Catholics believe that all sin is evil (CCC 1849-1850). However, as a teenager, I saw three levels: good, neutral, and evil. I wrote in another article how there is no gray area between good and evil, but at the time I sort of believed there was a gray area. I thought of venial sins (CCC 1862-1863) as not ideal but not really evil either: gray. What I didn’t realize then was that sins, no matter how small, lead to future sin. Why is this the case? It’s very simple really: All sin is addictive (CCC 1733, 1865).
A venial sin itself may be easy to avoid, but like I did as a teenager, these little sins make it easier for a person to convince themselves that what they are doing is okay. Venial sins can then become a habit. Once a person has accepted one sin as okay, they can slowly accept that a slightly more serious sin is okay. Before they know it, they could be committing grave sins, not knowing they are keeping themselves out of heaven (CCC 1472). In other cases, they are oblivious to these happenings, feeling like they have no control over their actions, not realizing that one little sin made them more prone to commit many more sins later.
Venial sins may not be as evil as grave sin, but they are just as dangerous. It’s so easy to spiral down into sin. Even if venial sin in one case doesn’t lead someone to grave sin, it will usually lead them to commit more venial sins, and at least make it harder to resist other sins. An example from my life is staying up too late. This is one of my common sins, and it usually leads to more sin later.
By staying up late, I end up getting less sleep for the next day (venial sin). I wake up irritable, not in a good mood. At work, I don’t work as quickly as I should (venial sin) because of the tiredness. I end up disappointed that my workday wasn’t as productive as it should have been. Then I take those negative feelings out on loved ones at home (venial sin). This chain of sin all started from that one seemingly innocent sin of staying up too late. I didn’t commit any grave sins, but it can easily lead to that.
What if I was married? My bad attitude might cause us to get into a big fight. I might have a bad sleep again, leading to more trouble at work and home. This cycle might lead to divorce. What if my fights were with my parents? Well, the cycle might lead to me not talking with my parents. The Church uses “serious” to describe “grave” sins, but I consider even venial sins to be serious. They aren’t serious in their sinful weight as grave sins are; they are serious in how easy they can lead us to spiral out of control.
In the last few years, I have been working on identifying these chains or cycles of sins in my life. The key thing is to find which sin leads to all the rest. One of those “starter” sins for me is staying up late. Just knowing that this sin can lead to so many more sins is enough most nights to keep me going to bed on time. Of course, I’m not perfect and still stay up too late some nights, but now I understand how this chain of sin progresses. In the morning I will feel tired from lost sleep, but I do my best to not let it affect my performance at work. I stop the cycle. It doesn’t always work. Some days the cycle will play out in full, but I have been able to greatly reduce how often this happens. I encourage any readers to also discover your starter sins. If you can just stop those, you can make huge strides in holiness.
The terminology of “cycles” I used here may be familiar to anyone who understands addiction. People addicted to drugs usually find these cycles repeat again in their lives. Part of overcoming their addiction is to understand these cycles and makes changes in their lives to break the cycles. But this doesn’t just apply to drug addictions. Because of original sin, all humans have an inclination to sin (CCC 403) much like the drug addicted have an inclination to take a drug. Some people are struggling more than others, but our physical bodies all want to sin (CCC 2516, Mt 26:41). Many of the approaches that work for drug addiction can help stop or slow down the cycles of sin in our lives. Put another way, drug addiction could be thought as simply one form of inclination to sin. Any recurring sin can be thought of as part of this inclination. Drug addiction happens to be one of the most destructive inclinations, hence being the focus of many discussions.
I have only written about the chain of sins within one’s own life, but the downward spiral of sin can start with one person and move to another (CCC 1869). Imagine a school student named Billy teasing another student named Alan. Alan may start a big fight with Billy, but more likely he will take the pain of being teased with him and spread it around to other people he interacts with. In his next class, maybe he gets in an argument with a classmate. The teacher asks him to quiet down, but Alan talks back to him or her. Alan then gets sent to the principle’s office and punished with detention. At home, Alan takes out his anger on his parents or siblings.
All those little sins the teased student, Alan, committed can lead to more sins against others. The classmate he argued with may go on to sin against another classmate. The teacher may go on to sin against their spouse. Alan’s parents may go on to sin against his siblings. That one little sin Billy committed of teasing another student had far-reaching consequences. Even worse is that he will probably never know the damage his little sin caused. This is why it’s so important to avoid even venial sins. They can lead to a lot of suffering in our lives, but even more in the lives of others. Identify your cycles to reduce the chains of sin in your life, but try as hard as you can to avoid all venial sins. They can lead to devastating results.
May God bless you with his abundant grace,