There’s an axiom that says: Nothing feels better than virtue. There’s a deep truth here, but it has an underside. When we do good things we feel good about ourselves. Virtue is indeed its own reward, and that’s good. However, feeling righteous can soon enough turn into feeling self-righteous. Nothing feels better than virtue; but self-righteousness feels pretty good too.
We see this famously expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The pharisee is practising virtue, his actions are exactly what they should be, but what this produces in him is not humility, nor a sense of his need for God and mercy, but self-righteousness and a critical judgment of others. So too for all of us, we easily become the pharisee: Whenever we look at another person who’s struggling and say, There but for the grace of God go I, our seeming humble gratitude can indicate two very different things. It can be expressing a sincere thanks for having been undeservedly blessed, or can just as easily be expressing a smug self-righteousness about our own sense of superiority.
Classical spiritual writers like John of the Cross, when talking about the challenges we face as we walk the way of discipleship, speak about something they call the faults of those who are beyond initial conversion. What they highlight is this: we are never free from struggle with sin. As we mature, sin simply takes on ever more subtle modalities inside us. For example, before initial maturity, what we’ve classically called the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, envy, lust, anger, gluttony, and sloth) express themselves in us in ways that are normally pretty crass and overt. We see this in children, in adolescents, and in the immature. For them, pride is plainly pride, jealousy is jealousy, selfishness is selfishness, lust is lust, and anger is anger. There’s nothing subtle or hidden here, the fault is out in the open.
But, as we overcome these sins in their more crass forms, they invariably take on more subtle forms in our lives. So that now, for instance, when we’re humble, we become proud and self-righteous in our humility. Witness: nobody can be more smug and judgmental than a new convert or someone in first fervour.
But sin too has its complexities. Some of our naive ideas about sin and humility also needed to be critically examined. For example, we sometimes nurse the romantic notion that sinners are humble, aware of their need for forgiveness, and open to God. In fact, as a generalization, this is true for the gospels. As Jesus was preaching, it was the pharisees who struggled more with his person and message, whereas the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes were more open to him. So this can pose a question: Does sin, more than virtue, make us aware of our need for God?
Yes, when the sin is honest, humble, admitted, and contrite or when our wrong actions are the result of being wounded, taken advantage of, or exploited. Not all sin is born morally equal: there’s honest sin and dishonest sin.
As human beings, we’re weak and lack the moral strength to always act according to what’s best in us. Sometimes we just succumb to temptation, to weakness. Sin needs no explanation beyond this: We’re human! Sometimes too, people are caught in sinful situations, which are really not of their own making. They’ve been abused, made to live in sinful circumstances not of their own choosing, are victims of trafficking, are victims of unjust familial or social situations, or are too deeply wounded to actualize their own moral faculties.
In situations like this, wrong action is a question of survival, not of free choice. As one woman described it to me: “I was simply a dog, biting in order not to be bitten.” In these cases, generally, beneath an understandably hardened, calloused surface, lies a still innocent heart that clearly knows its need for God’s mercy. There’s such a thing as honest sin.
But there’s also sin that’s not honest, that’s rationalized, that’s forever buffered by a pride that cannot admit its own sinfulness. The result then, most often, is a hardened, bitter, judgmental soul. When sin is rationalized, bitterness will invariably follow, accompanied by a hatred toward the kind of virtue from which it has fallen. When we rationalize, our moral DNA will not let itself be fooled. It reacts and punishes us by having us hate ourselves. And, when someone hates himself or herself, that hatred will issue forth in a hatred of others and, more particularly, in a hatred of the exact virtue from which he has fallen. For example, it’s no accident that a lot of people having adulterous affairs have a particular cynicism toward chastity.
Finding ourselves as weak and sinful can soften our hearts, make us humble, and open us to receive God’s mercy. It can also harden our souls and make us bitter and judgmental. Not every sinner prays like the publican.
Virtue makes us grateful. Sin makes us humble.
That’s true. Sometimes.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.