September 23, 2020

Invisible Sin

The most dangerous sins are the ones we fail to see due to the blindness of our pride.

Invisible Sin

A big motivation for me to start this apostolate is my concern for the effects of sin on people's lives, and specifically, the sins that are invisible to us, particularly those that we who try to live faithfully can succumb to without being aware.

The most pernicious sin, and that which underlies so much of what can ensnare us, is that of pride. There are oh so many ways for it to sneak in, and it is at its most dangerous when we believe that we are doing the work of God, or at least, that God is most assuredly with us and supporting our opinions and actions.

This kind of sin is most invisible to us, and yet it is precisely this kind of fault that our Lord spoke of when he said "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matt 7:5)

The Devil is a master deceiver, and he is most cunning when he draws us in and distorts our good desire for holiness into spiritual pride. That spiritual pride flourishes when we occupy ourselves with the affairs of others, and in particular, with what we judge to be the sins of others or how others are not wholly orthodox, in our judgment.

In point of fact, our judgment can be correct in such matters. It may very well be that another is actually in sin or error, and that we are discerning correctly. That seems to be implied in the passage I quoted from above. Christ does not say that the "speck" in the other's eye is not actually a fault. No. But all the same, His exhortation is that we need to be more and first concerned with our own faults.

You might think I'm wrongly mixing in error here with sin, but the two are not so very different, and both are faults. Barring succumbing to irrational passions (which most assuredly does happen), our actions tend to follow our thoughts. At the very least, our intentions--our will--is inclined to follow our intellect, that is, how we think about things and how we perceive what is good, what is desirable. So if we think a thing is good, we will be inclined to pursue it in action, to will it to become reality. Similarly, if we think a thing is bad, we will be inclined to try to avoid it. As soon as our will becomes involved, a moral dimension is added to our thoughts.

Further, as St. James (chapter 3) cautions, our tongues can be the cause of great good and evil, and most assuredly, our tongues (or our pens/keyboards) follow our thoughts. Our will and actions include communicating, putting our thoughts into symbols to try to influence others. This is inherently moral as well.

Therefore, error is closely associated with sin. And consequently, correcting error can, as St. James wrote (5:19), bring people back from sin:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

So while thinking wrongly (being in error) may not be a sin, simply in itself, it is clearly closely associated with sin and is often the cause of sin. Stubbornly clinging to error can also be sinful. Thus I do not think it is wrong to include judging error in the cautions about judging others.

And our Lord did not specifically say sin but used the metaphor of speck and plank in our eyes, neither do the other related Scriptures below. Considering that our Lord uses the eye imagery and says that removing the plank will help us to see, that certainly suggests relevance to error and truth, which have to do with how well we "see," i.e., understand the truth rightly.

On top of that, we can often be tempted to fall into harmful ideologuing and thereby lose sight of the humanity and the image of God in others when we try to separate error and sin too much. The relationship between error and sin can go wrong in two ways--on different ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, we can separate them so much that the person no longer becomes responsible at all for what they think, and on the other hand, we can quite easily be led to judge a person damned strictly on how imperfectly we think they adhere to the truth.

So we ought not to make too strong a division between error and sin while at the same time we have to be careful not to impute error to be equivalent with sin. The only exception to the latter is culpable ignorance, that is, when a person can and should know better. As a rule, we should not presume culpable ignorance but rather leave that judgment to God or, if need be, to the authorities he has delegated such judgment to here on earth.

These incorrect extremes are not at all uncommon, the latter being especially common on the internet, with people going to great extents to try to impute the sin of heresy to others, judging them heretics, etc., without the slightest pretence at justice, or even giving them the basic courtesy of self-defense or amendation. Ignorant people often use the inquisitions as emblematic of unjust religous zealotry, but at least they had many regulations to allow for the accused to defend himself to an appointed (and competent) judge, as well as every opportunity for amendment. The inquisitions of the internet are so very far from this rigorous and systematic justice.

Keeping this relationship between the sin and error in mind, we have to be wary of judging others with regards to both. What matters for our purposes here is not if another is in sin or error or not, but how we deal with that situation, that is, our right or wrong response to it.

Other scriptures in the New Testament caution us against judging others, as well. St. James in chapter four of his letter:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

St. Paul also, in his first letter to the Corinthians (4:3ff) says something very similar:

It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

There is a consistent theme here. God is our judge. We are not, as a rule, each other's judges. As is true of most of the perfection to which Christ calls us, our fallen inclinations fight against that perfection. We want to judge others. It implicitly makes us feel better about ourselves. We love to speak our judgment about each other, especially when the persons in question are not around. That is another sin, but it is related, namely, the sin of gossip.

And it's worth pointing out, gossip does not inherently mean untruth. Just as with judging in Matthew chapter seven above, it is not so much a question of "is the other person actually at fault." It is instead a question of what is our right response to that? How are we to live, even when people around us may be sinning, even when that sinning is brought to our attention?

In all cases, we are counseled to 1) not judge others and 2) not to talk about the faults of others. These are essential guidelines for Christian perfection. They are not optional, any more than not killing. And indeed, our words can harm and even kill, ruin lives, families, and reputations--even when the content they speak of is true.

Too often, when people caution against judging others, those who feel convicted by the Word are quick to defend and explain and divert. "But we can and should judge the fruits." Yes, that is true. Our consciences should be well formed enough to discern truth from error and righteousness from sin. Absolutely.

