In this Sunday’s first reading, we see the aftermath of the Fall as Adam and Eve hide from God in their shame and guilt. Of course, as we now live in a fallen world darkened by all kinds of sin, it is easy for us to wonder why it was so difficult for them to obey a straightforward command. Had they done so, they would have received the benefits of living in a perfectly harmonious world in union with God. This presents an excellent opportunity to explore the nature of sin, so we can be better equipped to navigate our own path to holiness. In 1981, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) gave four homilies on the theology of creation, later published as a book entitled, In the Beginning… For this article, I will refer to the fourth homily in the series — “Sin and Salvation.”

Let’s first look at the Church’s formal definition of sin:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.” (CCC #1849)

While the entire definition is worth meditating on, there are three points within it I would like to highlight before moving on. First, sin is caused by a perverse attachment to goods. Remember, God made everything good. Second, sin wounds the nature of man. Our nature is also good, but vulnerable. Third, sin injures human solidarity. To be in relationship with one another is central to our reason for being. Using Ratzinger’s wisdom, we can move more deeply into how sin works.

As I already stated, Adam and Eve lived in a perfect environment. Ratzinger says, “The garden is an image of the world which to humankind is not a wilderness, a danger, or a threat, but a home, which shelters, nourishes, and sustains.” This is practically inconceivable to us as we live in a much different world, yet it still serves as the setting for the first sin. So, you would think that Eve would be suspicious when the serpent came to entice her because his suggestion would seemingly stand in contrast to her surroundings. However, since God made everything good, the fruit she was not supposed to eat was also good. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). Believe it or not, Satan lures us in through what we perceive as good because if it were repulsive, it would be easy to turn away.

Ratzinger explains how Satan takes something good and twists it just enough to cause us to fall:

Temptation does not begin with the denial of God and with a fall into outright atheism. The serpent does not deny God; it starts out rather with an apparently completely reasonable request for information, which, however, contains an insinuation that provokes the human being and that lures him or her from trust to mistrust: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?”

Do you see what Satan did there? He simply asked her a question that provoked her to mistrust God’s command and, therefore, doubt his covenant with her. Ratzinger explains that, at this point, Eve, rather than seeing God’s command as a way to protect her and keep her safe, sees it as a limitation or threat to her human freedom. Satan planted the seed of distrust. However, humans are creatures and not God, so we must have limitations because only God is limitless. When limitations like rules and moral standards are placed on us, we rebel because we want to “be like God” (Gen 3:4). When a person falls into this trap, Ratzinger says, “They do not make themselves gods, which in fact they cannot do, but rather caricatures, pseudo-gods, slaves of their own abilities, which then drag them down.”

Looking back to the definition of sin, the second and third points I highlighted are interrelated — the vulnerability of man’s good nature and its relationship to human solidarity. Man’s very nature is founded on love and relationship. God created us out of love to share a relationship with him and reveal him through our love of others. Ratzinger states, “It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live…for himself or herself alone.” Sin, then, is a relational issue as we pit ourselves against one another and God as we are all trying to be gods of our own making through our sins. Despite modern society’s attempts to convince us otherwise, sin affects not only the person sinning but also the people with whom we are in relationship.

Ratzinger then proceeds to take the relational aspect of sin beyond our personal relationships, referring to the “network of human relationships” in which every person exists. If human nature is relational, and sin damages relationships, then the entire network suffers from the damage, no matter how far removed a person might be from one sinful act or another. To illustrate this, consider a personal relationship damaged by you or another person through sin. The damage then causes wounds that manifest in ways such as distrust, built-up walls, or cynicism. Then, you bring those negative effects to your other relationships, which cause more damage, and so on. This is why the world looks like it does today. We are experiencing the repercussions of generations of sin and damaged relationships that continue to affect the network of humanity into the present.

I realize this sounds rather depressing, so I want to end with a message of hope. Ratzinger began his homily by lamenting the difficulty of preaching a message of repentance when the concept of sin has become so convoluted. How can someone repent if they don’t think their actions are wrong? He said we have no moral standard because we “see standards as threats to [our] freedom.” He says the antidote to this is found in the truth. The truth is the person of Jesus Christ, the one who came to restore our wounded relationships when we repent of the sins that caused the damage. It is not through sinning that we find the fullness of our freedom, but it is in responding to the truth and living in the love for which we were created that we are genuinely free and our most authentic selves.

At the beginning of this reflection, I stated that every sin originates from some good that Satan twists ever so slightly to create disorder. How do you see that reality playing out around you in the world? How do you see it play out in your pursuit of holiness? How do his subtle suggestions cause disordered thinking when you listen to him? Ask Jesus to shine the light of truth where Satan has sown his lies so that you and others can repent and be restored.

In the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

Help us to free ourselves from our refusals and our doubt concerning God’s covenant, from our rejection of our limitations and from the lie of our autonomy. May it direct us to the Tree of Life, which is our standard and our hope. May we be touched by the words of Jesus in their entirety: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

 

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