The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Today is episode 15: The Happy Fault of Sin
Well, hello, fellow sinner! As we enter into this Holy Week, Christians all over the world are contemplating the story of how a perfect Savior took on the penalty for our sin in order to reconcile us to God. So, this week we may be thinking about our own sinfulness, and feeling the weight of it, and maybe seeking forgiveness in prayer or in the Sacrament of Reconcilation.
If you were born and raised Catholic, you may have a long and complicated relationship with the nature of sin and with your own sinfulness. If you’re like me, you first went to what we used to call the Sacrament of Confession at around age seven, where you presented the priest with a list of just how many times that week that you swore or disrespected your parents or lied or used the Lord’s name in vain. As we grew, and as we heard more about the nature of the sins of some of those same priests we met in Confession, maybe we went to that sacrament less and less. But how we think about sin today will tell a lot about how we move forward in relationship with God.
Unfortunately, many Catholics are taught about sin in conjunction with a kind of divine scorecard – counting up the venial and mortal sins that we and others commit, comparing our sins to theirs, weighing which sins are “better” or “worse”, depending on your family’s core beliefs or on what homily you heard that day. Many Catholics actually believe that a sinless life is attainable if we just work hard enough at it but, friend, that is not only not possible and not true but it kind of misses the point altogether, don’t you think?
To define and understand sin, maybe we could start by looking at its opposite. So, right off the top of your head, what would you say is the opposite of sin? What do you think?
If you said something like ‘good works’ or ‘good deeds’, I just want to give you the biggest hug right now because, as a fellow Catholic, I have an inkling as to where you got that idea. Somewhere in your Catholic formation, you may have internalized a chart or a checklist of works-versus-sins and somewhere in there you may have gotten the idea that your “good stuff” just needs to outnumber your not-so-good stuff – like a kind of cosmic game where the prize is Heaven! Okay, maybe that sounds crazy but as a music minister who sings funeral masses, I have heard people saying some version of this for years about their loved ones and it always breaks my heart because the fact is, Heaven is not something we could ever earn – thank God it’s a gift of amazing grace. And we’ll talk more about grace in our next episode.
But when we do try to ‘earn’ salvation or counter our sin with acts of charity or prayer, this can cause a whole lot of problems including prioritizing how we ‘appear’ over how we actually are, as well as striving for perfectionism while hiding our sins which, as we have seen in our Church’s history can make them more pervasive, darker, and much more damaging to our brothers and sisters. In some cases, it can lead to scrupulosity, a form of OCD having to do with religious or moral acts. You probably know somebody who prays in this way to “make up for” sin but this misses the whole point of the sacrificial love of Jesus, doesn’t it? A healthy view of sin requires that we look at it and acknowledge it as reality for literally everyone, and the truth is that the opposite of sin is not good works, but repentance.
Sin is defined in the Catechism as an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor. I experience sin as anything that makes me feel a distance from God and if you’re unsure about what constitutes sin, you can look to the Commandments, the Beatitudes, or an examination of conscience, to give you a clearer picture of what sin is and how it may be operating in your life. And I’ll include links to those resources and much more in today’s show notes. I’m usually dealing with at least one of the seven deadly sins on any given day – you know, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth,but thank God, as St. Paul affirms, “Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more.” Sin leads us away from God, repentance leads us back home.
Consider the woman in the Book of Luke who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed His Head with expensive oil. Jesus said she loved much because she had been forgiven much. This in contrast to the owner of the house, who slammed the woman as sinful, but provided Jesus with no water or oil at all.
Or what about the story of the woman caught in adultery – so weird that the man she was committing adultery with somehow escaped the public stoning to which she was subjected – but anyway, do you remember when Jesus told the crowd that the one without sin could cast the first stone, and then kneeled down and wrote in the dirt? It sure seemed like Jesus was acknowledging the universal nature of sinfulness in that exchange. And the mercy He extended not only saved her life that day but changed it forever. That’s what mercy does. Mercy is always God’s response to our repentance.
There’s a term we hear at the Easter Vigil Mass each year – ‘O felix culpa’ or in English, ‘O happy fault’. This refers to the sin of Adam and Eve, that somehow in the weird, gracious math of God, the fact of their rebellion and sin did not ruin the world, but actually made way for the human race to experience even more of the goodness of God than we would have otherwise. Because of our sin, we experience God’s kindness, mercy and redemption in the person of Jesus in a profound and personal way. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas used this same premise when explaining how God allows evil in order to bring about greater good – and they emphasize that a higher spiritual state is not inhibited by sin. Please hear this today: Sin is not a barrier to holiness. When you add honesty and repentance, sin can actually be a door to experiential love of God.
The reality is that a mature, authentic relationship with God often comes from our most sinful places because it’s only there that we see our need for mercy and rescue. In those places, we can’t fake it anymore. So often, we don’t come to God by doing it right. We come to God by doing it wrong.
Okay so, it kind of sounds like I’m selling you on the idea of sin today – that’s not really the case, but I do think it’s important for us to look at sin with a healthy lens. It’s just a fact that there’s not a person you know who’s living today without sin – not your parents, not your priest or any religious leader, not your spouse, your kids, nor the sweet lady at church who everyone loves – literally no one. And open acknowledgement of that fact helps us to finally understand the real gift of what Jesus came to do in the first place when He became a person and took on our burdens and showed us the sacrificial nature of what embodied Love really looks like. When we bring our sins to Jesus, He does not condemn us but looks on us in love and embraces us fully. And we walk away from an encounter like that cleansed and renewed, it’s true, but also with the knowledge of just how loved we really are.
God made a way. He knew every sin we’d ever commit. He knew just how depraved this world and even His Church would become and still He chose to die for us. In doing so, He gave us a picture of Love and divine restoration that is literally the biggest miracle there ever was. Light from darkness, life from death, forgiveness from sin and it’s important to know that according to Scripture, He remembers our sin no more.
God is not an angry scorekeeper. He’s the Dad from the Prodigal Son story who stood watch waiting for his sinful son to return. When the Father saw his boy from a long way off, that Dad started running toward his repentant child. He hugged him, gave him a ring, and threw him a party. That’s our God. The very moment we turn back to God, He not only welcomes us with open arms, but runs toward us. As my friend Fr. Joe Callahan used to say, he’s a grandmotherly grandfather, pouring out unending love to His children, no matter what we have done.
And that is the Good news we are celebrating this week.
O happy fault, oh kind deliverer. Our Jesus.
Thank you so much for listening today. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com
This week, I’m praying for you and me and our families to enter into the story of Jesus, to feel wrapped His sacrificial love and mercy, and to really experience the joy of the Risen Christ and all that means for our lives. Until then, friend, I’ll see you next time. Blessed Holy Week to you.