But that is not the point at issue. We can certainly recognize the speck in another's eye, but again, Christ considers us a hypocrite if we make a fuss about it and try to remove it while we have that plank in our own eye. And I sure hope none of us is thinking, "but my sin isn't really 'a plank'!" Lord have mercy if so.

Another common response has to do with our duty of charity towards what we call "fraternal correction." I have much to say on this, but as with the prior objection, this is only a diversion from the point at issue. Yes, fraternal correction is a thing of great value and importance. But that's not what we are concerned with here.

That fraternal correction exists does not cancel out the command not to judge others and not to talk about the faults of others. The general rule to live by is do not judge others and do not gossip. The exceptions to judging are exceptional, and they require great humility, great patience, and great wisdom. They are best exercised in private. They are best done by someone either in authority over the other, holding some special office to the purpose, or by a close friend or family member acting in true friendship and concern for a particular person's soul. See how readily this rule and its exceptions excludes blabbing and sharing on the internet (or otherwise)?

We must allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with this. All of us, myself very much included, spend far too much of our thoughts and energies concerned with what is wrong with others. Far too much. The internet is overloaded with it. Social media make it a million times worse. They allow us, with hardly a thought or any effort, to spread the most malicious garbage and to make that sinful putrescence go viral. They incline us to always, always be mindlessly scrolling through a morass of gossip, and often calumny and detraction.

To waste our time just reading it is bad enough. It fills our minds and clouds our judgment. It drives out introspection. It crowds out time and focus for prayer. It saps away our energy and time that could easily be spent on building each other up and enjoying friendships. Not only may we sin by omission or sloth, we are positively missing out on good.

Social media and their ilk lead us so very easily into rashly judging others, far beyond simply discerning good and bad. It takes quite a lot of self discipline to learn of the sins of others without falling into judging them, and I will go out on a limb saying that very few of us have the discipline to avoid falling into judging others. If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is true.

And the more remote a person is from us, paradoxically, the more swift we are to rush to judgment of them. It is paradoxical because the more remote they are, the less likely we are to either have enough accurate information and the less out of place our judgment would be (referring back to the exceptions to the rule above).

But when we share gossip, we magnify the gossip. We potentially (and likely I dare say) magnify the calumny and/or detraction. In doing that--in itself--we are sinning, potentially gravely. I do not say that lightly. These are serious, grave sins we are talking about here, and they can have serious, real consequences for others, in addition to damaging our relationship with God and severely stunting our spiritual growth. And--as if we needed another reason to avoid it!--when we share, we are leading others into the very same sins and increasing the damage done to the people being talked about. Quite a potent concoction of evil!

This is real, serious stuff, folks. It is just as serious as any sin of the flesh, and very often more so. We should not try to excuse ourselves. We should not try to minimize the gravity. We should not allow ourselves to look the other way or make excuses and rationalizations. We need to come to terms with this spiritual pandemic and how it has affected us all. We need to take immediate and concerted action to start resisting the Devil on this front!

None of us is immune. None of us should imagine we are too holy to be touched by it. None of us should think our knowledge, wisdom, and judgment are so great that we may not err ourselves. We ought not think for a second that it is not we who are the one straying and needing to be brought back into the fold. Seriously. Seek God in prayer daily on this. Cultivate humility.

Social media. Blogging. YouTube. Snapchat. Facebook. Twitter. All of them. These are not morally neutral things. They are not just "harmless fun" that we can feel free to mindlessly engage in. We also need to recognize that we can very easily become agents of the Devil and that social media allows our agency to be magnified greatly. Just because it is so easy to share does not mean that sharing has no moral weight. On the contrary, it has great weight.

The little things we do often, day to day, form us; they build habits. These can be habits of sin or habits of holiness. We have to decide to form habits of holiness.

So how can we decide what to share? It's a lot easier than it seems.

1) If something is revealing the faults of another (supposed or real), we should not share. Why? Because it may not be true. You don't know for sure that it isn't. Especially nowadays, faking information or distorting it into untruth, is easier than it ever has been. And you can't trust that "your friend" who shared it has done due diligence either. Most people just read headlines and decide to share or not from that. Just because it appeals to you or resonates with your point of view and your pre-formed opinion (a.k.a., prejudice) about that person, persons, or group does not mean it is true. It is better to avoid sinning than to risk it.

2) If something mainly provides cause for anxiety and worry, without any up side or anything that can meaningfully be done, don't share. We humans have a knack for have an exaggerated need to know and to feel like we are in the know. Whole industries thrive on this drive within us. Click bait works because of it. It leads us to consume all sorts of information that does us more damage than good. You don't know if that thing you shared will be the thing that pushes someone over the edge. It's just not worth risking it. The world has enough darkness; there is no need to magnify it.

If something is important, it will find its way to you. Trust me. I've lived this. It works, and I'm a much happier person with more time and energy for good things because of my efforts to cut out "news" and nearly all of my social media.

I'd wager if we cut out these two kinds of sharing, we'd bring social media almost to a stand still. Most "news" organizations would go out of business (a good thing). And we'd all be so very much better off, both emotionally and spiritually.

Let's heed the advice of St. Paul in his closing remarks to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

If we simply align what we share and consume with these attributes, we'll not only be avoiding sin but will be a blessing to each other. God bless you!