The Downward Spiral of Sin

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,

There is only Good and Evil

In our secular society, people like to say there is no white or black, just shades of gray. While this makes sense when talking about complex issues, for which there is no solution that solves every problem, it definitely does not make sense when it comes to morality. There is no gray to God. Every single word, thought, or action is either good or evil. Liberal people like to think every action is gray, so they don’t have to worry about right and wrong. What’s wrong for one person, is right for someone else. This is just not true.

We Catholics have a sense of how good or evil a particular word, thought or action is. For evil actions, we have the doctrine on venial and mortal sin, which gives a clear dividing line between small sins and serious sins (CCC 1854-1855). Even without that doctrine we can get an understanding of a sin’s weight based on the damage it does to the victim. For good actions, how much sacrifice the person has to go through to do the good action gives us a rough idea of how good the action was. A polite thank you doesn’t involve much sacrifice, but a person donating one of their kidneys for a loved one to live is a pretty big sacrifice.

Because of our faith, we can kind of tell roughly how good or evil any word, thought, or action is. From there we can see that there is no gray. Every action is clearly good or evil (CCC 1470, 1732). Some actions might be only a small good, others might only be a small evil, but they are still one or the other. There is no gray. Knowing this means that even some things that seem irrelevant to morality, like watching TV, are either good or evil. If done to excess, watching TV would be evil. If done in moderation, it would be good. Watching TV may only be a very minor good or evil, but it is still one or the other in every instance.

Another thing many secular people believe in is “the end justifies the means”. I already wrote about this in another post, but this false belief states that an evil action is okay if it has a good end (CCC 1753). We Catholics are against this because we can never do evil ever, but secular people consider the overall effect of the action to be gray. They see the evil (black) combine with the good (white) to become gray. The truth is it is only gray when both the means and the end are combined. There was only one action done here though, and that action was evil. No matter what the end was, it was evil, a sin, to do that. The morality of an action must be judged individually. The consequences help determine how good or how evil the action is, but consequences can’t change the morality of the original action (CCC 1755-1756).

It is important for Catholics to analyze their sins and those of others for good and evil. A lot of times people will try to justify their actions by believing in the idea that a word, thought, or action could be gray. It makes them feel better about their sin. Instead, we should be honest with ourselves and others about our failings and admit them. As Bible said, sin should be exposed to the light (Eph 5:11-14). Rather than trying to cover it up with excuses, we should admit the sin and that we are not perfect (humility, CCC 2631). We are still trying to do better. It is much easier to correct ourselves if we are honest about what we need to work on. It’s like those 12 step programs. The first step is always admitting the existence of a problem. No correction can happen until this first step is completed.

This is a good lesson in general for doing well in life. When there is a problem, tackle it as early as possible. Don’t let it linger and fester. Like an infected wound, it will just continue to get worse. We’ve all read stories about a person’s lie getting them deeper and deeper in trouble. This is even more important for sin because sin always leads to more sin. The more the soul gets sin caked on it, the easier it is for the person to commit more sins. Before they know it they can be so covered in dirt, it’s a ton of work to clean up.

May God bless you with his abundant grace,

Compensating for Sinful Actions

One of the hard teachings of the Church is “the end doesn’t justify the means” (CCC 1753). We would all like to believe that good deeds and bad deeds lay on a scale, with good things being positive and bad things being negative. It is not that way because God had the wisdom to know it would make it harder for people to do the right thing. If the end did justify the means, people would be allowed to “make up for” a sin by doing something good. This would make it easier for people to convince themselves that they could sin. They would get in a habit of doing good deeds just to sin later. In effect, they would be planning to sin. But God doesn’t want us sinning at all. Anything that would make it easier for someone to choose sin is wrong, and so God made sure there was no way we could ever justify sin.

The end doesn’t justify the means can be a discouraging teaching for those that are suffering addictions to serious sin. Just one of those sins is enough to keep them out of heaven. They may think, “Why even try to do good things if I can’t stop this sin? Either way I end up in hell.” While it is true that not being in a state of grace will keep someone out of heaven regardless of how much good they have done (CCC 1861), good deeds can affect sins indirectly.

People that do a lot of good are closer to God, so they receive a lot more grace from God. This grace, called actual grace (CCC 2000), helps a person make good decisions. As long as a person lives, they have access to God’s grace no matter how many bad things they may have done. It can make the addicted person have an easier time choosing to stop their sin. In addition, God is more forgiving of people that do many good deeds. He’s less likely to become angry at a person for continually having to return to the Sacrament of Confession when he knows they are doing many good things. Going over and above with good deeds can even be part of the sinner’s penance to heal from the sin they committed earlier. If they can just gain control of that one sin, they will be a saint. In the same vein as confession comes the idea of “perfect contrition”.

Outside of the Sacrament of Penance (confession), perfect contrition is the only way a person can be forgiven for a mortal sin. A person who is good everywhere else except an addictive sin has a good chance of being capable of perfect contrition. They can’t rely on it, but they have less to worry about. Of course, being in a state of grace through perfect contrition is only a last resort. In order to even qualify for perfect contrition, the person has to intend to receive the Sacrament as soon as they are able (CCC 1452).

Finally, there is a reward for all the good deeds a person does. Both Jesus and St. Paul said each person would be paid in heaven according to their works (Jesus: Mt 16:27, Paul: Rom 2:6-7). I truly believe that the holiest people will occupy a higher place in heaven. All people will still be equal in that all will be in heaven in God’s presence, but I think the holiest people will be closer to God in some way. If that addicted person has any hope of getting away from their sins, they can be comforted in the thought that their sins will not outweigh their good deeds. If they go to confession and are forgiven of the sin, God wipes his memory of the sin, but the good deeds are still there. For a short moment, the person is literally a saint. They have no sin on their soul, yet all these many years of good deeds. If they died that second, they would go to heaven according to all that good work they did.

I decided to write this article because like St. Paul said, I had a thorn in my side for a little while (2 Cor 12:7-8). I found that many times after I committed a sin I felt like trying to compensate for it. I felt so guilty I would make myself do something good. While my actions after the sin were good, they definitely couldn’t compensate for it. Because my good actions couldn’t make up for my sin, it was easy to give up trying to be a good person. Eventually, after much prayer and study of the faith I saw that good deeds still had something to offer me even when I was struggling with sin. Now, whenever I sin, I have a much easier time getting back on track. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can get back to making progress towards holiness.

May God bless you with his abundant grace,