Of Valentine’s, Temptation, and Sin

In case you forgot to get a valentine card or gift for someone, you could try this excuse. Since Sundays take precedence over saint’s days, the observation of Valentine’s Day is translated (that’s to say, ‘moved over’) to tomorrow. That means that you still have 24 hours to get a card, a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolate and a 4-foot-high, plushly squeezable Vermont teddy bear. But if you try that, let me know how it works out for you.

Generally speaking, when it comes to the first Sunday in Lent, I feel it incumbent to at least mention that temptation is not the same as sin. It is a pastoral concern because many of us confuse the two.

Temptation is a thing with which we may struggle, and it actually fulfills an important role in our growth in the spiritual life. It teaches us that we must come to rely on the grace of God to overcome temptation, and that we are powerless to overcome it on our own. Why we are powerless to overcome temptation on our own is because human beings are extremely good at rationalization. Without some sort of principle to guide us, most of us can talk ourselves into almost anything, and we can justify almost anything– even some of those things that we might objectively think are not really good ideas.

Temptation is a byproduct of being alive in the world. If you wanted to reflect about it theologically, you would say that temptation is a consequence of having free will— the ability to make choices. Since God wants humans to have free will, then God tolerates that there are temptations to make poor choices.

While we might like to live in a mythical land in which there was no temptation, then we would also live in a land in which there was no such thing as free will. And most of us would not like that very much, now, would we?

In Lent, most of us also tend to be more focused on Sin. But sometimes I wonder what definition most of us use for sin. I suspect that mostly people’s definition these days is that ‘a sin is something that a person has done that makes one feel bad. If I don’t feel bad, it is not a sin. So long as I don’t feel guilt, I’m ok. Right?’

One consequence of that sort of thinking is that what is sinful is entirely subjective, a function of what one may feel at a given moment. And most people are preoccupied with their sins. ‘Did I drink too much, smoke too much, eat too much, or overindulge in some other way that I ought not to have done?’ It is a residual from Calvinistic Theology: ‘if it feels good, it must be bad for you, and if I enjoy it, it must be sinful, right?’

Well, that is not really right. The overwhelming preponderance of what Scripture teaches is about the quality of our relationships: with God, with those close to us; and with all humanity. When Scripture mentions the category of righteousness, what is meant is this quality of being in right relationship.

This is held up in Jesus’ teaching known as the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So one definition of Sin could be, “whatever draws you away from being in a right relationship with God, with your neighbor, and with humanity.”

So, while we may be focused on our individual sins, the message of Scripture is that all human beings live in a condition of sin, because it is unescapable. No one can be in a perfectly right relationship with all elements of his/her life concurrently.

The ancient spiritual masters pointed out that God uses the occasion of sin to invite our growth into the fullness of His grace. When we fall into sin, we come to recognize our dependence on the grace of God, for we eventually come to recognize that we cannot help ourselves of our own desire, or our own will.

Mostly we think of Sin in terms of self-indulgence. Self-indulgence was not considered the worst of offenses by the early church fathers.  What was?

One of the early church fathers, from the Philokalia (I think it might have been St. Ephrem of Edessa) addressed this issue: His teaching was that the three greatest of sins were these: ignorance, indifference and ingratitude. And you know what? I think those are far more serious than what we usually think of as sin.



Canon Greg+



About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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