I’m Okay. I’m Not So Sure About You or the Others…
“But I’m a good person. I try to live the right way and not do anything immoral, illegal or dishonest. Heck, I’m living my life better than a lot of people I know.” These probably are pretty common thoughts. But how accurate are they? Do they reflect reality? Do they take into account the numerous ways we might go against God’s will in our daily routines?
I Have Sinned…in My Thoughts…
Think about the words we pray in the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass. We confess having sinned “…in my thoughts, in my words, in what I have done, and what I have failed to do.” It’s easy to blow through a standard prayer like this more or less superficially. We can recite the prayer from rote memory. Unfortunately, we may not take time to think through what the words really mean. When I think about what they mean to me, it can be alarming.
It can be alarming to reflect on how many times I have sinned “in my thoughts.” Sure—we may default to thinking mostly of certain kinds of thoughts. In Mt. 5: 27-28, Jesus tells us:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Many of us men struggle with controlling our thinking—for example, in dealing with impure thoughts. However, we can fight the battle and not give in to rolling the impure thoughts around in our heads. In doing so, we do not give into temptation and to sin. A priest gave me some good advice on this issue. He suggested that we dash such thoughts against the cross of Christ. In doing so, we should state that we hate and abhor the thoughts for the various reasons they are wrong. We then state that we send the evil one provoking these thoughts to the foot of the cross for Jesus to deal with. How we deal with such thoughts can make the difference between sinning and not. Immediately recognizing them for what they are and casting them off is a good practice to get into.
More on Sins of Thought
Other categories of thoughts might also be considered sins. Consider dwelling on negative, uncharitable or judgmental thoughts about other people. Someone may have cut me off in traffic. They may have taken advantage of their position to my disadvantage. They may have simply been unkind or obnoxious to me. Maybe they’re just disrupting my life at this moment.
It really doesn’t matter what they did to me. I need to look in the mirror and discern how charitable my response has, or has not, been. This applies not only to what I did or said in return, but to what I’ve been thinking. Continuing in the Gospel of Matthew, at Mt 5: 43-45, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Spending time after the fact nurturing our bruised egos, thinking about what we should have said or done is not healthy for us. Reinforcing our reasons for classifying the other person as the bad guy is not charitable or productive. If we take the positions of judge and jury toward that person, we are not living virtuously. If we persist in this kind of thinking, are we not sinning in our thoughts about the other person? On the other hand, it’s part of human nature to get a quick adrenaline rush when something stresses us out. The initial, unpremeditated thought process that occurs is not sinful per se. It’s what we do with it that can create a problem for us.
Sins Against Charity
As the TV commercial spokesperson says, though, “Wait! There’s more!” Jesus tells us:
…I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Mt 5:22
This type of sin doesn’t have to be one of words. Thoughts count here as well. Harboring uncharitable thoughts towards others is a sin against charity. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, OP supervised Pope St. John Paul II in his doctoral dissertation. In his classic work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Garrigou-LaGrange addresses sins against charity. A couple of the many profound points that he makes bear discussion here. For one thing, we need to keep in mind that the evil one intervenes wherever there is an opportunity to disrupt the good that we can bring about with God’s grace. The more good that one tries to do, therefore, the more likely we can expect interference from old hairy legs. At the same time, though, the more opportunities we can find for growth in patience and humility. With every perceived challenge, God gives us an opportunity.
To me this means that putting up with our brothers’ or sisters’ human imperfections (which may be far fewer and less egregious than ours) can be a source of spiritual growth for us. This requires us to recognize our existing patterns of behavior and thinking, and to catch ourselves before letting them have free rein. If I can catch myself as I head into uncharitable thinking and head it off, I can avoid that sin. I can use it, with God’s grace, to strengthen my incredible weakness and to grow at least a little bit in my spiritual life.
The other key point that jumps out at me in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s coverage of this topic deals with rash judgment. He tells us that with rash judgment we see our neighbor only as a rival to be beaten down, rather than as a person in the image and likeness of God whom God loves infinitely. We can avoid rash judgment and sinning against charity by looking at our neighbor through God’s eyes.
My take-away from this point is, if I can step back from my human tendency to judge others, I just may be able to see in them some part of what God loves in them. That can help me better understand what I should love in them as well. This may make it easier for me to stop that unproductive, uncharitable thinking pattern before it becomes full-blown sin, and before it leads me to an even greater sin of word or action.
Time for a Change
“But I’m a good person. I try to live the right way and not do anything immoral, illegal or dishonest. Heck, I’m living my life better than a lot of people I know.” Yep—and we are all legends in our own minds. We are all holy, saintly virtuous people. It’s all those other folks that need to change.
Wrong. We each need to look to God for the grace and strength to change as He wishes us to change. I, for one, continue to pray for the grace to change in a way that allows me to bring souls to Him, not push them away from Him. If, like me, you struggle with years of habitual thinking patterns and personality quirks and traits, ask God for help in changing.
Following is part of a prayer I’ve adapted from Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s little book, The Three Conversions of in the Spiritual Life:
Lord, teach me to know the obstacles that, consciously or unconsciously, I am placing in the way of Your grace in me. Give me the strength to put them aside, and if I am negligent in doing so, please remove them, regardless of whatever suffering it causes. What would You have me do for You today, my God? Show me what is in me that displeases You…
God respects our free will; He won’t push us, but He’s more than willing to jump in and help us when we ask for it. He will help us continue to make those changes that seem to be ever so incremental and difficult at times. All we have to do is ask and be open to His grace.