Ignatian Retreat in Daily Life

"FInding God in all Things"

What is Sin?

                                                                      (Printable version in Word)



Discovering more deeply my constant need for God’s forgiving and merciful love.



Preparing for this period of Prayer


I consciously bring myself into the presence and loving gaze of God. I keep in mind that God looks upon me with longing, and I ask for God’s blessing on my efforts at this prayer.


Then I ask for what I want.





Turning first to the Father, then to the Son and then to Mary, the mother of Jesus, I ask for what I want:


That God will continue to reveal to me the mystery of sin in my life and move me to sorrow for that sin so that I seek more and more to surrender into the forgiving and renewing love of God.



During This Period of Prayer


I read slowly, the material below, asking God to help me notice, with God’s eyes, the movements that stir within me. And I talk with God about what I notice.



Some years ago, TIME magazine ran a cover story about AIDS in Africa. It challenged: “Look at the pictures.  Read the words.  And then try not to care.” In the report, the authors note that “so far 17 million have died.  At least 25 million may follow.”  Medicines are available from “American – and a European – owned multinational pharmaceutical corporations” to help those already infected and to slow down the spread of the disease. the report claims, however, that the “… home governments, notably Washington, have worked hard to keep prices up by limiting exports to the Third World and vigorously enforcing patent rights.”  And though an argument can be and is being made by the drug companies for their actions, TIME rightly asks “… at what point does the human benefit to desperate, destitute countries outweigh strict adherence to patents and profits?”


An example like this reinforces what we already know, viz., that we live in a world filled with suffering and evil.  Dare we call it a sinful world, or is it a world full of sinners? Do we shirk responsibility for personal sin when we talk of governments and corporations being sinful? Do we use today’s social sciences to explain away responsibility for personal destructive behavior that yesterday was called sin?  Indeed, what is sin?


Sin is not merely an action, open parentheses or the failure to act as in the AIDS situation).  For example, to kill another person is an action that cannot be judged to be immoral or in illegal until we know why the life was taken.  Intention is crucial.  And even then, we cannot label a perpetrator as a sinner since we never know with certainty what the subjective disposition of a person is. Aside from the person acting, (or not acting as in the AIDS example above), only God knows the subject to disposition of a person, that is, his or her intention or lack thereof, the capacity or lack thereof to choose freely.


Sin involves intention.  We may speak of governments, corporations, boards, etc., acting in sinful ways, but that is not going to help us understand what sin is.  Intention comes from individual human beings.  And individual human beings must take responsibility for their actions or lack of actions which result from their intentions.


Our actions take place in this world, and thereby affect other people.  Other people are created and loved by God just as I am.  God has a relationship with them just as God has with me.  For me to choose to hurt another person is to hurt also those who love that person, including God.  This hurt affects my relationship with the other person and my relationships with those who love that person, including God.  Consider how you would feel if someone hurt your mother or father whom you love so much.  Thus, sin has both a vertical dimension (between God and me) and horizontal dimension (between another and me and those loving the other).  The choice of turning away from her relationship with another person by hurting that person, including God, is what we call “sin,” and its seriousness depends upon not only the severity of the hurt but also the degree to which I intend and choose to turn away.  The same reasoning should be applied to myself as a person.  Because God loves me, I hurt God whenever I choose to hurt myself.


Our lack of actions also takes place in this world, and thereby affects other people. For me to choose not to help another person when I can is to choose not to help those who love that person, including God.  The choice of turning away from her relationship with another person by not helping that person when we can is what we call a “sin of omission.” For example, continually to satisfy my own bonds and never to help meet the needs of the poor must hurt God who loves the poor as well as the rich; never to speak out against the corporate greed or racism or hatred or violations of human rights must heard God who loves those victimized.



The church has traditionally labeled as a “mortal” stand a person’s choice to reject God completely.  Any relationship with God is dead. The person knows that he or she is dealing with a serious hurt to another person known to be wrong, yet fully intends and chooses to pursue this course of action.


It can happen that we find ourselves in situations where we choose not to reject the relationship with another person or with God totally, but to favor our own desires such that our relationships with the other person and with God become strained.  The church’s traditional label for this situation is “venial” sin.


More often than not, however, we find ourselves going through our days not paying too much attention to our choices and failing to realize that these inadvertent actions or lack of actions can cause her to others, even serious hurt.  We can damage our relationships with others, including God, without intending to do so.  Hence, we should frequently look back and examine our actions as manifestations of what our interior disposition is.  We then must ask ourselves whether or not this disposition is my intention, my choice.  Do I continue with it or do I choose to change it?  Do I choose to foster or damage relationships?


Take, for example, the student who at the last minute is persuaded by friends to party one weekend even though there are papers to be written and tests to be prepared for.  If he or she gives it any thought, there is only one thought, and that is that everyone needs to take a break.  Fair enough!  But what if this happens every weekend?  Around midterm, the student looks back and realizes he or she is hurting self by partying rather than growing as a person with God-given gifts to be used.  The decision has to be made; it is time to choose.  To choose to go to a party is not sinful.  To choose to neglect one’s primary responsibility is hurtful to self, to others, and to God.  It is what we call “sin.”


On Ash Wednesday, the minister of the ashes tells us: “turn away from sin, and be faithful to the gospel.”


Instead of traditionally giving up candy or whatever during Lent, perhaps an honest look back on and examination of my actions and lack of actions as manifestations of my interior disposition would be more profitable.  Do I see my disposition turning toward or away from a loving relationship with others, including God?  Do I find that my disposition is faithful to or neglectful of the gospel?  How do I evaluate my disposition when I hear the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink;… when I was sick, you visited me…” (Matthew 25:31 to 46)


“Look at the pictures.  Read the words.  And then try not to care.”  I can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the evil (“25 million deaths may follow”) and I can assign responsibility to faceless entities (“multinational corporations”) and I can explain away behavior (“exports to the Third World”) and I can refuse to interfere (“patent rights”) and I can say there is no sin on my part.


Let me be honest, however, and look at pictures of life right before me in my own neighborhood.  Let me hear the words of those who are suffering in my own city.  And let me try to care.  For if I do not, then I will know what sin is.



Concluding this Prayer


Then I make my colloquy with Jesus on His cross, letting the three questions rise in me:

What have I done for Christ?     What am I doing for Christ?     What ought I do for Christ?

End with the Lord’s Prayer.

                                                                  (Printable version in Word)