Here is a proposal: simple but profound. It is actually impossible for us to avoid sin, insofar as avoiding sin is our end.
A careful thinker will probably narrow his eyes incredulously at hearing this. After all, “impossible” is a strong word, and it seems that there are likely many Christians out there who have made the eradication of sinful habits the very thing they are working toward most fervently in life. From one angle, such an approach seems supremely reasonable. Our sins separate us from God, so if we want to be with God in heaven, we should focus all our attention on ridding our lives of sin…right?
Well, as it turns out, here at the heart of our spiritual lives we must be very careful to make some subtle distinctions which have great bearing on where we end up. Like sailors at sea, we must ensure that we establish our heading properly from the beginning. A few small degrees at the start makes for many miles of difference in the end. In fact, the smallest considerations at the start of our journey may determine whether or not we reach the destination at all. When we think about sin and our end in life, there are two incorrect ways of thinking which are very common and easy for people to slip into. The distinction (and its import!) could easily be missed if we are not thinking precisely, so let us look slowly and carefully at each of these statements, pausing as we read to consider what the words really mean.
The first mistake is to think that we should rid our lives of sin in order to get close to God. This way of thinking properly recognizes that union with God is our end in life, but it fails to identify the correct means to that end. It is true in a sense that sin separates us from God, but only in a limited sense. Getting rid of sin is not the way to get to God. Scripture tells us that God loved us even while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8) and that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Mk 2:16). In fact, Jesus himself tells us again and again, with his words and deeds, that he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Lk 5:32). Jesus is God, so being close to Jesus is being close to God. Talking with Jesus is talking to God. Embracing Jesus is embracing God. We cannot wait to get close to Jesus until we are without sin. If this is our plan, we will be waiting for a very long time—eternity in fact. Jesus comes to heal us from sin, and we have no way of overcoming sin without his healing power. It is not until he draws close to us and tells us “you are well! Sin no more” (Jn 5:14) that we even have the power to live virtuous lives. This is why his words to the Apostles on the night of the Last Supper have long been regarded by the Church as the clearest indication of the absolute necessity of grace for our sanctification: “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Herein lies the first justification for the bold claim we made at the outset. Yes, “impossible” is a strong word, but so is “nothing.”
The bottom line? We cannot think of avoiding sin and living a life of virtue as a way of getting close to God. These things are not even possible until we are close to God, so striving first for virtue is a futile effort. It would be as if the blind man, Bartimaeus, spent all his time silently trying to heal his own blindness so he could see Christ when he walked by, instead of calling out to him from the street and asking for mercy.
The second mistake is to think that we should get close to God as a means of ridding our lives of sin. Again, we have to think very carefully about this. If what we have said above is true, it is easy for us to think that there is no other alternative. It looks like it follows naturally as a conclusion follows from a premise. We cannot overcome sin on our own. God is the only one who can save us from our sin. Therefore, we must go to God so that he can overcome our sin…right?
The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes our end is to eliminate sin in our lives, and it demotes God down to the level of a means. In other words, Christians who adopt this “get to God to eliminate sin” mission as the defining task of the spiritual life are (perhaps unwittingly) using God and making their own holiness an idol. The end is no longer union with God, but instead, it is their own transformation and sanctification. They want to be saints (not a bad goal in itself!), but they forget that sanctity is a gift. Holiness is not something to be grasped, so our end is not sanctity itself, but the relationship that makes sanctity possible. In other words, union with God should be our end, and everything else should be subordinated to it. Drawing near to God so that he will heal us (and therefore not to form a personal relationship and give ourselves to him in love) is a fatal mistake and an approach that will never bear fruit. It is true that God is the only way for sin to be eradicated in our lives, but we can never seek union with God so that he will make us holy. We need to love God for his own sake; that is what charity is. We need to love him unconditionally; regardless of what he gives and what he withholds. We need to be devoted to him as children are devoted to a perfectly loving father. We trust him and hope in faith that he will give us good gifts, but our devotion to him is not contingent upon our receiving these gifts. If we pray and fast and then look accusingly at God when we find ourselves still sinning, then our mask has been lifted, and the problem has been revealed. We did not pray and fast to be with him, but to be changed by him.
The alternative? What if we seek God and spend time with him because he is Good—nothing more and nothing less. Part of what is so interesting about this is that our approaching God as a means to some end (even the end of holiness) kills the personal nature of the relationship, and so weakens the union, and therefore renders it powerless to transform us. Our very concentration on the elimination of our sins when we approach God is the very thing which prevents them from being eliminated. This is so crucial and so widely misunderstood. It is worth repeating: our very concentration on the elimination of our sins when we approach God is the very thing which prevents them from being eliminated. We need to approach him, focusing on him, for his sake, as our ultimate end. Otherwise, we will be like a young bride, desperate to marry the groom, but not for love of him, but for love of the gifts he will give her (a house, security, children, etc…). That is no recipe for a healthy marriage; in fact, it will likely prevent the marriage from happening at all. She will lose the bridegroom and all the gifts he would give her.
The bottom line? Union with God is the only way to overcome sin, but we cannot seek union with God as a means in this way—only as our ultimate end. We must want to be his friend, his spouse, and what he does with the sin in our lives should be left up to him. Sanctity is his own free gift to give. In other words, union with God is both the means and the end, but we can only ever seek it as an end or it will no longer work as a means! Like those faint, distant stars that we can only see out of the corner of our eye, the instant that we make “becoming holy” our end, and we look directly at it to seize it … it eludes us. We stare directly at the star, and somehow, we can no longer see it at all. It twinkles and dances at the outskirts of the galaxy, forever out of reach.
And here is where the claim becomes radical in that delightful and distinctly Christian way. What happens to our goal of eradicating sin? What happens to the struggle?
We let it go.
By this, we do not mean the sin (which we are powerless to let go of), but the struggle itself. We leave that up to God. We let him decide if and when we become holy, repeating for ourselves the words that were spoken by the perfect Christian, when she accepted the gift of Christ for the first time: “be it done unto me…”
If we begin to think this way, then the presence of sin in our life becomes…incidental. The eradication of sin is no longer something we aim at, grasp for desperately, and strive after with white knuckles and endless discouragement. Instead, we draw close to God through all the means he makes available to us (prayer, sacraments, and mortification), and then we wait for him to act. We wait for him to change us, receptive and patient all the time. Only once we manage this will we make room for him to break the power of our sin in our hearts. Only after we let go is authentic Christian peace even possible: “have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).
If you are not sure about your own motives, the ultimate test is this. What happens when you draw close to Christ (in prayer and the sacraments, for example) but then find yourself continuing to fall into sin? Do you smile calmly, not surprised by our own weakness, ready to seek forgiveness and trust in his mercy? Or does your heart become troubled, anxious, and fearful? Do you get discouraged and even angry, asking him accusatory questions about why he delays and has not yet healed you? So often we as Christians think like businessmen, frustrated with the fact that we have “done our part” and he has not upheld “his end” of the bargain. “This doesn’t work!” we think. “Why is he so silent?”
One more time: it is actually impossible for us to avoid sin, insofar as avoiding sin is our end.