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We are saved from sin and for life in the family of God. In order to enter into this reality, we have to come to grips with the reality of the problem of sin, as well as the true grandeur of what God has done for us.
Believers tend to have a greater cognizance of the reality of sin — of original sin and its ongoing influence over our lives. For the secular world, however, sin is often explained away in terms of a bad example, lack of education, or an inadequate social structure. While these explanations have some truth in them, they don’t do full justice to the reality of the problem (see CCC 387). After all, sin is not merely an intellectual problem — we often know what we should do and still fail to do it.
The Reality of Sin
Original sin refers to the fallen nature we inherit — a deep dysfunction within the human race. The animal world tends to operate on instinct, acting in accordance with its particular animal nature. For example, a wren generally builds its nest year after year according to its kind. In contrast, consider the vast diversity of human dwellings at present and throughout history. This diversity of human behavior shows that while sometimes instinct is operative, we clearly also have the presence of reason and free will — something lacking in the animal world (and hence the uniformity of animal behavior according to instinct).
The Addiction of Sin
This difference gives rise to both the possibility of human grandeur and human depravity (i.e., animals won’t ever paint the Sistine Chapel, but nor will they perform the extreme acts of wickedness that have marked human history).
In creating free human beings, God took the risk of love: for us to encounter him in a relationship of love, we must be free; but this freedom comes at a price and a risk — giving rise to the possibility that we might misuse our freedom.
When we consider original sin, The Lord of the Rings trilogy offers a powerful analogy — for the ring, though attractive, quickly takes over many a life (the power of the ring is like the power of sin). Sin is like an addiction, a force that draws us in, promising instant happiness, but yet leading to an unsettled and unfulfilled heart.
Conscience Is Not Enough
If the unbeliever looks deep within his or her heart in a searching manner, they will likely notice that they often have desires which are not in line with right reason — hence, it is often difficult to do the right thing. When our reason is at odds with our passions and desires, we have two options: we can realign our desires with right reason; or, as happens more often than not, we can devise “reasons” to justify doing what we want to do (i.e., rationalization).
This common phenomenon shows just how precarious the clarity and power of human conscience truly is: on the one hand, we can rightly see in it the voice of God; on the other hand, we can very easily twist and distort its ability to see the truth and follow it through. In other words, it’s all too easy for our consciences to be dulled over time and get “used” to sin. Consider the first time you did something that beforehand you couldn’t possibly imagine yourself doing; while it was really hard the first time, the prick of conscience gets a little softer and a little less poignant with each subsequent time — to the point where, after a while, it may no longer bother you at all.
The Reality of Salvation
In becoming man, God enters our mess — he becomes one of us in Jesus Christ; he enters into our dysfunction and dies our death. Jesus becomes the bridge between God and man, sharing in our humanity in order to infuse it with his divinity.
There are two issues which God wishes to attend to: we need to be forgiven of our sin and healed of the wounds caused by our sin. Our choices are not merely external to us; our sin wounds us in the process — for we are constantly becoming a certain kind of person through our choices. Whenever we feed a habit — good or bad — it gets stronger each time. Sin, as an addiction, grows in its dominion over us each time we give into it.
To use an analogy, if our sins are represented by nails in a piece of wood, then forgiveness is signified by the removal of the nails. But even after the nails have been removed, we are still left with holes in the wood — these holes then represent the way in which sin wounds us.
If forgiveness is signified by the removal of the nails, then God’s filling in the holes signifies his work of healing in our lives. For God wishes not only to forgive, but to heal and ultimately transform.