One of Aesop’s Tales tells of a fox who repeatedly fails to reach some grapes hanging on a vine over its head. To soothe its disappointment, it decides that the grapes are sour and not worth the effort. This story reminds us of the power of rationalization in justifying change and easing discomfort. What we may not realize, however, is that rationalization can justify and ease sin as well!
Many years ago, Leon Festinger, a famous psychologist, proposed his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, which ushered in a new era in the understanding of motivation and attitude change. Simply stated, Festinger proposed that people dislike inconsistency, or dissonance, between their actions and beliefs. This aversion to dissonance is so great that people will go as far as changing their beliefs to justify their actions and decisions and soothe their conscience, much like the fox in our fairy tale. Festinger found that people are more concerned with creating a false order than honestly dealing with a disorder in their lives. People will rationalize behavior they inherently know may be bad until they convince themselves that the behavior is acceptable, justified, or moral.
By now you may be wondering what all of this psychology has to do with sin. Festinger’s theory might help us understand how sin expands in a society and how societal values and attitudes can eventually mask sinful behavior and present it as acceptable. Through the gradual process of societal and individual rationalization, what was once deemed sinful becomes neutral then acceptable and even popular and laudable. It is almost as if societal pressures and influences can brainwash individuals into “forgetting” that something was wrong until that position or belief become generally accepted.
It is obvious that sin has existed since the first sinner, but its popularity and prevalence varies like stock. When sin is accepted, open, celebrated, and even chic, it is actually easier to turn to sin than to seek righteousness. Conversely, when sin is less accepted, open, and popular, it may be less attractive. Briefly stated, the world around us can either contribute to or discourage our sinful leanings. We live in a world where sinfulness has become an art form. What was once considered sinful is publicly discussed, accepted, and even celebrated. Those who refuse to dance to the music society plays are isolated, ridiculed, and even persecuted. In a world turned upside down, it may be easier to accept sin or rationalize it than to stand alone against it. Taking Festinger’s theory into account, the more openly sinful a society is, the more sin is encouraged and the more sinful behavior will be justified by soothing, comforting rationalizations, justifications, and excuses.
Christ’s words, actions, and mercy clearly tell us that sin arises from our own humanity and falling into sin can be expected given our human nature. Where we have a greater problem, however, is when we begin to ignore the wounds of sin because we begin to see those wounds as tattoos or even badges of honor. The devil’s victory over us is not found in our sin, for that is human. It is found in the ultimate rationalization of sin, for that is total surrender to sin and denial of God’s power, mercy, and love. While sin can temporarily injure our relationship with God, rationalized sin may permanently injure that relationship if we slip into moral amnesia and reshape our conscience to accommodate our sin. When we rationalize our sin, we mock the cross on which victory over sin was won. Conversely, when we acknowledge our sinfulness and seek forgiveness, we raise the cross proudly as the symbol of God’s redemptive plan and the ultimate victory over sin.
Dr. Scott Hahn once stated that Christ paid a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt that we could not pay. Salvation is found in accepting our debt, our inability to repay that debt, and Christ’s ability to pay that debt for us if we allow Him to do so. But rationalization pretends the debt does not even exist. We are warned against this dangerous course by the Apostle of love:
If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10).
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.