1 September 2020

Demystifying Sin

Picture of Michael Gilbert CSsR

Michael Gilbert CSsR

A Redemptorist priest and former editor of the Majellan

A group of villagers were blindfolded and taken to a compound. They were placed around an elephant. While still blindfolded, they were asked to identify the strange shape. One touched its leg and said it was a pillar; another its trunk and said it was a branch of a tree. The tail was a rope; the ear a fan. No one identified it as an elephant. They needed the gift of sight to make an accurate identification.

We are not unlike those blind people when we speak of sin. Older folks tend to say sin means to perform individual bad acts – often of a sexual kind. Younger ones tend to say it means hurting other people – like cyber bullying or damaging the environment. Sin is all of these things but is more than them. Our attempts to identify sin are partly true but mostly unsatisfactory. Sin is often difficult to understand. It is a mystery.

The secular world tries to explain sin. One popular, influential explanation is that sin is a private personal matter. This opinion arises out of a humanist interpretation of life.

Humanists believe that a person is entirely responsible for his or her own destiny. Such persons have little or no need for God. They put their trust in reason, science and technology. Humanism is a faith based on trust in human nature and human development. It excludes God from daily life. Nevertheless, it retains many elements that belong to Christianity: ethical values, faith in human reason, personal responsibility, compassion for the sick and disadvantaged.

This humanist opinion dominates our Australasian culture. It encourages us to believe that humanity can master both good and evil without the need of divine assistance. It is generally untroubled by the concept of sin. Sin they say belongs to an outdated mode of religious thinking. Human failures are but temporary hiccups on the road to human perfection. This humanist understanding of life subtly influences the lives and thinking of ordinary people, even many Christians.

We Christians see sin through a different lens – through the eyes of Jesus Christ. We go to him for instruction and direction.

Jesus had a unique way of dealing with sin and evil. He was a divine person who became a citizen of this world. He involved himself in people’s lives. He was an ‘open’, non-threatening person. He invited all and sundry to belong to ‘the kingdom of God’ – a place of peace and ultimate union with God and a source of true happiness.

Jesus acknowledged evil in the lives of people. He also spoke of the existence of a dark, powerful, mysterious form of radical evil. He did this not to scare people but to assure them that all evil, even ultimate evil, would be defeated by God’s absolute love for humanity.

Jesus was well aware of the personal failures of others. This awareness did not prevent him from sharing his life and love with them. He discouraged sin. He encouraged sinners. He forgave them. He encouraged them to be better people.

He is humanity’s final ultimate judge. Yet, he exercised judgement lightly. He forgave sin. He demonstrated great compassion towards ordinary folks who were trying to live the best way they could. If he exercised severity at all, he reserved it for acts of hypocrisy, for giving scandal to others, for neglecting to assist the poor and the marginalised and for neglecting to love God and one’s neighbour.

Jesus did not make sin the central feature of his life and mission. His main mission was to free persons to love God and their neighbour, to live happy, peaceful, loving lives in union with God and with one another.

Jesus required people to turn away from sin; to change their lives in order to harmonise them with the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus did not consider ordinary, fragile humans to be terrible sinners. He did, however, ask them to become better people.

Jesus did not sanction the humanist understanding that we can absolve ourselves of wrongdoing. Rather, he taught that it is God who forgives. He bequeathed this power of forgiveness to his community, the Church. “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”

 Christians are to identify with Jesus’ way of dealing with sin. They are to apply it to their lives and to their society. They enter fully into life; are open to all and sundry; acknowledge the fragility of ordinary people. They have a duty to assist them to become better humans. Christians refrain from ready judgements of others. They have the fortitude to denounce hypocrisy, scandal and neglect of the poor.

Christians are not isolated, independent persons. They belong to the community of God, the Church. This community exercises its divine power to forgive through the celebration of its sacraments – particularly the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance. We seek God’s forgiveness at each eucharist we attend. This is the ordinary way of seeking forgiveness for our mundane, petty failures.

The sacrament of penance provides an opportunity to redress any serious failures against the great law of love of God and neighbour. Also, fairly regularly (e.g. during lent and advent), we are invited to conduct a searching scrutiny of our lives before God and to form a deeper and more loving relationship with God by confessing them to a priest in the rite of reconciliation.

When we view the ‘elephant’ of sin in our world and in our lives, we view it through the eyes of Jesus Christ who sees it as God sees it. We must not let ourselves be duped into accepting the popular but inadequate humanistic interpretation of sin.


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