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What is ‘Sin,’ Really?

What is sin really? Especially in today's world? Read more here.

Let’s be honest: few religious words are less in vogue today than the word sin.

Sin, as a usable religious word, died while no one was watching. And good riddance, it would seem. Sin fell off the edge of our moral maps at both poles: on one extreme, it was an unwelcome reminder of our proverbial dirty laundry that we were at pains to keep hidden; and at the other extreme, it was deemed to have outlived its usefulness after a cultural consensus decided that nothing was dirty to begin with.

It takes work to recover the will and capacity for honest, open talk about sin. Far from being an exercise in wallowing in our own guilt, naming sin can actually be liberating. It’s like taking stock of our worn clothes in the clear light of day and then making good use of the modern miracle that is the washing machine.

In authentic Catholic and Christian spirituality, sin is an important word. The trick is remembering how to start saying it again. And then remembering that sin doesn’t have the last word. God does.

What is sin?

Since our Twitter accounts and local microbrew pubs aren’t exactly hopping with lively, thoughtful discussions of sin, we’ll start our quest to rediscover sin in two places we’d be least likely to look for or find it: ads and pop music. But in the vacuum created by the total absence of talk about sin, turning to popular culture can actually reveal what’s missing.

A cosmetic dentistry clinic in my hometown recently installed a billboard depicting a young woman with two daydream bubbles over her head. In one daydream, she was standing next to an attractive guy. In the other bubble, she donned a business suit with the word “success” not-so-subtly superimposed over it. The bottom of the billboard read: “What will a new smile do for you?”

The particularly artless approach of such a billboard serves to pull the curtain back on the psychological machinery driving much of our country’s annual $200-plus billion advertising industry: “Something is wrong with you, but we can fix it: Buy this.” Ads barrage us by the minute with messages that we don’t measure up. We’re told that our bodies aren’t the right shape, that our social lives are dull, that we’ll never find love or success with our perfectly functional, imperfectly off-white teeth.

The point is this: advertising agencies have figured out that our low self-worth translates to the higher net-worth of the folks selling us stuff. We scarcely need religion and its talk of sin, so the thinking goes, as one more voice telling us that something’s the matter with us.

Instead, we seek refuge in a very different kind of refrain, epitomized by Bruno Mars when he sings, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” In contrast to anxiety-producing ads, the positivity of the self-esteem camp seems the perfect salve. All manner of things pop — pop music, pop psychology, pop spirituality — reassure us that the only thing wrong with us is thinking that there’s something wrong with us. We’re told to embrace our own personal truth and set free our amazing inner self. Again, but now for opposite reasons, there seems little reason to resurrect that old fire-and-brimstone sin routine.

Caught between the hyperbolic extremes of ads bent on dismantling our egos and pop spirituality asserting our inner amazing-ness, it’s no wonder sin doesn’t get much air time.

Why does sin matter?

In the midst of all the clamor, sin can actually be good news. Here’s why.

We all want to be validated, to feel worthy of being loved, to experience wholeness. So, when we’re told that we’re perfect and amazing just the way we are, it’s like a hit of dopamine for the soul. But like any high, the feeling doesn’t last. Deep down, we feel the dissonance between the self-esteem anthem and our daily experiences of sleeping past a well-intentioned wake up alarm, taking a significant other for granted, or losing our patience with a coworker. We can wonder: Maybe something really is wrong with me after all. Why can’t I manage to keep myself together?

It sounds counterintuitive at first, but acknowledging the reality of sin can free us from some of this self-doubt. It’s a bit like being given a medical diagnosis. Imagine that you’ve been feeling lethargic lately. We can construct all kinds of narratives: Maybe I’m in the wrong relationship, or maybe I’m not as caring and generous as I thought I was. Imagine, then, learning you have anemia. It is a hard pill to swallow at first, but then comes some relief: So that explains the slugginess and not having energy for the people and things I care about. It’s not just some personal failure on my part. It’s a condition I have.

Sin is a condition we all have. It’s like anemia of the soul. It robs us of energy to do the good things we want to do. It exerts a centripetal pull on us, pulling us in on ourselves instead of outward in love.

Sin sucks — it sucks the life and joy out of good things. It’s like when a friend gets a well-deserved promotion — instead of celebrating the good news, inwardly we grow a bit resentful of our friend’s success as we sink a little deeper into our own insecurities. Or you can think of sin like us getting the promotion, but our celebration quickly turns to anxiety, doubting that we’re really up to the task. Where there is good, sin tries to leech from it like a parasite.

Hold up — just a moment ago I claimed that sin can actually be good news. So is that the good news? That we have anemia?

What can we do about sin?

That’s only part of the good news. Acknowledging the reality of sin in our own lives can be painful. It can lead to some difficult interior work of recalibrating how we understand ourselves. But figuring out that sin is a universal human condition can be reassuring. It’s not only me who’s struggling. It’s not that I’m just not trying hard enough. I’m not a failure for not yet finding someone to be in a relationship with who isn’t also a mess on some level.

Having a condition, though, doesn’t mean we have to passively accept a lifetime of suffering its symptoms, or that we don’t have to take any responsibility for the effects of our condition. Knowledge of our weakness means power to pursue a course of healing.

Ads tell us that we’re unworthy of love so we have to buy our way into it. Pop spirituality tells us that nothing is wrong with us, but that doesn’t help explain why we still feel pretty miserable about ourselves sometimes. Instead, the really good news is this: we’re loved sinners.

We’re not perfect, and we’re loved by God just as we are. Jesus comes to us “while we were yet sinners.” He is the good physician who assures us that our condition doesn’t keep Him from loving us — and His healing is exactly what He’s offering us through the gift of Himself, His love, and His sacraments. The first and most important thing we can do about sin is to accept God’s incalculable love for us, tattered and worn and dirtied as we are. God’s washing machine can handle it.

Time and time again, we see a pattern all over the Gospels — from the three wise men visiting the infant Jesus, who are told to return home a different way; to the woman caught in adultery, whom Jesus tells to go in peace and sin no more — Jesus invites us to come exactly as we are. And to leave changed. Cleansed. Healed.

Grotto quote graphic about what is sin: "Figuring out that sin is a universal human condition can be reassuring."

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