What is Sin?
“Sin” is an old archery term in Greek which means “to miss the mark.” All sin and fall short of the glory of God, as St. Paul says. When we sin, we are committing an offense against “reason, truth, and right conscience (CCC 1849).” Sin is never private. At the very least, sin injures our nature as human beings, but it also injures human solidarity. Sin is wrong because it offends God and does injury to ourselves and others, and it is “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law (ibid).”
In many ways, sin is the diametrical opposite of obedience to which we are called. God gives us freedom in order to choose Him, to choose the good. When we sin, we are being prideful and disobedient in some measure. Sins, of course, are not all the same magnitude. Murder is more serious than stealing a pack of gum from the store, but neither is ultimately acceptable.
How Can We Know if Something is Sinful?
In order to know if something is sinful, we need to employ our God-given reason, conform ourselves to the truth, and form our conscience in line with what God has revealed. First, we need to truly understand that we are capable of sin and that evil does exist. Many today deny that sin is possible, believe it or not. Likely, this is because we have lost touch with the reality of objectivity which is only found in God. Truth is not decided by the majority, it is as God made it. Our freedom, therefore, is not license to do whatever we like, it is the right to do what we ought.
Further, there are certain things which are rooted in the nature of mankind (called natural law). To discover these, man only needs to think clearly about himself and those around him. Murder, rape, and theft, for example, are clearly wrong. We do not need to be taught these things; as St. Paul says these are written on our hearts. Natural law exists because the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God created the universe and the eternal law which governs it. Natural law is man’s participation in this eternal law.
Because of the fallen nature of man, following Adam and Eve’s first sin, we are inclined to sin, our intellect is darkened, and our free will is muddled. Nonetheless, we can begin to be conformed more and more with reality by striving for virtue in a life of grace. Apart from God’s grace, flowing through the Church, we are doomed. By God’s grace, living a life in the sacraments, we can come to know God more intimately, love Him more, and serve Him better.
A Couple Notes on Conscience
Through the ministry of the Church, we can form our conscience in accord with what God has revealed. Conscience is not a feeling or an emotion, it is a judgment of reason regarding the morality of a particular act we have committed, are committing, or are about to commit. We must, therefore, receive good formation and practice sound discernment in order to distinguish God’s voice from other influences. By God’s grace, we can do good and avoid evil. Even in the moment, by virtue of the gifts of the Holy Spirit we receive in Baptism, we are given the spiritual gift of counsel, in the moment, to help our conscience.
A word of warning is needed. Our conscience can be right, erroneous, or doubtful. If we are right, then we are in line with eternal law and reality. If our conscience is erroneous then we have judged an evil act to be good. This can be due to vincible or invincible ignorance. Basically, invincible ignorance is ignorance that cannot be overcome by ordinary diligence. If an individual makes a wrong moral choice and has no way of knowing the correct moral choice, he or she is not guilty of a sin. This never applies to natural law, however, as the natural law is written directly upon the hearts of human beings. Murder is wrong. You do not need to be taught this. On the other hand, vincible ignorance can be overcome by ordinary diligence. Simply put, a doubtful conscience requires additional consideration and we have to make the effort to discover the truth.
What is a Mortal Sin?
The Church makes a distinction between mortal sin and venial sin. This distinction was “already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience (CCC 1854).” The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides an excellent and clear definition:
“Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it (CCC 1855).”
In order for sin to be considered deadly or mortal, three conditions must be met: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent of the will. Our spiritual powers are intellect and will. Thus, both must be fully engaged in a serious matter for mortal sin. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the culpability of a grace offense. Also, feelings and passions can diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.
If we commit a mortal sin, we are no longer in a state of grace. The bad news is that if we persist in this state unrepentant we will be damning ourselves to hell, to eternal separation with God, for all eternity. The good news is that Jesus Christ became man, suffered, died, and rose to open the way to heaven and forgive the sins of man! So, what does it take to overcome mortal sin: God’s grace! First, we need to allow the grace of conversion to move us to repentance. Then, we need the grace of God’s forgiveness. Finally, we need the grace of the Sacrament of Penance to absolve us of this grave offense.
What Should You Do if You’ve Committed a Mortal Sin?
So, what should you do if you are conscious of mortal sin in your soul? The first thing to do is to take a breath and recognize the sorrow for your sin which you are experiencing. If you are sorry for what you have done, then you need only ask for God’s forgiveness to receive it. The moment we offer a broken and contrite spirit to God, He will not spurn us. Like the father in the prodigal son parable, He will run towards us and embrace us. However, this is not the end. The moment we ask for forgiveness, we receive it. True! But we still have yet to confess our sins aloud and be reconciled with the Church. There is a distinction between forgiveness and absolution.
When the priest or bishop absolves our sins in the Sacrament of Penance, our soul is restored to the state of justification of our Baptism. We are set right with God. The sins, mortal and venial, have been absolved (washed away). There will still be penance to do and the temporal effects of sin remain. But, our soul has been resuscitated and we are in a state of grace.
We are only required by Church law to confess our sins in the Sacrament of Penance once per year, but there is no maximum. Most of the saints went to confession once every two weeks or even once per week. The graces which flow from this great sacrament are truly beautiful.
God forbid we should commit a mortal sin, but if you find yourself having done so, then turn to prayer as soon as you experience the grace of conversion. Say an Act of Contrition. Say an “Our Father,” where we ask for forgiveness directly. Pray a Hail Mary asking for our Blessed Mother’s help to get to Confession as soon as possible. But remember, God does not condemn us. Condemnation and shame come from the Accuser, from Satan. Instead, God convicts our hearts. The Holy Spirit is the Helper who guides us to the harbor of God. Sin is a big deal, but God’s grace is bigger. Put your trust in Him. Run to Him. Cling to Him. Give thanks to Him.
Jesus, I trust in You.