by Alastair Sterne
November 8, 2016
6 min read
Have you ever had caramel salted ice cream that is “sinfully delicious”? Or have you ever had chocolate fudge peanut butter brownies with a jar of cream cheese icing on the side that are “so good they’re sinful”? There’s something tasty about sin. Now I’m not suggesting there’s anything implicitly sinful about good ice cream or brownies. However, advertisers often tap into a deeply embedded belief of our culture: if it’s really good it’s probably sinful. Why is that? It’s possibly the result of some caricatures of God — the grouchy old man in the sky whose only delight is being a buzzkill. “If it’s really good and delightful, God is probably against it” or so the thinking goes. However, there is a more probable explanation for why we’ve connected sin with delight and pleasure: because we know that sin is tasty. Otherwise, we wouldn’t find it tempting whatsoever.
There are little pleasures and indulgences which cause our senses to heighten momentarily. The lingering eyes. Dwelling in the spite. Flirting “harmlessly.” Finding the “loophole.” Getting in the last word. The “maybe I shouldn’t have said that to him, but it felt good to get it off my chest” comments. Just. One. More. Episode. Whatever it may be, in most situations we don’t do these things because they immediately make us feel bad. We do these things because they give us a buzz. They immediately gratify. Our neurons fire up and our pleasure centers get activated. We like it. And just as we enjoy our little sins, we find “joy” in indulging in the big ones.
For example, you have an affair because of the allure of someone new, something more fulfilling, etc. It’s likely your conscience might catch up with you, you might even feel bad about the betrayal (you might not), but you do it anyways because the alternative feels good. Or, maybe you find a way to cheat on an exam. Why? Not because deception itself feels good (although it might), but the illusion of a passing grade gratifies you.
Over time we might start to feel guilty about some of these smaller sins or bigger sins. But without the help of the Spirit of God, our guilt won’t help us much. In fact, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians “worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). There’s no life in feeling bad as an end. There’s no life in trying harder and maybe even amending our ways by our own power. But why? Because even if we grow in this one area, we will discover yet another area to grieve in our lives.
You see when we see sin, we can start thinking to ourselves “Oh, no. Not again. What’s wrong with me?” We move toward shame. But this only further illuminates the nature of sin. As St. Augustine taught, we are “curved in” on ourselves. We sin, we acknowledge it and feel guilty, but then we keep looking at ourselves and our sin. We might begin to focus on changing our behaviour or amending our ways — but we are still navel gazing. What’s the sin in that? Pride. If sin is illuminated in our lives, if we can actually identify it for what it is, it’s a gift from God. But we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to take good gifts and break them.
How do you prepare to confess your sins to God? When you screw up, when you know you’ve done wrong, what do you do? Do you ever sit in it? Do you consciously or subconsciously feel bad enough, long enough, until the feeling subsides? What’s the result? We feel we have earned the right to now ask for forgiveness. Do you see? This isn’t grace, this isn’t mercy — it’s a prideful attempt to first deserve and then extract forgiveness from God, the same forgiveness he has been offering to us all the while.
But as St. Paul also says to the Corinthians, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). The true joy in discovering our sin is that each time God illuminates sin in our lives, each time we feel the sting of conviction, the pain of grief over what we’ve done, it’s an opportunity for joy. Yes, it’s an opportunity to rejoice. The feeling might not be pleasant, in fact, conviction rarely is — however, the grief God produces leads to life and salvation.
When that persistent and irritating sin or that newly discovered dimension of shortcomings appears, it’s a sparkling new opportunity to encounter grace all over again. That is the joy of discovering sin. We never move beyond our need for grace and we never move into a reality where grace is not offered in a meaningful way. When God gives you eyes to see your life from his perspective, thank him for it. When you see your own brokenness, rejoice — because God is also offering you more grace.
Reflecting upon The Fall of Humanity in Genesis 3, St. Augustine penned a phrase in latin, “Felix culpa.” It is most often translated as “happy fault.” We should not misunderstand the intent of this phrase: it’s not fortunate that humanity disobeyed God or fortunate that we sin. But what is fortunate or happy is that even when we are at fault and even when we fall, God offers us grace. This idea — Felix culpa — is a concept that has captured minds throughout the ages: Thomas Aquinas, Ambrose, and even the modern philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Artists have been inspired by this concept too. For example, The Roman Catholic liturgy for the Easter Vigil contains the lyric, “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer” (which Audrey Assad re-interpreted in her beautiful song Fortunate Fall). King’s Kaleidoscope also released a song called Felix Culpa. They translated it as “fortunate fall.” The chorus of their song contains the beautiful truth:
A fortunate fall,
my sins are stories of grace to recall
A fortunate fall,
I glory in my sins forgiven.