Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Don't toy with sin

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 3, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky In our garages or basement storerooms some of us still stumble over boxes of Christmas decorations which just haven’t managed to leap spontaneously to their proper places on shelves above. And here, in less than a week, the season of Lent will be upon us.

Almost as early as it possibly can be calendared, this holy season of conversion, penance and sacrifice bids us anew to take a serious look at an aspect of our lives which we much rather would prefer to neglect. Sin. Yes, sin.

That’s the challenge I half-teasingly gave to an unsuspecting parishioner last week. You should have seen the rolled eyes! “And what about you?!” he responded, seeking companionship in his plight.

“And, me, too,” I had to admit humbly.

Our testy exchange easily turned into a discussion about sin and people’s diminishing celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. One of his comments stayed with me: “It’s so hard to tell anymore what’s a sin and what’s not a sin.” The complaint sprang from the traditional – and expected – Lenten admonition that we all have 40 days in which to face, in serious fashion, the real shape sin takes in our lives. For this one searching soul, seemingly, the challenge was frustrating, if not overwhelming.

Further conversation expanded his complaint.

When we were young, this struggling believer went on to say, it was easy to identify your sins. You either committed big ones or little ones. All possible sinning fit into two neat boxes: mortal sins and venial sins. “Mortal sin” flagged serious actions (or commissions) engaged in with full freedom and consciousness. Take away any of these three ingredients – serious action, full freedom, consciousness of the action’s sinfulness – and the sinner was left with “only” a venial sin.

Such packaging of sin made the spiritual life deceptively simple. One backed into heaven, as it were, avoiding the Big Ugly sins. They merited the fiery furnace! All else could be tolerated. In fact, these lesser sins were treated as if they were but mere fender-benders in life’s journey to the pearly gates. Serious sin required serious attention, so this thinking goes, but not so the lesser stuff.

Somehow we lull ourselves into presuming that the little stuff really doesn’t matter that much. It certainly doesn’t keep us from going to Communion at Mass. Such an attitude hardly could be further from the truth. Could we picture ourselves standing before Jesus and telling him that all that needs to concern us is the big stuff?

All sin is serious and must be dealt with seriously in the course of our spiritual growth – and not just during Lent. The Gospel often warns us that righteousness before God is not achieved (or earned) by the mere avoidance of Big Sin. At one point Jesus offers a poignant example that has daily application: the mere fact that we have not killed anyone does not make anger, resentment, grudges, slander and calumny any more tolerable. Name-calling, ruining reputations and dragging people through the meat grinder of opinionated gossip is just as deadly for the soul. Just because these things may be “lesser” sins on someone’s list does not leave us with a right relationship with God, self and neighbor. Likewise, the fact that we have not committed adultery does not make lust, pornography, premarital sex or dirty jokes more acceptable to God. They are not just tolerable “lesser evils” or “only” venial sins. They are equally destructive of personal integrity.

Jesus chastises any game-playing with the reality of sin in our lives. Sin is sin is sin is sin is sin. Despite its shades of grey or moral weight, sin is sin. And sin has no place in the life of a son or daughter of God. It is sub-human, beneath our dignity.

Every one of us knows the poisonous reality of sin in our lives. Confusion does not result from the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit. Confusion is born of our artificial and self-deceiving attempts to lessen our personal responsibility for the evil we choose to do. It results when we lose touch with our heart – that place where we are accountable for our own life. This kind of confusion occurs when we try to develop a certain tolerance for sin by sorting it into neat packages. The reality of sin is not found in falling short of someone’s list of possible evil deeds. It springs from within, where personal integrity as followers of Jesus disallows the avoidance of the ugly reign of sin. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus demands that our spirituality must exceed that of the Pharisees if we are to know the Kingdom of God? They were quite successful with the external avoidance of Big Nasty Stuff, but their spirituality was only avoidance-deep. Our loving God enters the depths of the human heart and sets a far different standard of righteousness.

Lent indeed does give us the challenging task of facing up to the reality of sin in our lives. What good does giving up candy, cigarettes or television do if, after being successful at it for 40 days, the spiritually choking grip of sin remains?

No games. And no sin – of any type.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print - requires Adobe Reader)

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