01. 03. 2014. 09:32

Sin and forgiveness

To detest the sin and to love the sinner: this is how we can define the practice of love as recommended by the Gospel. Clearly, this also means that the attitude of the Pharisees is wrong in as much as they identify the sinner with the sin.

The genuine judgment of sin is obstructed by both the exaggerated psychological and the rigid legal approach.

The danger of a psychological approach lies in the fact that it does not aim to understand the sinner, but to understand the sin itself; and as a result of its analysis it ceases to see sin as sin anymore. This is the main fault of psychological novels written after Freud. In these works, sin is portrayed as sickness or trauma, and thus it loses its dimension of reality, depriving the novels of the authenticity, artistic depth and the purifying potential of human drama. Without the reality of sin there can be no real drama or catharsis. This is why Dostoevsky is still regarded as a master when it comes to depicting the human psyche: because he could not only portray trauma and illness, but sin as well; his knowledge of the soul was instrumental in giving depth to the keen recognition and central significance of sin.

At the opposite end of the scale, the legal approach to sin threatens with a complete misunderstanding of the sinner, and with the treatment of sin – taken out of its social context – as an inhumane scandal.

Both paths are false, and both approaches lack love. While the psychological perspective – despite its apparent humanism – is one-sidedly intellectual and theoretical, seeing the sinner only in terms of a “case study”, the legal point of view focuses on nothing more than a “legal case”, acknowledging only the abstracted sinful act of a sinner. In such circumstances, the sinner is compelled to choose between seeing him- or herself as simply “sick”, as a peculiar “case”, or – according to the legal sentence – as a “monster.” Yet in both options it becomes impossible for the sinner to repent. In the first case, there is no sin to repent for, and in the second, the shame felt over being labelled as a monster excludes and outweighs all other feelings in the heart of the sinner.

So what does the Gospel teach us? Well, first of all, that sin is reality. Secondly, that be it great or small, all sins have the same root. All manner of sins are caused by lack of love, by selfishness: the dissociation of man from the pure good; his rebellion against God. Without this, there would be no such thing as a sin. Yet it is truly incredible how many of our small and seemingly innocent gestures prepare and serve the culpable decisions of the soul. And since all manner of sins are offences against love, they can be remedied only through love. Repentance can be born only from the necessary recognition that whatever we have done, we have essentially committed an offence against love. To see this clearly is already to repent for our sins.

Anything short of this leads not to repentance, but only to fear and shame. However, the presence of fear and shame merely prove that the possibility of true repentance is still alive in me, that sin has not paralyzed me completely. I must arrive at a recognition that my sin is an offence committed against love. And the name of this recognition is perfect repentance and perfect forgiveness at the same time, because there is no separate repentance and forgiveness in God’s overwhelming love and the perfect synchronicity of His mercy.

It follows naturally from all of the above that we too should treat all sinners – without “explaining away” their sins – with as much love as possible, especially those who have wronged us. It is the only proper road towards “healing.” For not just forgiveness, but also repentance needs love to be achieved: shared love between fellow humans, and between men and God.

(Új Ember, February 18, 1968)


Glossary to the Holy Scripture

Jesus came to us to seek out the sinners and show them the righteous path. But who are these sinners?

One group can be identified with no difficulty. They wear the stigmata of their sins; the marks of shame and exclusion. They are the ones because of whom Jesus was scolded by the Pharisees: “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”

Yet, as easy it is to discover the “obvious sinners”, it is as difficult to recognize those who love and believe in a wrong way: the Pharisees. Although Jesus addressed them (the old Pharisees, and the Pharisees living in all of us) quite extensively: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”

The essential and divine – truly divine – novelty of the Gospel lies in the fact that, besides the obvious sins, it showed us how sin disguised as virtue is the severest of all. How is someone who thinks that he or she is a true believer, has committed no sins and lives by the laws of God, expected to repent? The Gospel make no secret of this matter: the repentance of such sinners is a great deal more difficult.

Somehow we never wholly understand this, even though Jesus’s mission among us was essentially about spreading this message. About the new law of love, the scandal of love against judgmental fervour based on the letter of the law. Those who live judging others do not truly love God and do not truly believe in Him. What is more, their delusion can forever hinder them from true conversion. For without humility all virtues are limited and insufficient, and will only separate one from God.

To detest the sin and to love the sinner: this is how we can define the practice of love as recommended by the Gospel. Clearly, this also means that the attitude of the Pharisees is wrong in as much as they identify the sinner with the sin.

Yet the sinner is never identical with the sin. With the possible exception of the Pharisees, who mistake their lack of love for righteousness and thus live in danger of never being able to recognize and admit their mistake. They believe to be “telling the truth about others” whereas in fact they are simply incapable of love.

(Új Ember, July 6, 1969)

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: János Pilinszky (1921-1981)