The Anatomy of a Sin

The first reading from today’s Mass is an extraordinary moral tale from the  Book of Daniel. It is the story of Susanna. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly it is missing from Protestant Bibles which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel.

It features the story of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden two older men who have hidden themselves there out of lust try to seduce Susanna who rebuffs their brazen overture. They threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in garden if she does not give way to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through on their threatened lie. They further demand that she should be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue and, through crafty interrogation, exposes their lie for what it is. The story is a small masterpiece. If you have never read it,  you should. In the course of its engaging tale it gives us a kind of anatomy lesson of sin. It is good to consider the teachings here

Anatomy Lesson One: The Cardinal or Deadly Sins lead to other sins–  The story powerfully shows how lust, one of the seven cardinal, (a.k.a.  capital, or deadly) sins leads to numerous other sins. This is the nature of the seven deadly sins and explains why they are often called Cardinal Sins. In Latin “cardines” means “hinge”.  Hence, the seven deadly sins are like hinges on which many other sins “swing.” In this story the deadly sin of  lust leads to immodest inquiry, violation of privacy, attempted seduction, unjust accusation, exploitation, lies, oppression, and even to attempted murder. King David too had given way to lust and it led to lies, and ultimately to the murder of Uriah the Hittite by David in which David involved not only himself but his generals. This is what the seven deadly sins do, they lead inexorably to other sins.

Anatomy Lesson Two: The Sequential Sources of Sin. In a remarkable description the story describes a threefold source from which their sins spring forth. The text says: They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources from which sin springs.

  1. They suppressed their consciences–  What is the conscience? The Catechism defines it thus: For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776). So in effect the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written his Law in the hearts of every human person. Thus, in terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (eg. the following of certain rituals or feasts days etc.). But in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic and innate grasp of what is right and wrong. Deep down inside we know what we are doing. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity. We also know that things like murder of the innocent, promiscuity, theft, destruction of reputations etc are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing, and we know that we know.   I have written substantially about conscience elsewhere (HERE). But notice that it says that they suppressed their consciences. Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily minds will do is to try and suppress our conscience. To suppress something is to put it down by force, to inhibit or to try and exclude something from awareness or consciousness. The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies and distortions to try and reassure us that something is really OK that deep down inside we know isn’t OK. We accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth that our conscience witnesses to. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim 4:1-3). It is quite and effort to suppress one’s own conscience and I would argue that we cannot ever do it completely. In fact the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is quite an effort and it is very fragile. This helps explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know we are right and often, just the slightest appeal to the conscience to awaken its voice, causes quite an eruption of fear and anger. So here is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly and not face deep psychological pain of significant guilt these men in the story first  suppress their conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain. Step one is underway.
  2. they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven– In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience it is necessary for one to distance himself  from the very source of conscience, God himself. One way to do this is to drift away from God though neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God and association with the Church which speaks for God. Drifting away may become more severe as times goes on and the refusal to repent becomes deeper. Drifting soon becomes absence and absence often becomes outright hostility to anything religious or biblical. Another way that some avert their eyes from heaven is to redefine God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a designer God who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care if I go to church, or shack up with my girlfriend etc.” On being shown scripture quite contrary to their distorted notions of God they simply respond that Paul had hangups, or that the Bible was written in primitive times. But the cumulative effect is that they are no longer looking to heaven or to God, but rather to a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is for the individual to isolate and insulate themselves  from God and what he reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing their conscience. So for these men step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.
  3. and did not keep in mind just judgments– Finally lets throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of  THE sins of our current age. This final stage is meant to eliminate  the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. The sinner at this stage has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and even a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin when the voice of conscience was less layered over and muted. But still some fear remains so now an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of God’s holiness which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of hell which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and holds that there is no judgment to be faced. However he does it, he must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Then, having suppressed the voice of God to the extent he can and having removed himself from heaven’s influence, and denied that anything of negative consequence will come, he is free to sin gravely. It is as though he has taken a number of stiff drinks and anesthetized himself sufficiently to proceed without pain.

But guess what, it’s still there deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Under all the layers of stinking thinking and attempts to insulate oneself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing to prick his conscience causes increasing unease. Anger, projection, name-calling, ridiculing of anyone or anything awaken his conscience will increasing be resorted to. Sin is in full bloom now and repentance seems increasingly difficult or unlikely. Only great prayers and fasting by others for him will likely spring him loose from the deep moral sleep he is currently in. Pray for the conversion of sinners.

