Advice for Preachers on Sin and Satan

I once knew a pastor whose homilies were so awful, so bone crushingly boring, that I’d swear he composed them in the time it took us to sit down after he’d finished reading the Gospel.  In other words, three seconds flat.

But while they may have been a tad bit thin theologically, they were always reassuringly thick with orthodoxy.  So I didn’t really mind missing the spiritual wheat germ so much, because I figured at least he’s not trying to poison me.  For real toxicity, one would have to go elsewhere.

And, believe me, I have gone elsewhere; indeed, over the years, I have been regularly assaulted by some of the best hit and run homilists in the business.  I’ll never forget a certain curate who preached one Sunday on sin, his point being that since we so rarely commit any, we should stop feeling guilty worrying about it.

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“Haven’t you already opted fundamentally for God?” he asked.  “Then why fuss over details?  Details are for bookkeepers, not for Christians, who, loving Jesus and everyone else, are blessedly free to do what they will!”

How very soothing it all sounded at the time, his honeyed words exuding great dollops of sweetness and light.  However, when the sermon concluded with a full-throated denunciation of rightwing homophobes, something snapped.  For this congregant at least, the spell of the speech was broken.

Well that was all rather a long time ago, and while other upstarts have come along to vex and torment me, I haven’t noticed the levels of sin diminishing all that much.  The stabbing sense of contradiction we experience between the ideals we profess and their frequent and all too shabby betrayal, will not, I’m afraid, simply go away as a result of improvements in diet or hygiene.   Consider all those pious promises we’ve made just moments before the usual mockery of abject performance sets in.  Sobering, isn’t it?  Hypocrisy, as that old cynic Oscar Wilde used to say, is only the homage vice pays virtue.  As T.S. Eliot remorselessly reminds us in “The Hollow Men,”

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.

In other words, when preparing their homilies, priests and pastors mustn’t forget the long shadow cast by sin.  Nor, while they’re at it, the devil himself, who was the first to live in love’s shadow, and has been wandering about the world ever since trying mightily to put out the lights.  I mean, who else besides all those fallen and corrupt angels deserve the first word in a sermon on sin?   “Our old subtle foe,” the poet John Donne calls him who, in the first of his Divine Meditations, “so tempteth me, / That not one hour I can myself sustain.”   Only the grace of God, he tells us, “may wing me to prevent his art,” and by whose life and strength alone, “like adamant draw mine iron heart.”

Ah, but Satan, we are told, achieved his master-stroke sometime in the nineteenth  century when he managed to persuade huge numbers of people to stop believing in him.  Once that ruse got around—and, as always, educated opinion was sinfully eager to help it along—the devil was at liberty to do his worst.  What then becomes of sin in a world more and more divested of belief in an Evil Intelligence bent on bedeviling us with its false attractions?  It doesn’t just go poof, does it? Leaving us with the same intolerable burden of guilt and sorrow as before only now without anyone to blame.  Rather an entire moral edifice commences to collapse once the scaffolding of sin (hence virtue) is removed.  And certainly the Old Guy has returned the favor vouchsafed him by so many devil deniers of yore.  Because the past one hundred years bear unmistakably the imprint of iniquities not of this world.  Without doubt the bloodiest on record, we simply cannot attribute all the horrors and futilities of modernity to mere human agency.   As Monsignor Ronald Knox once wryly put it:  “It is so stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil when he is the only explanation of it.”

Any recovery of a sane and healthy sense of sin, therefore, crucially depends on getting people to believe once again in the devil.  If the world and the flesh fell on his, and Adam’s, account, why ever not?  “The devil is the number one enemy,” declared Pope Paul VI, “the source of all temptation … the sophistical perverter of man’s moral equipoise, the malicious seducer who knows how to penetrate us (through the senses, the imagination, desire, utopian logic or disordered social contacts) in order to spread error….”

And if papal testimony were not telling enough, particularly from the tragedy of one who felt in his final days “the very smoke of Satan” within the Temple of God, Holy Scripture emphasizes that “the whole world is under the power of the evil one,” who is not called “the prince of this world” for nothing.  Think only of Our Lord’s ordeal in the desert:  If the devil offered Christ all the kingdoms of earth in exchange for his submission, then surely it was because he was in a position to dispose of them.

There is a wonderful and chilling little story by Graham Greene called “The Hint of an Explanation,” in which a free-thinking baker by the name of Blacker attempts to corrupt a young altar boy with literally fiendish cunning.  His greed baited with biscuits and toys, the boy is tempted to turn over to Blacker the holiest thing in the universe, the Host, for the profanation of which he has been promised a shiny new miniature train.  Only at the last moment does the child, strangely moved by grace, recoil in horror at the prospect of so paltry an exchange.

Greene’s point, of course, which he renders with startling and vivid effect, is that evil and damnation do exist, that they are permanent human possibilities, behind which stand sinister, super-human beings bent on the total subjugation of the soul.  Alas, poor Blacker provides the most debased testimony to their success.

How often it is youth, too, the purely innocent ones, that serve to inflame the powers of darkness—The Thing, Greene calls it—behind the mere human instrument intent on our ruin.  Such terrible loss, too, when it actually appears to have won.  In his haunting poem, “Germinal,” George William Russell writes how, “In ancient shadows and twilights / Where childhood had strayed / The world’s great sorrows were born / And its heroes were made. / In the lost boyhood of Judas / Christ was betrayed.”

So let the devil have his due, I say.  But no more.  If the first word is his, let all the rest belong to God, who in Christ broke his sham kingdom in two.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “St. Peter Preaching” was painted by Masolino da Panicale in 1426-27.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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