repeatedly by a sure supernatural joy in the infinite love of God.
Some of us may experience no awareness of past sins, which is clearly a symptom of spiritual immaturity. But for more serious souls, the problem is more likely to be a painful awareness of past sins, an awareness that is not easily shaken off, and which continually reminds us of our utter dependence on the mercy of our Heavenly Father. This mercy is manifested through Jesus Christ, and actuated within us through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is Satan who wants us to feel sad and worthless and even incredulous that we could ever have fallen so low. It is Satan who accuses us constantly before God, but we know that God pays no attention, and in the end Satan is cast down forever, as the Book of Revelation reports:
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. [Rev 12:10]
Here our Guardian Angels can be of enormous help. We can pray to our angels, asking them to allow concern about any sin we have not yet confessed to come through and prick our consciences, but also to make us see anything we have already confessed as a cause to renew our joy in the surpassing mercy of God. For that is what we must do when we experience recurring astonishment, shame and sorrow over our sins. We must remain so completely confident in God’s unfathomable love and mercy that we can rejoice in it once again.
The miracle of grace
In this last context, I often wonder about that famous remark of St. Paul in his second Letter to the Corinthians. It is a wonderful passage:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Cor 12:7-10]
We may all have a “messenger of Satan” from time to time. But God’s grace is not only sufficient but superabundant, and His power is made perfect in our own weakness. Thus have the greatest saints suffered even the dark night of the soul. And thus too can we win every repetitive round of shame by using it to remind us of the intensely personal and supremely generous mercy of God—an infinite mercy which He chooses to show once again, in this distressing moment of recollection, precisely and deliberately to me. For as the Psalmist says (17:8): He keeps me as the apple of His eye, and He hides me in the shadow of His wings.
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Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Aug. 11, 2022 9:06 PM ET USA
I am convinced the thorn Paul is speaking of is his sexual desire, his inability to maintain 100% chastity. I don't think it was a physical malady because Paul was friends with Luke and Luke as a doctor could have handled it. So Paul tries to bargain with God, reminding him of everything Paul is doing in His name and hasn't he earned the right to not be tempted by sex. God reminds Paul that He has already provided him the grace to resist. A public letter demanded discretion, hence the cloudiness