Being raised Catholic I grew up believing in a system in which there were two types of sins; mortal and venial. Mortal sins were the ones which, if left unconfessed, would result in eternal damnation. These included the heavy hitters like rape, murder, robbery, adultery and skipping church. The venial sins were the ones that weren’t so horrible; gluttony, lying, gossiping, laughing at Sister Perfecta, etc. etc. We were told that just to think about committing any sin was as bad as doing it. Sort of .
Becoming a Protestant I found out that all sins were equal in the eyes of God – that God, being so pure and holy couldn’t stomach anything sinful that we did (which was pretty much everything). No such thing as mortal or venial sins here – all sins, even sticking a wad of chewing gum under your desk – would land you in hell. Like the Catholics, just thinking about the sin was as bad as doing it. [Ever find your eyes wandering a little too far south when chatting to a pretty lady? (or handsome man, as the case may be) Bam! Instant Adultery! ]
When I was a Catholic I had the opportunity to take confession as often as I liked just so long as it was at least once a week. If I did my penance God would forgive every sin I remembered to confess. I used to sweat bullets. The big ones like murder I could remember – but all those venial sins? I was going to need a reservation at an Extended Stay Purgatory. (At least after a million years or so I should be allowed to join the big party going on upstairs.)
Being Protestant was much easier – almost. I knew that Christ had forgiven all my sins – past, present and future. No need to find a padre – I could appeal right to the big guy himself. No mortal or venial sins either – one was as bad as the next. But I had my doubts about this. True – I could expect continuing struggles with sins like staying under the speed limit or lying when my wife asks me if I liked her new dress. God would understand those. But, if I persisted in running guns for the Shining Path militia or drinking Anchor Steam while wearing those skimpy little skirts at the local R&B club, there was a darn good chance that I hadn’t been ‘saved’ at all. In fact, I was probably on the road to you-know-where. It looked like I was going to miss good old Purgatory.
In spite of this practical double standard the repeated mantra was “All sins are equal in the eyes of God“. I thought of my sweet little Aunt Dorothy, who (in addition to the fact that she was a Papist) was known to have an occasional glass or two (or three) of Jim Beam before supper. If her drinking was a sin (as some said) did God really find it just as appalling as the Colombian drug lord who fed his competitors into his Husqvarna wood chipper? Boy, if God was so big and far above us that he couldn’t see that difference then it was going to be tough working out this personal relationship thing. But even Jesus seemed to think that there were certain things that one could do that were worse than others; “The servant who knows what his master wants and ignores it, or insolently does whatever he pleases, will be thoroughly thrashed. But if he does a poor job through ignorance, he’ll get off with a slap on the hand. Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities!” (Luke 12: 47-48)
What about all those times that I dreamed of busting my old boss right in the kisser? Did God think that this was just as bad as if I had actually hauled off and knocked his teeth out? (George Carlin speaks more eloquently on this topic so dust off that old copy of “Class Clown” and listen to what he has to say about Ellen). I often hear that we should be careful (and we should be) when we criticize others because we are just as guilty as them, no matter what they do or say. We’ve all had sinful thoughts so perhaps we should just avoid the confrontation. After all, who are we to talk? But I’ve stopped buying into that argument. Though we should avoid it as much as possible, thinking evil is not nearly the same thing as doing evil. To use this as an excuse to avoid respectful confrontation may very well be what we used to call the ‘sin of omission’. As Edmund Burke said; “ All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”
Now I’ve come to an understanding that all sin is the same in the eyes of God because there is really only one sin -thinking of ourselves first, before God and before others. Sin is not an action – it’s a state of mind and spirit. And depending upon how much we put our will before God’s often determines how rotten our actions will be. Maybe it’s not that God sees all the sinful things that we do as being equal, but that he sees all of us equally. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10) There are those times when we are thinking of our own selfish desires yet we still act in opposition to those desires, putting God first. Of course, the best thing would be for us to automatically and always have our hearts in the right place. But love takes time.
How do you see it?