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The Shades of Sin and Holiness


There was a lot of merit to my Evangelical upbringing. I am in no way trying to be ironic when I say that I look with fondness on the days I spent learning Bible verses that only supported the Protestant view of things. I enjoyed singing silly Christian kid songs about how I was “in the Lord’s army, yes sir!

Still, there were a few things that got lodged into my psyche that did not serve me well later in life. One of those things was the Evangelical conception of sin.

Don’t Steal Lollipops!

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The Protestant world is a tapestry of varying theological views, but the one I grew up with taught me that every sin – whether it be a little white lie or the murder of my mother – was the same in God’s eyes. Both were equally atrocious to God – enough so that either would send me to Hell.

Before you knock that, consider how easily this belief can engender real humility in someone. “You think you are better than that axe murderer? Well, let me tell you mister, that stolen lollypop means you are headed for the lake of fire like he is!”

To an extent, can a Catholic person really argue with that? The wages of sin is death. Even Catholics believe that only Mary and Jesus lived truly perfect lives. Where does that leave the rest of us? Not in a good place, that’s where.

But that way of viewing yourself can really mess you up. We all know that a boy lying to his mom about stealing five bucks from her wallet is nowhere near the same as a politician using his position to take bribery after bribery. There are shades of sin.

Shades of Sin

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This is why, however difficult it is to pin down the degree to which a sin is sinful and can damage the soul, having the concept of “degrees” at all is useful and helpful.

There is a danger in saying all sin is equal. For someone like me – who can feel guilty at the slightest wrong look from a friend – it can be devastating. I wonder if this is how Martin Luther felt about his own sin. Maybe it is why he clung so frantically to “sola gratia and “sola fide” – the idea that grace alone and faith alone saves us.

In the Catholic view, we designate some sins venial and others mortal – some not so serious and others very grave. There are different shades of sin. What this means is that, yes, you carelessly stepping on your dog’s foot or yelling at your child because he sang “Jingle Bells” for the fifth time may hurt your spiritual life, but it won’t destroy that loving, open relationship you have with God. Venial sin wounds, but it does not kill.

Mortal sin separates us from our relationship with God – not just wounding it but killing it. But the truth is, practically speaking, for the Catholic it is harder to commit a mortal sin than you might think. You have to choose it without compulsion – either internally or externally. It has to be a grave issue – like murder, for example. And you have to actually know it’s a mortal sin.

If we do commit that sin, confession is right there for forgiveness. And don’t come back at me with, “What if I get into a car accident and die on the way to confession?” That’s covered, too.

The Good We Do Matters

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My point is, God knows we are weak. He knows we don’t always mean what we say in a difficult moment or keep a lid on the temper we wish we could control. A Catholic person should know that God is merciful.

Think of it in terms of this pandemic. Imagine a guy (certainly not me!) named Mathlick Eponymous. M.E. tries to stay home as much as he can and wears a mask wherever he goes for the good of the community. He tries not to interact with too many people. He hasn’t seen his friends in person since March.

However, he also lives in a house where he must negotiate the needs and wants of his mother, wife, and children on a daily basis.

So he cuts corners sometimes. In his heart, for the sake of saving the world, he wants to cancel Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other holiday, but it’s tough. He has tried to follow the rules, but he fails at times and will probably fail again.

Does that mean every effort he made to quarantine means nothing? Can people shake their finger at him and cry “hypocrite!” as though his failings negated everything good he tried to do? All the get-together’s he felt awkward turning down? Did those not contribute something to the fight to stop the virus?

We are all a mix of “slow the spread” and “I need to live my life.” There exists in us a combination of “do God’s will” and “screw it.” We all have shades of sin and holiness. But if it is true that the evil we do brings harm to the world and ourselves, the struggle we give to do good matters as well. This truth can easily get lost when we make holiness and sinfulness such a black and white issue with no shades of grey.

Judging Ourselves

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A friend of mine who came from the same background I did told me once that he used to beat himself whenever he gave into porn. There was no nuance in our theology then that allowed for the fact that, when we are stuck in the habit of a particular sin, our compulsion can make us less culpable. Porn was horrible, so we were horrible to indulge in it, no matter how difficult it was to stay away.

In a conversation one evening, he told me about how it struck him that he only judged himself for the fleeting moments he gave in to his temptation. He never judged himself based on the countless hours he fought against it. He saw only the bad in himself and none of the good.

God is Merciful

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Evangelicals are not wrong, in a way. We all sin. We all deserve Hell. But I don’t think fear is the space God wants us to live in. That place of constant judgment, against ourselves and against others, is not where he wants us to make our home.

The Father’s house is a place where we are free to fail. It is a place where his mercy is new every morning because he is faithful even when we are faithless. There is room for us to gradually turn our grey shades of sin into brighter hue of holiness.

If that is how God treats us, should we not treat others the same way?

Should we not treat ourselves the same way, too?

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

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