Spirituality for Today – March 2009 – Volume 13, Issue 8

Handling Sin

By Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

When we read the Bible we enter a world that is very different from ours. The Old Testament was written a long time ago, written by people whose thought patterns were drastically different from our own.

It contains stories of strange events such as an axe head that floated, a talking donkey, a day when the sun stood still, a giant fish that swallowed a man and then spit him up on dry land, and many other incredible accounts.

You and I have never witnessed things such as these and in all honesty, we don't expect to. So in this sense, the world of the Bible seems to be far removed from where we are and now live. But there are some experiences that we all have in common with the people of the Bible. One of those is an awareness of moral failure. We are all sinners, and we all know it.

A photo of  a tube of toothpaste with the word SIN on the side

We have a Gospel reading that took place 2,000 years ago. Many things had changed in Israel she was no longer a powerful nation the golden age of the past was long since gone. But one thing remained the same, an awareness of moral failure.

All of us have the same awareness. Looking back across the years, we can see all kinds of uncorrectable mistakes. Wrong deeds have been done, and right deeds have been left undone. Hurtful words have been spoken, and healing words have been left unsaid. Those things are behind us now, so there is no way we can go back and change them. Let us remember that once toothpaste is squeezed from the tube it's not easy to get it back into the tube.

Perhaps the worst part of it is that we know we are not finished with moral failure. It is part of us and we carry it around on the inside. Therefore, we all have a sin problem. The question is, "How do we handle it?"

Some people respond by facing the fact of their sinfulness and then morbidly wallow in their guilt that is often a major challenge with may of us. We may ask for the forgiveness of God. We may seek out people we have hurt and ask their forgiveness, as well. But neither of those will resolve our problem unless we also include the vital business of forgiving ourselves.

A guilty conscience can be a useful emotion it can take us back to the place of our failure, correct it, if possible, and if not, then to learn from it. That is the purpose and the only purpose of a guilty conscience, to set in motion a process of correction and recovery. Beyond that, it is a destructive emotion tearing life apart, but not putting it back together. Wallowing in one's own guilt is a tragic response to the sin problem.

Others take the opposite approach and regard their sinfulness as a triviality, something that really doesn't matter very much. This was the attitude of Simon, the Pharisee. Doubtless, he would have conceded his life was less than perfect. He may have even realized that he was a sinner, but he would have reserved the right to explain and defend. He did not see himself as a sinner because there was no sexual impropriety, no murder, no adultery, none of those vulgar evils. His sin, as he saw it, was of the respectable variety, a little pride, a touch of greed, maybe an occasional bit of graft. But so what?

Of course, compared to the adulteress woman, his sins amounted to nothing. They even looked like virtues by comparison. To play down our sinfulness, to act as if it were nothing, is a poor way for you and me to handle the sin problem.

The only effective solution is for us to face the fact of our sinfulness and accept the forgiveness of God. The adulteress woman in the Gospel was "known in the town to be a sinner." But she was also knew herself to be a sinner, and that was the key that unlocked the door. She simply threw herself on the mercy of Jesus and heard him say, "Your sins are forgiven."

That is the only way to handle our sin problem – forgiveness, to forgive ourselves and forgiven others even as God has forgiven us.