“Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). You may hear these words of Jesus on Ash Wednesday, which can be said when you receive ashes in place of “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Either way, we begin Lent with a call to repent, knowing in humility that we need God’s mercy. When we repent, we express sorrow for our sins and the desire to make a change, turning from our selfishness to love of God and neighbor.
Sin places oneself and one’s desires before God. The Catechism tells us that “sin is an offense against God,” which “sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it” (CCC 1850). But the Catechism also calls it “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (CCC 1849). What this means is that sin not only offends God, but it turns away from the right ordering of our nature and wounds our relationship with others.
Obedience to God is not something that takes away our freedom, but which strengthens our freedom and makes us happy. God is our Creator and he made us for happiness with him. His commandments set out the way to happiness by showing us how to rightly order our desires and actions. Lent calls us to penance so that we can get our priorities straight again. We should not only give up a particular thing we like, but focus on breaking our attachments that pull us away from higher things: our love for God and others.
A recent book digs deep into the philosophy and psychology of the human ordering to God and how sin turns us away from it. Steven Jensen’s Sin: A Thomistic Psychology (Catholic University of America Press, 2018) explains the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and, using clear examples, defends it against modern misconceptions. Jensen seeks to explain how sin is a personal choice that entails a “voluntary rejection of God” (7). This rejection occurs because all of our actions must be ordered toward God as the final end or goal of our life. He explains that “Aquinas’s notion of sin includes the idea of the order of an action to an end. Good actions are ordered to the true ultimate end; evil actions are ordered to some false or apparent good as though it were an ultimate end” (15). Sin substitutes a created good in place of God.
Jensen helps us to get the root of sin and its causes — ignorance, passion, and an evil will — as well as to understand how our lives should be ordered to God. When we live by his grace, God enters into our action and shapes it so that it leads us to him (cf. 76). Even in a state of grace, we sin venially when we look for immediate consolation rather than the ultimate happiness found in the beatific vision of heaven. Mortal sin, however, turns away from God and makes another good to be one’s end. Ultimately, overcoming sin entails love: willing something greater than ourselves, a good which is absolute and which we share in communion with others. We must experience conversion by turning away from our isolated and selfish desires and “turning to God” (95).
Lent is a time to turn away from sin and back to God: “To choose for God or against God…. To choose life or choose death” (292). The reason we give things up or take on new practices is to restore our relationship with God and others. When we break sinful habits and do penance, we remove the obstacles that keep us from God, but we also must convert our hearts to him in a relationship of love. Sin keeps us from our true happiness in God and Lent gives us the opportunity, if we repent and believe, to rediscover our true goal and purpose in him.