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Sin, Virtue & Self-Denial

Updated: May 7, 2020

“It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.”

I came across this quote the other day and it got me thinking about its paradoxical nature and the truth behind it, specifically in terms of natural law. My mind immediately darted to how true it is for the more controversial topics in the church, but after further reflection, I recognized it's true for every sin we commit.

Sin is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.” All of us older than the age of reason and with a developed conscience are guilty of sinning. Sin can cause serious pain in our lives, either as a result from other people’s sin, or as a result from our own offenses. If we take a closer look at each of the deadly sins, for example, we can see the negative side effects of sin: we choose to overeat food or drink and suffer from a stomach ache or hangover; we choose promiscuity and are threatened by sexually transmitted diseases; we choose greed and our neighbors suffer; we choose laziness and our minds and bodies are subverted; we choose pride and can ruin relationships due to lack of forgiveness; we choose jealousy of someone’s life and they suffer our prejudice; we choose anger and are faced with an array of health concerns, such as high blood pressure.

Just as the quote says, we break ourselves against the law.

The laws don’t break; we do.

I think the moral of the story here is: sin is damaging, both mentally and physically. On the other hand, it has been proven that virtue is its own reward, and I think this is true even just reflecting on some of the happiest people I know in my life, all of whom are trying to live virtuously. 

Contrary to sin, virtue is defined as “behavior showing high moral standards.” But it can be really hard to choose a virtuous decision when in a moment of moral dilemma. I will never forget hearing a story while on a retreat years ago about a man who was trying to overcome an addiction. He would start out his morning by wanting to take a hot shower, so he would do the opposite of that and take a cold shower. He would want to have eggs for breakfast, and instead would have a banana. He continued like that for the remainder of the day. Now this might sound like a crazy practice at first, but the story does not end there. The man was trying to conquer his desires by dying to self, so that when he was eventually faced with the decision to act or not act on his desires, he was already in the habit of not doing what he wanted.

Even though there was nothing sinful about taking a hot shower or eating eggs, he practiced self denial, using the momentum gained by each of those decisions to tackle the bigger decisions that would come. It is Mother Teresa who tells us, “Be faithful in the small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” I don’t know if this is necessarily what Mama T was talking about, but I do think that exercising small acts of self-control can strengthen one’s character.

Thankfully for us Catholics, we have the gift of Confession for those times when we do slip up, no matter how big or how often. We will be forgiven as long as we come with a sincere and contrite heart. Even when we sin and become broken as the quote says, there is restoration waiting for us in the sacraments, providing us the graces to follow the divine law and live virtuously. We gotta be saints!

This blog was written by Alanna Murray. You can find her on Instagram @alanna.murray.

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