Those have not only depraved understandings but diseased affections, which cannot enjoy a singularity without a heresy, or be the author of an opinion, without they be of a sect also. — Sir T. Browne
I sit this dreary day in my dilapidated apartment, smelling a sweet scent coming from the chili I’ve just concocted on the stove, listening to the ominous winter winds outside, anticipating the cold-front careening toward the town I inhabit in the coming days, and I muse on sin. I do so only, mind you, because I recently penned a poem on sin as a sort of experiment in imitation of George Herbert’s fabulous “Prayer.” As no poem should be prefaced, I give a preface and extend some hopefully helpful thoughts on sin. I say nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times over on the subject but do hope to perhaps help a weary soul.
Sin is universal, and for this reason I thought it fine to share my poem with you, dear reader. Sin is also something that “changes.” And here I must give an explanation. While what is considered sin to God never changes, it is constantly changing in our perception. What was not sin last year is revealed to our conscience as sin today and what may have been a horrible vice as a child is really good fun. Growing up I believed drinking was one of the seven deadly sins. Today, I rarely go a week without a pint, and I would put fewer days in between myself and the enjoyment if I wasn’t so poor. But my drinking habits are not of concern for this post. What I wish to discuss is how sin in this sense “changes” — how we often have a wrong notion of sin.
For sin is sin at the end of the day. Whether a three year old tells his mother a lie or a 27 year old murders that same three year old, it is all sin. But we do distinguish one as worse than the other. A “mere” lust, a gaze which lasted longer than it should have is not worse than full-blown adultery we say, and I agree. Yet each of us should be considered the “chief of all sinners” upon self-examination, for we see only the outward affects of our neighbor’s sin, but we see the motive of our own. We can judge only one heart, and we all know upon careful examination that it is desperately wicked.
Our Lord taught us that lusting with the eyes was considered adultery, and as harsh as that may sound, it is equally as likely that a “true” adulterer is less an adulterer than the Peeping Tom next door. The adulterer, though certainly a sinful man, may at least have some higher motive of love. He may actually care very deeply for his mistress (as much as one is able to truly care in this situation) while the peeping tom may care nothing for anybody and simply longs to fulfill his fleshly desire. We ought therefore to be careful in judging others in their past sins.
St. Augustine explains in his Confessions that he was so depraved as a young man that he began to sin for the mere enjoyment of the sin itself. I would perhaps argue that all sin begins as an unlawful means to a good thing. Since I used lust earlier, I will continue to do so. When one lusts he does so for various reasons, none of which are evil things at their core. E.g. God created physical intimacy as a good thing. Adultery may be committed for love or companionship or even some sort of adventure, none of which are evil but actually quite good in and of themselves. But when we give into the sin, we eventually long for it whether the outcome gives us anything good or not. We may be so consumed with lust that what began in love for a particular woman proceeds to lust for any woman. While both are adulterers, we recognize that gradually a higher motive has been replaced with a lower motive.
Now, what we hardly ever notice is the slow transition of sin that may begin in good intentions and end in complete debauchery in which we sin for the mere enjoyment of the sin itself. In his magnificent book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis stated that “the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Sin does not alert us when we have crossed a barrier — when we have gone from lusting for love and companionship to lusting for adventure. But though sin will not do this for us, there is a way of deciphering our spiritual plight, and that is through the reading of God’s Word.
I like two examples best when it comes to fighting sin which are related. The first comes from scripture and is found in Ephesians where Paul explains to us that we are to put on the armor of God. The second I have blogged about before and comes from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I do not care to go into great detail about either, but I do wish to state that the perhaps one way — the best way? — to view our sin is to stop viewing it as modern character development and view it as an epic first-century or medieval quest. Frankly, if we stopped doing most things modernly, we would be better off, but that is for another post, though, indeed, it finds its way into most of my posts. Instead of merely not sinning so we can be nicer people, we must look at sin as a multi-headed beast or a terrible witch, something we have to overcome with armor and tact.
Holiness is not an end we can ever reach in this life. We are like knights in a never-ending story who continue to defeat monsters only to find another forest we have to travel through which has an even worse beast on the other side. Defeating sin only leaves room for us to see newer sins we did not notice before (or I suppose, older sins that have reemerged). The urge is for us to despair, but we ought not do that. The sins of our past do not have any hold on us, for we have been redeemed. The most helpful thought I have had recently on the matter is that we must look at sin in the moment. It is not fair to ourselves to despair over past sins or to worry about how long I can go on free of any particular sin. Instead, we ought to feel accomplished with the moment-by-moment victories. Our past does not lay claim on us and our future is unknown to us. The best we can do is defeat each beast we notice and take comfort in the truth that Christ has redeemed us for a future perfection.
And with that, I gave a far too lengthy preface to a poem inspired by a much better poem. I have included Herbert’s below.
Sin the devil’s banquet, Angel beauty,
Lucifer’s lies leading the lame to hell,
The soul in compromise, heart in Lust’s treaty,
The seeker’s false security, death knell.
Sweet-tasting mists, here pleasures evermore,
Freedom from law, liberty in eye’s lusts,
Foulness in women’s clothes, Deception’s core,
Agreement with demons, soul lined with rust.
Blasphemies as Truth so flesh earns desire,
Greed leading Envy, Sloth warring with Wrath,
Gluttony consuming all Lusts of fire,
Train of treacherous beasts led on Pride’s Path.
Life and Love all-consumed by sins scamming,
Tongue satisfied in sight by what’s damning.