Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rationalizing Sin

This is a reprint of part of an article I wrote last January.

I am putting it up again because a reader was recently very moved by it, and also because it speaks directly to a situation I encountered last week in Duluth, and also because the whole sad story of Liars making bad theological excuses for Lying, even at the cost of trashing the Catechism, comes down to this: rationalizing sin.

And, as I say in this post, for each of us far more effort goes into rationalizing sin than into sin itself.  Seeing our sins for what they are leads to shame and repentance.  Rationalizing them away leads to misery.

***

An excerpt from The Burden of Carrying the False Cross (January 20, 2013)


I knew a man who struggled very hard with something.

He had been involved in a relationship that was tantamount to adultery, a quasi-friendship with a woman who was not his wife, conducted mostly via email over the internet.  There was much good in this woman and much good in the relationship, though it was not a friendship - sometimes it was too emotionally intimate and at other times it was astonishingly cold and dead.  He was close with this "other woman" without any mention of sex or any intention of sex - though there was a basic mutual attraction that fueled the thing.  He felt on the one hand guilty and on the other hand blessed - for it was a good and a bad thing mixed.  There was a kind of love involved, but not really, as there was a great Unreality or contrived character to what was going on, and whenever life got real, this "virtual affair" would simply fade; she wanted no part of reality when it came to him.  And it could never really lead anywhere - there was no payoff, no natural fulfillment toward which to work; he was trying to be a good Christian and so even building to a sexual climax was out of the question - even one borne out of fantasy; there was no family life to be had with this lady, as they both had their own real families elsewhere; and consequently there was no fruit to be borne from what they were doing - other than an ongoing and rather painful struggle to be "friends" when they weren't really friends, and ....

And so on.

He bore this burden for a long time.  I don't know how the woman endured it, or if it even seemed burdensome to her, as I did not know her as well.

I do know that there was a sudden and dramatic turning point.

"It's simply a sin," he said one day to me.  "I've got to walk away - even though there's good and bad mixed. It's simply a sin and it's killing me."  He stopped trying to rationalize it.  He stopped trying to excuse himself.  He stopped pointing out the obvious, that neither of them had intended any harm.  He simply put an end to it.

He freely admitted that they had both had the best intentions.  They really had never intended to lead each other astray or to be untrue to their states in life.  And they were both good people.  Good people doing a bad thing.  Not so bad that he left his wife or had sex with this girl ("Although," he told me, "If there had been sex involved, it would have been more clear what we were doing."), but bad enough that the energy and the Eros that should have gone to his family or his career or his spiritual life, was going down a kind of black hole.  It was going down the drain.

***

Masturbation is like this.  Pornography is like this.  All sin is like this.

All sin is an assertion of our own Unreality in the face of and in spite of God's Reality, which we reject because it's too intensely painful and too intensely joyful; we'd rather game the system and play with our little toy theaters and our doll houses instead of walking on the stage of real life and playing the parts assigned us.  For the latter is beyond our control, while the artificial is our own script to manage.  You see, God is Reality, and He is frightening no matter how we placate Him.

But sin is also like this in one other very important way that I've never heard mentioned.

Sin's most taxing burden is our constant effort to rationalize it.

The psychic energy that goes into an adulterous one night stand is minimal - there's a quick thrill, a quick regret and a quick return to God (in the best case scenario).  The psychic energy that goes into something that we're telling ourselves is not-a-sin has no limit.

***

"Take up your cross and follow Me."  But first put down your false cross and stop following yourself.

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