Most people won't consider themselves capable of sin so long as they still go by the old fashioned teaching that created multiple generations of Catholics ( or other Christians) who were told that disobeying your parents, not doing your homework and forgetting to throw out the rubbish was sinning. Such a list of what we can call minor misdemeanours, compared to actual sins and the adult application of what is actually meant as a sin, are worlds apart and are the principle reason most people either don't understand or take seriously the word SIN.
In this season of Lent where we are supposed to examine ourselves and find ways to improve ourselves, perhaps a quick look at Sin itself and the way it affects our lives is in order.
|Guilt is your conscience reminding you it's there.|
Guilt, Catholic guilt, closely related to Jewish guilt and that thing English people do when confronted with squelchy noises and awkward situations, is the manifestation of all people asking themselves the core question, consciously or unconsciously, "Am I doing the right thing". It's another way of being aware of sin. Sin in and of itself is not just the list of the big ones, the cardinal sins, the sins that get you locked up and fined, but the myriad of small traps that define life for ourselves and those around us, that through awareness keep us from complicating day to day life unnecessarily. And yet it is also the force that requires us to occasionally make a few waves but know also when to stop. It's hardly simple is it? But it operates in some, 24 hours a day and in others hardly at all. Sin, the awareness of sin or guilt are the only tools we have as people to navigate an often tempting world where many basic values have been left by the side of the road.
When some pray "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, ... the things: which should be changed,: and the Wisdom to distinguish: the one from the other." They are asking for guidance in knowing when to pick a fight, when to make a principled stand, when to bend and when to lead by example. This doesn't absolve anybody for a second from trying to insure a better self or a better world, but it does keep us from getting into the kind of trouble that will make our efforts wasted, misunderstood or so devalued, we may as well not have tried.
I can hear some of you thinking, but this is about idealism and big principles. Well sometimes it is, and it guided the actions of many great people, including the just passed away Tony Benn, who was a great practitioner of the Methodist school of Socialism. His life was about righting great wrongs and picking his moments. Sometimes he chose wisely, other times he preferred to loose than to win just a little bit. While life, especially political life is about the great debates and great reforms, it is also about the the small battles we face every day with ourselves, with others and with the limits of where our rights and obligations begin and end.
We need to accept that if we are to achieve personal serenity and adherence to the values we hold dear and more importantly through our own example, show others that they are good values, we need to first break down the intellectual notion of what sin actually asks us to examine. In the Catholic mass, the following phrase is used when confessing to sin and declaring our souls pure and open to receiving G-d.
"I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. "
It's not long, but boy is it heavy laden, and yet despite multiple repetition or even mumbling over the years, the weight of those words is lost on many who still, as we have seen, believe sinning is not having made your bed and disobeying your Mother. That somehow sinning is for small children and once you're old enough to open a bank account, it doesn't apply to you is missing the point entirely. If you take nothing else out of a church service, then that simple sentence should be the one thing ringing in your ears everyday of your life. It is the moment during the service when you are asked, for a few seconds to examine yourself and see if you could make the week coming better than the last.
Let's look at the 4 conditions and consider them.
"In my thoughts": You could argue that your thoughts are your own and that if you do not follow through on killing the person who has just mistaken Tuesday for Thursday for the 3rd week in a row, costing you time and money, you have showed restraint, even mercy. In as much as you have avoided a direct action that could have been unfortunate and even possibly illegal, you may be right, but are still not out of the woods. Your thoughts, your decision making as it were, will guide your attitude towards people and things in a number of small but significant ways. If you are not open to new suggestions, new ideas, new information or the exercise of reserving judgement until you have enough information, you will choose unwisely. If you limit the sphere of consequence of your decisions to the 3 feet around you and your personal comfort, glory and satisfaction, you have in fact through your thoughts sinned. No man is an Island and if we accept that we live in a society that is composed of more than just ourselves, we must be inclusive in our thinking. But if you insist on me giving you a concrete example of sin through thought by even a saintly person, I give you reckless, insensitive, sinful thought, I give you... jumping to conclusions. It's a favoured sport in my tribe and that of my wife, having led us individually and together to a lot of bad decisions, some funnier than others and some, life alteringly awful, dragging on for years and usually based on absolutely nothing.
"In my words": Words are powerful if you give them power, and other times they are just words. You need to know the difference. This diplomatic skill eludes a lot of people, especially the brightest among us. We will at times forget ourselves and say things that are inadvertently hurtful or lead to questions and consequences that were wholly avoidable. I'm not telling you to never utter a word, or never praise or never mention something embarrassing or never correct. These are sometimes the right thing to do. Some people just need to deal with the fact that life goes on regardless, that praise is part of the learning process and that correction is the passing on of wisdom, that humour is as much part of the healing process as is comforting. Where some of us might cross the line is when we carry a joke too far or pick at a still raw, less than healed sore of another person. You have to ask yourself if it was worth the discomfort of the other person when you scored that extra point or humiliated your friend for "a laugh". As for the less learned, you also sin with words when you use them and think, it's all the same, you can chop and change meanings and expect others to justify and support your ignorance. Do not be offended or surprised when you get something wrong. When you reject the correction or the wisdom with your words, you send a signal to the other person that they need not waste any more effort on you, and that will be your loss, not theirs. If anything, remember always that the wisest man is the one who is still learning.
