French philosopher, Leon Bloy, a man very instrumental in helping bring Jacques and Raissa Maritain to faith, once stated: “There is only one real sadness in life, that of not being a saint!”
That’s not a statement of piety, but a deep insight into the heart of life itself. Sin makes us sad. Life would be better if we understood that. We’ve always associated sin with badness more than sadness, but we lose something in that equation. Sin makes us more sad than it makes us bad.
Sin can also make us bad because it makes us prone to lie. That’s its ultimate danger. Giving into temptation because of weakness or passion doesn’t make us bad. What does is when we deny, rationalize, excuse ourselves, and accuse others after we sin. That’s what hardens, warps, and embitters the soul.
We see this already in the Adam and Eve story, the first sin. Their disobedience was one thing, but their need afterwards to hide and try to cover themselves, with clothes and excuses, was what ultimately put them outside the garden of joy. We have the same impulse every time we sin, namely, to try to cover and excuse ourselves. We try to make sin all right by denying how it affects us. That, not God’s forgiveness, is the problem.
It’s not about God’s understanding, generosity, or forgiveness that we ever need to worry. God, Jesus assures us, is generous and forgiving beyond our imaginings. Jesus forgives his killers even as they’re murdering him and, as the parable of the vineyard workers who arrive at different hours but still all receive the same reward makes clear, our real problem is not whether or not God is generous, but whether or not we can receive that generosity without weighing merit or being jealous. The danger is not that we won’t receive our due; the danger is more that we might end up getting everything and enjoying nothing. Sadness, not hell-fire, is what looms as the real threat.
The problem with sin is not that it makes us bad or puts us outside God’s love, it’s that it makes us sad, here and now. And this, as we know from experience, is not an abstract thing.
To the exact degree that we sin, we begin to lose our capacity for simple joy, delight, and freshness, and become bored, angry, jealous, and incapable of appreciating anything or praising anyone. To the degree that we sin too, the sound of joy, the sound of what’s childlike and innocent, begins to irritate us and we, almost-automatically, begin to protect ourselves by enfleshing ourselves inside a cocoon of sophistication, cynicism, and hardness. Inside that hardness we too easily begin to see our bad choice as a moral triumph, as a victory for freedom, and as something that has made us smarter and wiser than others.
But, with that comes a sadness that we can’t hide from others even when we try to hide it from ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, we walk out of the garden of innocence with our eyes more open, but with our hearts much less capable of being delighted or inspired.
Sin robs us of our innocence by wounding and killing the child inside. To be innocent, as we know, means to be “un-wounded” and our capacity to experience joy, as know both from experience and scripture, is very much linked to innocence, to what’s still childlike inside us. Sin makes us sad precisely because it makes us sophisticated in a way that wounds the child inside of us. The opposite is also true.
A couple of years ago, a group of young priests asked me to join their support group for one of their weekly meetings. Their group was unlike any group, clerical or lay, with whom I’ve ever spent an evening. They’d come together to support each other in their resolution to try to live out their priesthood in a way that was more honest, transparent, non-compensatory, and saintly. So each week they met and with searing honesty confessed their most private sins and weaknesses to each other. Obviously this made them better priests, and that was their aim. But what surprised them, as a delightful by-product, was that it also made them much, much happier with their lives. Their joy (and their lack of anger, lack of self-pity, and lack of complaint) was palpable.
The youngest member of the group, just thirty-five years old, told me: “Father, I joined this group last year and doing this each week and attempting to live such a radical lifestyle is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never been this happy!”
When the rich young man in the gospels walks away from Jesus’ invitation to radical discipleship, it doesn’t say that he walked away bad, only that he walked away sad. He remained good, sincere, and sad. And isn’t that perennially our situation?