06 Mar Stories We Tell Ourselves About Sin
by Fr. Denis Lemieux
So, I’ve been thinking about sin quite a bit lately. Haven’t you? It’s kind of a Lenten thing to do, right?
Oh, not in the sense of contemplating committing sins of one sort or another (although, let’s be honest, it happens). But thinking about this whole sin business—where does it come from anyway?
Why do we want to do things that we know are wrong, or devise clever ruses and rationalizations to justify doing things we oughtn’t, or duck out of doing things we ought, or open ourselves up to all kinds of ideas and options and possible scenarios that we really know will take us outside of God’s moral law?
I’ve been thinking about all of the above lately because I’m hoping to write a book on the subject some time in the next year. I wrote a book called Going Home about God’s mercy a couple years ago, so I guess it’s time to examine the flip side of the coin.
It is a question of thinking. It’s the thoughts that count against us in the battle against sin. Long before our actions go awry and we rebel against God’s order, our thoughts lay the foundation for that rebellion. And it is in the battlefield of the mind that the war against sin has to be won, since our actions follow our thoughts.
Evagrius of Pontus, desert father of the fourth century, drew up a list of eight thoughts, eight habits of the mind, that tend to get us into trouble each time. This list eventually came down to us slightly altered as the familiar Seven Deadly Sins.
I have to admit, I like the older version. For one thing, they’re not sins, not exactly, until we give our will to them. Before that, they are indeed thoughts that just tend to dwell in our minds and wreak havoc there.
I also like the actual list, which I will share with you shortly. I think it is a wee bit more comprehensive than our familiar seven.
I think of these thoughts as eight stories we tell ourselves about reality. Eight theories about what life is about, eight projects that we are just certain will make us happy if we achieve them. Eight brilliant ideas that occur to all of us one way or another about how to live a good life.
I like the language of thoughts, stories, ideas, because it helps us see how important it is to govern our minds and conform them to the Truth God has revealed.
How important it is to constantly have recourse to Scripture, that is, to God’s story, God’s ideas, God’s project, God’s revelation to us of what will make us really happy.
We’re all telling ourselves stories all the time, and of course we all tell each other those stories over and over.
The whole world of media and entertainment is all about the eight thoughts, projected onto the movie and TV screens of the world with professional production and the very best acting money can buy. We need God’s story constantly, to counter our story, God’s thoughts to master ours.
For example, gluttony is the thought that happiness lies in the immediate pleasure of the body. To have a full stomach, physical well-being, to be satisfied on that basic physical level—this is the essential thought of gluttony.
God tells us, in contrast, Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God, and Blessed [are] those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Mt 4:4 and 5:6)
Lust tells us that happiness lies in deriving pleasure from the body of another. The use of the physical being of another to provide us with delight and satiation—this is the “thought” of lust.
Clearly lust is epidemic in our world, a story so often told and so widespread that it goes almost unquestioned. And that we use the other person rather than actually treat them as a person to be loved goes unacknowledged.
God’s story? But I say unto you, that whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
A man shall leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two become one flesh, and What therefore God has joined together, man must not put asunder.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mt 5:28, 19:5-6, and 22:39)
Avarice tells us that happiness lies in securing our future material needs. Gluttony is all about the now; avarice looks ahead to make sure we have bread and butter for tomorrow.
And that is happiness—to have a thick bank account and a retirement plan that nothing can shake (yeah, right!).
God’s story: Do not lay up treasure for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, but lay up for yourselves, treasures in heaven.
If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have, give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: and come follow me (Mt 6:19-20 and 19:21).
Anger tells us that happiness lies in one thing only: getting even. To strike back and be repaid for one’s injuries—that and that alone will make us happy, we believe, when anger is having its say in our thoughts.
What does God say? Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who persecute you.
Blessed [are] the merciful. Blessed [are] the peacemakers. (Matt 5: 44 and 7 and 9)
Sadness is not on our traditional list of the seven deadlies. This is not simply the emotion of sorrow, which comes to us all and is morally neutral. Rather, it is the dejection that comes when, simply, we don’t get our way in life. Call it the sulks or pouting, if you will.
Happiness lies in getting what you want—that’s the underlying story. And Jesus says, simply: Father, not my will, but your will be done (Matt 26:39).
Acedia is often translated as “sloth,” but this to us connotes simple laziness, and that’s not quite it. Rather acedia is the settled attitude of futility. What’s the use? What good will any of it do?
“It” being any serious effort to live a good spiritual and moral life. Happiness, for the acedic mind, is to simply not exist, because nothing is any good anyhow.
What does God tell us? Well, quite a bit. The whole Bible in a sense is one long word against acedia. But just for example, Pray always and do not lose heart.
Stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.
Jesus spoke to his disciples saying, “Be of good cheer. It is I; be not afraid.” (Lk 18: 1, 21:28, Mt 14:27)
Vainglory is also not on Gregory’s list, since he saw it as an aspect of pride. And so it is, but it has a specific difference.
Vainglory is the conviction that happiness lies in being well thought of by others, in being recognized, respected, praised. What counts is not the goodness of the deed, but the glory one receives on account of it.
God’s thought on the matter? Matt 6: 1-6 When you fast… give alms… pray… do it in secret, and your father who is in heaven will reward you.
What profits it a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
Whoever wishes to be great among you, let him be your servant… for the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mt 6:1-6, 16:26, 20:26-28)
Finally, pride is a very simple matter, but very deep in us. It is the firm belief that happiness is mastery, being in control, being the boss of one’s own life, and free from any constraint or authority, up to and including God’s.
This, of course, is the story behind all the other stories; all the other thoughts are just different ways that we decide we know more than God does about what will make us happy. Right?
And God says: Blessed [are] the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …
Amen I say to you, Unless you are converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. For whoever shall humble himself as this little child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven …
Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. (Mt 5:3, 18:3,4 and 23:12)
Well, there’s lots more that can be said here. (Hey—I should write a book!)
I’ve just given the barest descriptions of each of the eight thoughts, and only a few scripture quotes to help us start thinking God’s thoughts in their place.
That’s where the battle is won or lost, right? Our ways or God’s ways, our thoughts or God’s thoughts. It’s a basic life choice for all of us. Think about it—it’s Lent, after all!