Lastly, sometimes ignorance can in fact be bliss. Ask yourself at least three times before you spill the beans about something too soon, to the wrong person or to the person being wronged. I won't say who, but a person of my acquaintance was in a bad relationship. I tried to the best of my ability to meddle with a light touch, but discovered she was not yet ready to find out for herself what kind of mess she was in. When the time came and the relationship dissolved, I was there to offer help when it was needed and we are still friends. If she had in fact been in any kind of real danger, you bet I would not have hesitated to act more forcefully, but some people just won't be told and sometimes you're best staying out of it.
A good rule of thumb before you open your mouth and can never take back what you said is to 1- know who is there 2- be sure what you're going to say doesn't open a can of worms and 3- Be sure you will be clearly understood. How others choose to twist your words is not down to you, but always strive for clarity.
In what I have done: This is different from words, as words, however good or bad, flawed or premature, can be rendered into a choice not taken. However, once you've crossed the Rubicon, that's it. In doing something, you open a whole new can of worms that can't be changed. Consequences of a much more solid variety, as a rule will cost you more than an I'm sorry I said that, they will bring with them a lot of ill will, anger and retribution on you. Are you really prepared to waste your money or time for example, on a luxury for yourself when your dependent children and spouse who have in no way wronged you or been bad, will later have to suffer themselves because of your own greed? Is it really a harmless sin when you opt to do something to a person or persons over a matter so trivial there is no law for it but will lead to their lives being worse directly or indirectly through your choice. I do not suggest you hold the weight of the world like Atlas, but do think about how your choices will impact on those around you. When you hold hostage something out of spite or out of simple seeking of fun, the person to whom the object belongs to will trust you less, expect restitution of damaged goods and likely place you on a black list you will not soon come off of. And you had better hope and pray that whatever it is you damaged isn't irreplaceable. Sentimental objects, collector items and appliances that will cost more than a week's wages to repair or replace will also shift responsibility for the replacement of those things on others if you yourself are not able to. How fair is it that they need to pay for your stupidity? Why should they loose something they took care of for years because you were too inept to be careful? And even if it is yours and has come to you from an older relative, does it give you the right to be the last person to ever have it or use it? In most cases we are meant to preserve and care for things and people, and it starts from the moment we are able to pass something on intact or better than when we received it.
In what I have not done: Here's a tough one that isn't any harder to understand than the power of words. So you didn't do something, so what , who got hurt? Well you didn't, but it has cost somebody else for sure. I'll use a simple example we've all seen in operation. The somebody else's problem field so well explained in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are three or four of you in a house, somebody , the famous somebody, but not you, has left a sock on the floor. You see it, but it's not yours, so you leave it there, a few days go by, the others too ignore the sock, especially the person who dropped it. Eventually the sock becomes a no go zone, surrounded by dust, and for all intents and purposes, invisible. Then laundry day comes along and presto, who ever was doing the laundry picked it up. They had to go on a seek and destroy mission around the house looking for all the lost bits of clothing, it cost them time, it cost them happiness and it made them feel used and unappreciated that nobody else would pick up the damn sock. Again mining the rich vein that is Douglas Adams, there is a refrigerator, a detective and a cleaning lady. The detective won't throw out the disgusting rotting sandwich in the back of the fridge as it's the cleaning lady's job, she won't touch it as she expects not to have to be exposed to possible new life forms that will eat her. It's not hard to see Dirk Gently is wrong, but we also recognize a huge stubborn streak in him. it's not his job, not his responsibility and it's certainly not his problem. Somebody will have to clean it up , but not him. Again I'm not suggesting you become muggins and do it all yourself, but show some initiative, then get the problem solved in a more permanent and fair manner. Lastly, without breaking any law or being immediately and irrevocably awful, if you delay action, any action, too often, the time to do the right thing will pass and you will be responsible for the worsening of something through your inaction. Try not to leave those to do lists mouldering too long before they become impossible to do things. Some won't affect anybody but yourself, yet others will in point of fact leave you hoping others don't find out it was you that forgot to apply for something when it was easy but you figured " I don't need it, so sod it" and now your mates are wondering why they are the only ones paying full price and locked into a year long contract. BTW, if you know something seriously bad is being done and you can stop it but you don't do anything, you are as good as doing it yourself.
It's a simple thing to do things on time, do them even if you don't feel the need for it now. It can and probably will come in handy later on and you can never predict how your decision to not do something today will impact harmfully on your friends or future relatives. Make the time to do things, think about others and how your seen or unseen unselfish act will always reflect better on people than the selfish one you hope they never find out about.
Savings, thrift, the act of not wasting, the act of sharing , the act of asking if others want as well, are all actions you can choose not to do that are not a cardinal sin, just nigly little annoying ones that if you let them pile up, will hurt you and those around you.
There you have it, the four conditions, the four horsemen of Sin, not so scary, not so simple and not so insignificant.
Having got through this, let me ask you again .... You , can you, the living breathing embodiment of the Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? Of course you can, not even the great Mahatma was free of sin, sin as you can see is not just about the big heavy commandments, it's a life long fine tuning of yourself ,and guilt, the little voice reminding you to look at your check engine light from time to time.