Sin: Fighting Against Our True Nature

Sin consists of the refusal to submit, to follow the form given us in being. It is to thwart the whole trajectory of our nature.

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 “Your preferences have not been considered.” —C.S. Lewis

He was, by all accounts, an exceedingly frugal fellow. Even in conversation his words were few and infrequent. Once, after attending a church service, he was asked what the sermon was about. All he said was: “Sin.” And the preacher’s position on the subject? “He was against it,” came the curt reply.

Now, that would be Calvin Coolidge, our thirtieth president, who said not a word about what sin was, nor why we should be against it. But, then, he wasn’t asked. If he had been, he might have quoted Chesterton (they were contemporaries, after all), who was cleverer by far and almost as concise. “There is but one sin,” he said: “to call a green leaf gray, / Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth.” A lie, in other words, which makes every sinner complicit with Satan, the Father of Lies, even as it causes the sun to shudder. And what we know about Satan, of course, is that he was doing it from the beginning. He’s a murderer, too, if we are to believe Jesus, who tells us as much in the Gospel of John (8:44):

He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the Father of Lies.  

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Pretty serious stuff. And we see the fallout from his work everywhere. But where does it all start? Is there a point of origin, a source on which sin may freely draw its poison? In a lovely little book by Josef Pieper called The Concept of Sin, which is wonderfully lucid, he lays out the whole business, beginning with the recognition, not widely shared these days, that sin is the result of our refusal to accept our creaturely state. It is to disavow the connection, the necessary dependence, between ourselves and God. 

When it comes to reality, says Pieper, 

everything that we do of our own responsibility, whether or not we are Christians, can be set into motion at all only on the basis of this fundamental presupposition: that both world and man are beings called into existence by virtue of their creatureliness.  

We do not make being be. It is not our task, nor have we the capacity for it, to set things in motion. We are not the catalyst behind the cosmos. So, we cannot take credit for our own existence but must, rather, thank God for conferring it from moment to moment. God does not consult us before creating us. Instead, like a syllable formed long ago, God speaks our name; and we are properly surprised, stupefied even, to find ourselves uttered into existence by God’s own Word. Were He to cease speaking the word of our creation, even for an instant, the whole shooting match would implode, falling at once into nothingness.  

The moment we enter into existence, therefore, and commence to occupy the human stage, we do so with a script already in hand, a template in place. Which, from time immemorial, bears the name of our own nature. It is in conformity to that nature, that defining standard of our humanity, that the choices we make are meant to conform. 

Thus, argues Pieper, “as the word itself implies, ‘human nature’ refers to what comes with being born, which we can neither choose nor make.” Always, it remains the fundamental given, the presupposition upon which everything else rests. But, he adds, to have that nature “also implies growth, which means that we are born not as static entities but as unfinished products, a ‘rough draft’ whose realization is demanded by that same nature, ‘by virtue of creation.’” 

Unlike any other endeavor we might choose to take up—the art of teaching, for instance, or building things, or learning to play an instrument—in which we determine the goal and give shape to how we propose to reach it, the art of being human has already been set well in advance of our entering the race. 

Here we have no choice, no decision to make, nor is there anything here for our reason “to contrive.” Rather, we find this prior determination of the goal as something already set for us, without our having been consulted in the matter, just as we find ourselves already existing in the world, precisely as these beings who have been fashioned in this way. 

What sin consists of, then, is the refusal to submit, to follow the form given us in being. It is to thwart the whole trajectory of that nature, “the hidden gravitational pull,” Pieper calls it, “that fundamental energy by virtue of which human existence presses toward its intended goal.” And what is the final thrust of that energy toward but the sheer perfection of the creature, who was made for no other end than to reach the bullseye of eternal beatitude. Anything less will leave the soul, the human person, in a state of forlorn and, if not repented of, everlasting frustration.  

“To sin,” says Pieper, citing the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom there have been few exegetes more fortunate to have around than Pieper, “is nothing else but to hang back from the good that belongs to one by nature.” Or this text, also from Aquinas, which is no less succinct: “Everything that fights against the inclination of nature is sin.”  “To sin is nothing else but to hang back from the good that belongs to one by nature.”Tweet This

And when we do so on purpose, as it were, freely falling away from the norms of our nature, we mount the most serious possible assault upon God Himself. Such lapses against nature—“a deliberate stupidity” is how Bernard Lonergan put it—set against the very design and aim of created being, “is for that reason,” concludes Pieper, “an infringement against a superhuman norm and thus is guilt before God the Creator.” To which there can be only one of two answers given by the creature: either the clearest possible Yes, or an equally clear No. 

“All intermediate positions eventually prove to be compromises,” insists Pieper:

What is specific to man’s creatureliness lies in the fact that he, unlike a crystal, a tree or an animal, can say “I myself.” As soon as he does this, that is, in the very moment when he recognizes that his status as a rational animal is unique (on the one hand, he is a creature; on the other, he can either accept or reject this fact), at just that moment he stands before the alternative: he can either choose himself or God.  

There can be no more portentous, nor sundering, choice placed before us. Indeed, says Pieper, “This is the fundamental decision in every concrete decision, preceding them all. This decision for ‘absolute’ self-love is the original sin…the first ever committed and the very wellspring and fountainhead of all concrete guilt.”

We are not our own, we belong to another. Hidden behind the mask of self-love we often put on, the clamor we often hear ourselves making for a freedom that admits of no limit, there is the undisguised cry of Satan, who would sooner reign in Hell than choose to serve in Heaven. 

[Image: Wenzel Peter, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden]


  • 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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