Well, since this post has been a little heavy it might be good to end on a lighter note:

11 Replies to “The Anatomy of a Sin”

  1. Amen Msgr Pope.
    In my early twenties, I was offered a modeling career in New York City. Against my father’s wishes, I took it, but I came home almost every weekend. The young women that I met there reminded me of this bible story. Some not all were very innocent, like myself, but were surrounded by men who were very wicked.

    I managed to escape a lot of it, (just like the woman in this story) but other young girls didn’t. I quickly learned the power of sin in the world. I grew up very sheltered and isolated in a lot of worldly things. I saw young innocent girls transform before my very eyes. (girls who never had any initimate relationships with men were now very permiscuous, having abortions without there parents permission, using drugs, etc.) My father’s prayers were with me. I never fell into that trap and was often teased as the “good” girl, but the power of sin and it’s temptation was great for many of these young women. How I managed to resist is a pure grace from God. I am truly thankful.

    Yes, you are right Msgr Pope. It’s very difficult no matter how holy and pious you think you are to escape these cardinal sins once you get in a pattern. We as human beings are creatures of habit. I thank God, for the prayers of my parents. I know now that God’s justice and his mercy are real. Amen.

  2. The story of Susanna is one of my favorite Bible passages for many reasons. One, I can identify with Susanna in a few ways. Two, it’s kind of like CSI: Jerusalem in a sense.

    Regarding sin and feeling guilty, I am the type that can turn almost anything I do into a sin. I feel guilty over little things. I want everybody to be happy and when they aren’t I blame myself. I’m a lot better than I was but I still get told in Confession that some of my sins aren’t actual sins, just me feeling guilty about things I can’t control. I do need to hear that, so I’m always glad when the priest tells me it’s just me overreacting to some things. On the flip side, for some of the things I’ve done I’ve told myself that those things aren’t sins when they really are, and deep down I know that they are sins. For example, I know that having one drink with coworkers is fine, but getting ripping drunk trying to prove that I can drink anything a man can drink is a sin. But yet I would tell myself that getting drunk (don’t worry I always had a DD or took a cab) is my way of letting off steam from the ER, and hey, my coworkers were all drunk too. Some stuff I get confused on, because one priest might tell me it’s not really a sin, but another will say that it is. One of the things I get confused on is smoking cigarettes. I don’t do it very often, usually at work when things are bad, and I do it with my coworkers who smoke all the time. I see smoking as a sin because it damages the body, especially over time. But I have been told because a lot of people do it to relieve stress, it’s not really technically a sin. I mean, to me that’s almost like saying that birth control isn’t a sin because everybody does it. Different example but same principle.

    Regarding consequences of sin, well, with getting drunk one can get quite a nasty hangover. I don’t even want to think about the hangover one of my patients was gonna have because she and her husband got into a drinking competition. My dad also used to say when me and my brother were little that bad things happen to bad people. I guess what that phrase really meant was all the people that majorly sinned or thought they could get away with evil things eventually got their comeuppance in one way or another. Good post, I love that passage, and I like reading your insights on things.

    1. Yes, some matters are more serious than others. I suppose that with all we know of smoking today it is a sin to smoke. Yet too there is a lot of compulsion that may mitigate the guilt.

      1. “there is a lot of compulsion to mitigate the guilt”

        Nicotine is more addictive than Heroine. I wish I payed more attention in my substance abusice classesa to be really bright here, but there are additives to tobacco to make it even MORE addictive in cigarette form than it would be alone. Have some sympathy- cigarettes are HIGHLY addictive and a VERY difficult habit/addiction to break.

  3. Is this what is meant by the hardening of the heart in Hebrews 3:1-19 which refers to the Old Testament and the freeing from slavery? Is our conscience our heart? Why does it refer in both testaments to God allowing or causing the hardening of hearts? How does one recover from this? Does one still have a small portal where grace may enter? When we get to Heaven I would suppose that God will answer all of these questions.

