The Sweetness of Sinning
selected and assembled from the writings of Mr. Scott Hahn
Part 1: The Hierarchy of Good Things
No one commits evil for its own sake. No one chooses evil just because it’s evil. People sin not for the sake of evil, but for the sake of something good. Human beings can only desire good things. We want what’s sweet to the taste, what’s comfortable, what makes us more free, what removes difficulties from our lives. All the things we desire are good because God has created them that way. All the things in the world share, in some way, in God’s glory.
What is it, then, that takes the desire for something good and transforms it into a sin? Sins are committed when, out of an immoderate liking for things – since they are the least goods – we desert the best and highest goods: God, His truth, and His law. The lower goods have their delights, but none such as God, Who has made all things; for in Him the just man finds delight, and He is the joy of the upright heart.
We sin not because we want what is evil, but because we want what isn’t good enough. We give our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to trifles and passing sensations when we should go, instead, to the summit of all pleasure: the eternal Creator of all joy. In fixating on God’s gifts, we turn our backs to the giver.
The problem, then, is not that we find creatures attractive, but that we find them more attractive then God. This was the problem for Adam and Eve. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “good for food, a delight to the eyes, and was to be desired to make one wise.” It had all these natural good qualities because God had made it that way. But God had commanded the first couple to sacrifice all those great goods for the sake of a higher good, a supernatural good. What was required of Adam and Eve was a sheer act of will – uniting their own will with God’s Will – thus sacrificing all the lower desires of their bodies, souls, hearts, and minds.
But Adam and Eve reordered their priorities so that their immediate desires – safety, self-preservation, knowledge, sensual delights – might be fulfilled while the higher goods – such as faith, hope, and charity – would be deferred. They chose the lesser goods that seemed more real at the moment, driven by deep-seated animal instincts, for which the body produces intense physical responses.
Their choice had long-term consequences. Their need created new needs. Adam and Eve had given primary place to their lower desires, and now their lower desires were taking over. Our first parents had reversed the divinely intended hierarchy in the human race. Now, instead of our souls governing our bodies, our bodies – and their longings, appetites, pleasure, and fears - were driving our souls. This is called the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit, or concupiscence: our human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin. Concupiscence is the cause of our own actual sins because it is an innate inclination to sin and renders us vulnerable to temptation.
Part 2: Breaking Free from Disordered Pleasure
Concupiscence is self-perpetuating and pulls us downward. We find creatures attractive because God made them that way as samples of His glory, in order to lead us to thank Him, praise Him, and love Him more. But instead we tend to make created things the ultimate objects of our desire – whether a spouse, friend, chocolate, alcohol, books, or cars. The more we indulge, the more they take hold of us, and the more they increase our need for them. The more we need them, the less we sense the need of God – even though it is He Who has given us the goods of the world.
We are constantly tempted by this world through our concupiscence. But just because we find ourselves thinking thoughts that are wrong doesn’t mean we’re immediately guilty. It’s when we allow those thoughts to stay in our mind and entertain us that we have committed an actual sin – and, unless we repent quickly, we will soon commit them on the outside.
The three effects of concupiscence are
1) Our intellects are darkened. Our faculty of reason now takes direction for our glands and our gut. Nobody ever chooses evil as evil. For example, Hitler genuinely thought he was doing good by ridding the world of gypsies, the disabled, Catholics, and Jews. Human reason can become twisted.
2) Our wills are weakened. The will acts upon the data provided by the intellect which is now working in darkness. Our will is misdirected to creatures as our proximate end and not toward God as our ultimate end.
3) Our appetites are disordered. Our desire for food, sleep, and physical intimacy become disordered, so our bodies drag us down into gluttony, laziness, lust, and other habitual sins.
We all must learn to discern Christ’s call to repentance in our everyday lives for these are the appointed moments of our deliverance. Our first level of obligation is to resist temptation: to reject the desire and remove ourselves from the situation that is agitating us. If we fail to do so and sin, we now have a greater obligation for our soul is now in greater danger. We must now repent, confess, and do penance.
What if we instead go for another round of the inordinate pleasure? One we fail to fulfill the second level of obligation, then we face God’s punishment, the worst being the attraction the sin exercises upon us. When people choose a forbidden pleasure, the punishment is that now they want more. Before long, we’re hooked, dependent, addicted, and our values are turned upside down. Evil becomes our most urgent “good,” our deepest longing; what is actually good stands as an unwanted “evil” because it threatens to keep us from satisfying our illicit desires.
At that point, repentance becomes harder and harder. Repentance is, by definition, turning away from evil and toward good; but, by now, the sinner redefined both good and evil. God’s punishment fits the crime. When people persist in choosing the lesser good, God eventually gives them up to their concupiscence and removes their restraints. In punishing people, God respects their freedom to conduct themselves as they choose. But when God – Who gave them life – has given them up, can they be any more dead?
When disaster strikes – car wreck, home eviction, job loss – the sinner thinks that God is punishing him and wakes up. But that is not “wrath” in the human sense, it’s Divine Mercy saving the sinner from a worse and everlasting fate. What we see as punishments are really the flashes of sudden, brilliant light that God sends to illumine a soul darkened by sin. The terms “wrath”, “anger”, and “punishment” are terms that help us understand the actions in our lives by which God achieves justice and restores order. They are the chastisements of a loving father, the press of the shepherd’s rod and staff that guide us in right paths. They are remedial, restorative, redemptive, medicinal.
In conclusion, concupiscence can only drag us in one direction: downward, away from God. Its gravity is overwhelming to us body and soul. We can begin to overcome concupiscence through self-mastery and self-denial – indeed we MUST do so – but that is not enough. We need the help that only God can give: the grace He dispenses freely in the sacrament of penance: Confession. That grace works with divine and creative power. It takes the heart that sin has disordered, disfigured, and disgraced, and instead creates it anew.