Sin is often denounced, counselled against, indulged in and repented of. Yet is not mentioned often enough how absurd it really is. To knowingly go against the will of God – the one who created us and keeps us in existence in every moment – is, when looked at in these terms, actually the most fundamental form of insanity. In his aptly titled book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed describes the madness of our situation:
‘In angels or men, sin is always an effort to gain something against the will of God. Thus for angels and men sin is essentially ludicrous. All alike are made by God of nothing; all alike are held in existence by nothing save the continuing will of God to hold them so. To think that we can gain anything by hacking or biting or furtively nibbling at the Will which alone holds us in existence at all is a kind of incredible folly…
…To choose anything at all apart from the will of God is quite literally to choose nothingness, for apart from God everything is nothing. To choose God is to choose the infinite. Either way, whether we choose nothing or the infinite, we cannot be either, but we can possess either. We are free to choose.’
Theology and Sanity (1993), pp.178-179, Ignatius Press.
Put like this, it does seem that to sin is a ridiculous thing to do – it is to cut off the branch upon which we are sitting, so to speak. And yet, we all do it, and continue to do it. It is not so much that we do not know certain things to be contrary to God’s will (though we may sometimes convince ourselves that we do not), it is rather that we know them to be so but choose them anyway – we are enslaved, or to put it in Sheed’s terms, we are insane.
Austin Farrer, an Anglican minister and friend of C. S. Lewis, who was possessed of great wisdom and a very clear, sane mind himself, also saw sin like this. In Saving Belief, a collection of talks to Oxford undergraduates in which he re-examined and restated some of the ‘essentials’ of orthodox theology, he discusses the nature of sin, and articulates it as follows:
‘First, our relation with God being inescapable, since we draw our very existence from him, it is not something we are free to let alone if we choose. We violate his will if we do not follow it, we are starved of our supreme good if we do not embrace it. Alienation from God is a positive misfunctioning, a frustration of our total aim…
…If I go against the will of God, I do not simply go against a rule which God has revealed for my guidance; I go against what Omnipotence is doing with me, would I but let him.’
Saving Belief (1964), pp.95, 97, Hodder and Stoughton.
Here Farrer not only reiterates what Sheed has stated above, but also draws closer attention to the essential paradox in our committal of sin, when conceived as the contradiction of the divine will that sustains us. He notes rightly that our relation with God is ‘inescapable’ – whether we believe in Him or not, whether we follow His will or not, we are utterly dependent upon His will for our existence. This immediately brings up the age-old dilemma of how we can reconcile human freedom with divine omnipotence. How free are we if God is ultimately in charge? What can it mean to go against the will that keeps us in existence moment by moment?
The first thing to say is that this age-old dilemma ultimately remains a mystery, and will continue to do so due to the difference in perspective between the Creator and His creatures. Perhaps we will understand a little more in the next life; perhaps not. What is certain is that we will never understand completely – to do so would be to see things from God’s perspective, and this is simply not possible. The second thing to say is that we cannot deny either our free-will or God’s omnipotence without sliding into further absurdity. Without our freedom, we become mere automatons, incapable of choice and therefore incapable of true love or virtue. Without omnipotence, God is no longer God.
So, given all the above, it seems that we must see our cooperation with the will that keeps us in existence in terms of harmonisation or resonance. A comparison may be that of a musical instrument – its creator designed it with the potential, if played properly, to produce beautiful music, but if used incorrectly it will not only produce discordant sounds, but eventually become more and more out of tune, rendering it incapable of performing its function at all, save a repair by its maker. This is a deeply imperfect analogy I admit, but at least captures something of the idea of the need for harmony with the intentions of our Creator that is built into our very nature.
Anyway, given that sin is absurd, and that we continue to do it, what are our options? Firstly, recognising that this is the case is a great step forward – to see sin as the folly that it really is enables us to laugh at it a little, and reduces some of its power over us. After this, we need to ask where we can find the intentions of our Creator – what does He want for us, what is His will? To ask this is to place oneself in the service of truth, and if one sincerely continues to seek truth, one will find it. To my mind at least though, there is only one place that this search can arrive at – the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here God may be met, His will may be known with confidence, and restoration to that harmony we all seek deep down is made available, through word and sacrament, through doctrine and the lives of the saints. This is a great gift, for as our Saviour said, ‘whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).