Get five Catholics in a room and ask them what sin is, and you'll get six definitions. You may hear about venial and mortal sins. You'll probably hear a very long list of dont's. In the end you'll be convinced that no matter what you do you're headed straight for hell.
Sin plays a big role in Catholicism. We fear its ultimate consequences. We sometimes talk too much about it, other times hardly at all. We have a sacrament through which our sins are forgiven, yet few of us participate in it because we're scared to face it. Even so, living with the guilt of sin can be crushing.
Sin rightly gets a bad rap, but do we really know what it is?
If we boil down all the things we do but shouldn't, and all the things we didn't do but should have, we find that sin is about only one thing: breaking our relationship with God.
Sin means to miss the mark, like a lousy archer would. The target in this case is God. St. Augustine (St. Monica's son) said about it: "Sin is love of oneself … to the contempt of God." When we do stuff that puts distance between us and God (or between us and other people), that's sin.
It ends up that lists of sins like the ones we learned in CCD don't serve us well because they're not from the heart. It’s in our hearts that we really know when and how we dented and scratched our relationship with God.
We need to find the everyday ways we miss the mark. A judgment, a look, a comment, a chuckle, a feeling of superiority or entitlement, these little things get us in trouble now and lead to bigger problems later. The devil's strategy is death by a thousand cuts.
The hospital for all those cuts is reconciliation. When we confess from the heart, rather than from a list, we can be sure that all our wounds are bound-up and cared-for by our God who is compassionate and merciful. Sin comes from the heart, so it’s through the heart that we're forgiven, just as the psalmist tells us: "My transgressions, truly I know them … a broken and humbled heart, O God, you will not spurn."
This originally appeared in the Church of St. Monica's weekly bulletin.