I had the opportunity to be working with some young men at a juvenile detention center. On one occasion, I was helping the young Catholic men prepare to give their confession that would take place the following weekend. The discussion was initiated with a question; we ask God to forgive our sins all of the time, but what is sin and what are we asking God to forgive? The young men gave the common answer of, “sin is breaking God’s laws.” O.K., I said. What are God’s laws? Sheepishly, the young men offered one or two commandments that they could remember. Clearly, sin was not understood.
The answer to what is a sin is actually profoundly simple. As we go through life, we make a series of choices. These choices either bring us closer to God or they take us further away from God. The choices we make that take us further away from God are sins. There are some choices we make that are totally inconsequential. God really doesn’t care if we choose cream in our coffee or not, but God does care about the choices we make that bring us closer to Him or take us further away from Him.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “…The universe was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it...” (CCC n. 302) Life is a path where we start out being imperfect and through a series of our own choices we either attain perfection—which is being with God in Heaven—or we deviate from God’s plan by our choices and we do not end up being with God in Heaven.
The choices that we make—in terms of classical philosophy by which the Catholic Faith is reasoned—are called “goods.” St. Augustine said that sin is the result of disordered goods. In common language, what Augustine is saying is that we have our priorities wrong. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that sin was the picking of a lower order good over a higher order good. An example of Aquinas’ teaching would be the case when I have decided to stay home from Mass during football season to watch the Denver Broncos play. Certainly, God is a Bronco fan because the sunrises contain blue and orange. I reason that God wants me to root for His team! Yes, watching the Broncos play is a good thing and the entertainment is full of gifts from God from the ability of men to create the game to the athleticism of the players. However, God calls all of us to meet as a community so that He can speak to us directly during the Liturgy of the Word and join with us physically during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If I miss Mass to watch the Broncos play, I have chosen a lower order good over a higher order good. Is there any wonder we have all sinned? Missing Mass, in this example, moves us further away from God which is a sin.
So what about God’s law? There are two aspects of law. First, Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that the law was meant to teach us virtue. In particular, if we follow the law repeatedly, the actions of following the law—which assumes that the law dictates just actions—will eventually become a habit that results in the attainment of a virtue. The attainment of virtues brings us closer to God. Secondly, the law is like a mirror by which we see ourselves and our choices in relationship to the God’s law. The more we look into the mirror, the more we can see our imperfections. This is why St. Paul stated we cannot be saved by the law. We are saved by the choices we make in living our lives not by simply following the law because we think we should.
After spending time with the young men at that juvenile detention center, I hope they gave a good confession of their sins.