The advice from Screwtape, a seasoned devil, to his young nephew Wormwood in the C.S. Lewis classic “The Screwtape Letters” exemplifies the ways that little omissions of character can lead to an ultimately damning path.
“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy… Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The Enemy to whom Screwtape refers is God.
We all know how a little sin can escalate. After years of letting their temper get the best of them, some motorists shout profanity on reflex to those who tail their cars too closely or cut them off. Other people waste time on Facebook or texting during the workday and neglect their jobs, thus “stealing” from their employer.
Many sins are venial, not mortal, meaning that they are not grave enough or done with strong enough intent to cut us off from God in one fell swoop, and they do not require absolution in the confessional to avoid eternal punishment.
But every sin, no matter how small, is a choice not to follow Christ. It leads to a life of greater self-indulgence and away from God’s will for us to attend lovingly to the needs of others, which is the true goal of living.
“The whole course of our lives is doing good and avoiding evil and growing in virtue and not succumbing to the allure of temptation which quite frankly is the voice within us tempting us by saying you can get a better deal than what God offers you somewhere else,” says Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, episcopal vicar for divine worship for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
Holquin pointed out that the origin of an Old Testament word for sin is a Hebrew verb that means to miss the mark.
“It would be very unwise to dismiss the importance of avoiding small sins or violations of virtue,” says Holquin. “We need to be aware that the laxity of being attentive to small sins can in time erode our sense of moral conscience.”
Everyone is tempted and everyone sins, even the saints. “The bad news is that temptations don’t end until the day we die,” says Fr. Troy Schneider, STL, parochial vicar at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.
God allows temptations so we can exert our free will. Temptations will purify us like gold in a fire when we choose repeatedly to do what is right, Schneider says.
Temptations in themselves are not sins.
Katie Dawson, director of parish faith formation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, noted that a wife may be justifiably angered if her husband misses a pre-arranged appointment with her for no good reason. But she sins if she chooses to retaliate by sulking or doing something mean.
“Choosing a path of reconciliation would be more fruitful than choosing a path of revenge,” Dawson says.
Also, Dawson observed that while everyone is occasionally jealous of others, you sin when you wish harm to those who have more than you or start treating them unkindly. “In the interior life, the sin is not the first thought, but the second,” Dawson says.
In a different scenario, a parent’s virtuous desire to work overtime to provide for a family’s legitimate needs can morph into sin if the motivation becomes greed and the wish for ever bigger and better cars, houses and vacations at the expense of a meaningful home life.
Disregard for your civic obligation by neglecting to vote in an election can also be a venial sin, as can gossiping about a co-worker, says Holquin.
Many people lose touch with their daily failings; but that does not mean their sins do not exist.
“The fact is many of us feel we are doing pretty good. We think, ‘I haven’t killed anybody or robbed a bank lately. I am basically a good person.’ That is an illusion. The closer we are to God, the more we become aware of the many ways we are not loving,” says Dawson.
As an antidote, Dawson recommends praying, reading Scripture and participating in the sacraments, especially trips to confession at least once a month, rather than waiting until there is some obviously significant sin to confess.
Sinful habits can be curbed through daily examination of conscience, a sincere Act of Contrition and periodic celebration of the sacrament of penance, says Holquin. He recommends the sacrament of reconciliation four times a year for people who do not regularly commit grave sins. He says going to confession when there is little to say can trivialize the sacrament.
Schneider advocates St. Augustine’s teaching that sins can be most effectively fought with opposing acts of virtue: impatience with acts of patience, impurity with acts of purity, disobedience with acts of obedience.
“St. Augustine says for every vice there is a virtue that counteracts that vice and wins the battle,” he says.
Along this line of reasoning, someone cut off in traffic should give the offender a blessing rather than a hand gesture. “That is a practice of a virtue, offering charity and compassion,” says Schneider.