In a 1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress, Pope Pius XII identified the “sin of the century as the loss of the sense of sin.” Certainly the twenty-first century has seen no change in this. There are many reasons why we have lost the sense of sin, but the sense itself cannot be totally lost. What arises in its place is a therapeutic culture where the sense of personal responsibility is greatly diminished. We are all victims and therefore absolved of any culpability. This comes at a cost though. Once personal responsibility is diminished so too is freedom. Is it possible to recapture the sense of sin once a culture of victimhood has been firmly established? If the Church is going to effectively preach the Gospel, which includes a call to repentance (Mk 1:15), then she must find an effective way to include the reality of sin in her message without reducing Christianity to moralizing.
Classically, sin is defined as an “offense against God in thought, word or deed.” But our understanding of sin is greatly impacted by the reason that we think God is offended. Is God offended because He is primarily a judge waiting to mark our offenses in His book? Not exactly–God acts as a judge, but that is not of His essence. That is something that He does with respect to creation but not Who He is. In other words, God is not eternally a judge. Before the creation of the world, He was not a judge. When God is viewed primarily as judge we try our best to follow the rules and do more good than bad (keeping the ledger in our favor) but ultimately know He will not be pleased with us.
Is God offended because we have somehow messed up His plan? No, again. This looks upon God as a distant Creator Who sets the wheels of creation in motion and then moves things around to get what He wants. Again, He is not Creator by nature. Creation is something that He does in time, but it is not Who He is. When we view God primarily as Creator we find a personal relationship nearly impossible and easily fall into a practical atheism.
In the Summa Contra Gentiles St Thomas provides us with an answer. He says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.” (SCG Book 3, 122) What kind of a God is only offended by us when we do something to harm ourselves? A God Who is Father. This is the same Eternal Father Whom Jesus came to reveal to us. Once we begin to view sin from this context of inflicting harm upon ourselves, it changes our perspective. It also readily lends itself to speaking to those trapped in the therapeutic mentality. Someone who identifies themselves as a victim is never free. They may be wounded, but the Divine Counselor is offering them the path to freedom and the power to seize that freedom.
To see where you fall on this continuum, let’s look at an example. As the Israelites begin to grumble in the desert and long for a return to Egypt, God brings them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Decalogue. Why does He do that? How you answer depends completely on your view of God. Is God growing weary with them questioning His judgment? The way this text is best understood is that God gives them the Law in order to protect from falling back into slavery. We should view the Ten Commandments as the rules by which we can protect our freedom—“do these things and all they entail and you will remain free.”
This is an important connection that we must make. God gives us commandments only for our own sake. The rules come from a Father who will go to unbelievable lengths to protect our freedom. This also reveals the intrinsic connection between the Commandments and the Beatitudes. The Commandments show us how to protect our freedom while the Beatitudes tell how we should use that freedom. God, like any good father helping his children grow would do, instructs us how to use our freedom. He then gives us strength (grace) to use it correctly and blesses us with a certain interior sweetness when we do. St. Paul addresses this same connection in his letter to the Galatians when he says that “For freedom, Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). Christ comes to fulfill the law by enabling us to follow it in Him and then shows us how to use it most excellently by making a gift of Himself on the Cross. This is the “freedom of the gift” that Pope St. John Paul II spoke of in Theology of the Body by which we find the meaning of our lives. Our freedom is meant to discover this meaning, not to invent it.
The best definition I have seen for sin comes from George Weigel—“sin is the failure to use freedom excellently.” It shows us that sin costs us something, mainly this gift of freedom. Freedom is not an end in itself—but is given to us for something. It is given to us so that we might encounter the Good. In the “land of the free” we see freedom mainly in terms of “freedom from” something and so this is hard for us as Americans to grasp. But there is a beauty to be found in those who are more concerned with using it well. In truth, there is nothing more beautiful than when a person uses it well (we call these people saints) and this has to far outweigh the ugliness of using it poorly. In fact that is exactly what God thinks. He thinks the beauty of the right use of freedom is so great that He is willing to tolerate the bad use of it (i.e. evil) rather than to go without that beauty by not giving us freedom of choice. If God thinks it so precious, we ought to as well.