    1. It is related to but is not the same as the hardening of heart described in Heb 3. The ehart is the place of the will and decision. Whereas the mind, related to the heart, is where the intellect resides. Truth be told in biblical theology theres a little overlap. But the hardening of the heart in Heb 3 it seem refers specifically to deeping patterns of sin in the will. St. THomas locates the conscience it in the intellect as a dictate of practical reason. As for God hardening people’s heart, this is an example of Scripture’s frequent recourse to something known as primary causality. This mode of understanding has almost entirely disappeared fom the modern intellect but it was common in biblical times. In effect it reasons that everything that happens has God for its first cause since God is the ultimate cause of everything. To put it in Greek terms God is the first and unmoved mover of everything. The Bible is correct in this attribution of everything to God as first Cause. However, sophistication (not very evident today) is required to handle the concept properly. Today we almost exclusively dwell on secondary causality wherein we attribute everything to man, or some aspect of the material world. To say God is the first cause of everything is to recognize that he hold all creation together and that everything that is is sustained and moved by God. Hence we can say that someone’s is heart is hardened, that God “did” it. But primary causality is not the same as saying that God arbitrarily plays with us and moves us about like marionettes. There is a mysterious interaction between our freedom (a secondary causality) and God’s omnipotence and sovreignty (Primary causality). Again, sophistication is needed when handling Primary Causality wherein the balance of God’s sovereignty and our freedom is maintained.

      As long as we live we can still receive the grace of repentance.

  4. The story of Susanna can be view from a legal aspect. Having tried many cases in Administrative Law, we are always looking for the truth. The elders in this story simply lied. The Catchism of the Catholic Church adresses the “Offenses against the Truth,” in section 2474-2487, as false witness and perjury. When made publicy a statement contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity. In court it becomes false witness. (2476) When it is under oath, it is perjury. (2482) A lie consists in speaking falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil. (2484) The gravity of the lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intention of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. Therefore, the measure of justice is measured by the weight of the sin. The egregious sin of the elders was the attack on the very virtue and goodness of Susanna. Susanna’s pure belief in God Truth kept her in the light of his protection. The Truth of course being Jesus Christ who declared: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; John 14:6

  5. That’s really good!

    I was reminded of those people whom I’ve known (in college, in the army, and other places) who’ve built up their wall of ethos so high so as to deceive others to bend some to their will, which is often inclined toward sin. I cannot forget the girls from “that one sorority” who were kicked out of college and cannot enter another accredited college for ten years, because they all worked together, for an alumna of their sorority in the CLEP office. They were accepting money from their friends to submit CLEP scores to the the University from tests that were never taken. Those same girls moralized against so many people. They were accusers of so many.

    But I knew who they were before they got caught. I knew them despite their wall of ethos. And although it seemed to scandalize one girl, I persuaded her not to enter that sorority because I knew their hearts (that is very difficult to say by the way). Anyway, it was my girlfriend, but not after that. But I knew that she would be used by them for her money. I was right, she was saved, and the girls were kicked out of college and the sorority almost shut down.

  6. Fascinating post Msgr. I have a friend who on the first Friday after Ash wednesday stopped by to give my son a gift. He mentioned that he was going to a BBQ place for dinner. I kindly reminded him that it is Friday and Lent began. He looks up and says, “Well I am not a really a strict follower, so he won’t hold it against me.” Then he looks up, this time in genuine concern and says, “Oh man it is Friday huh?” I thought he would realize and change plans or eat something else. Instead, he laughs it off saying, “Well the line will be shorter, I guess”. I felt sad. For one, he is a dear friend of mine and I don’t like to see my friends sin. What saddened me more is that he knew what he was doing. He acknowledged it, expressed concern and decided to do it anyway. Finally, and most amazingly, he figured since he didn’t follow God closely,, the Lord would understand and give him a pass! I have recently noticed among my friends and some others that think aslong as you don’t choose to follow, you can’t be subject to his punishment. I can’t believe that people, professed Roman Catholics, think there is another way besides through our Lord Jesus Christ, that they can inherit heaven and even worse, avoid hell.
    I wanted to do something so I sent a nice card and a set of Rosarys to him and his family. They have been through some tough times and I was not sure of their current attitude toward our Lord. But since I didn’t know, why act like I did, so I sent them. Admittedly I was not sure of the seal on the envelope, but not enough to double tape it, I mean that sucker was sealed! However, I just asked the Lord for a sign that I did the right thing. My friend called me up telling me an interesting story. Apparently, when he received the package there was only one set of rosarys. Confused, he waited and low and behold the next day the mailman came back with the other two rosarys simply stating, “I found these between my seat, I think they are yours.” My friend said he never had that happen, especially the mailman coming back. I guess they were meant to get there. I feel better but am still saddened because he thanked me and told me he hung them from his rear view mirror. I even sent them instructions on saying the Rosary hoping they would give it a try. I know they have to choose for themselves but It really bothers me how people can so casually deny the Lord, then, when given an offering easily dismiss it. It’s not about me, I need no thanks, but it is the Lord working through me and even then they just don’t see or don’t want to see, I am not sure which one. But I tried and if things ever get really bad I pray they remember the gesture and look to the Lord. God Bless you Father.

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