The self-help industry has made billions of dollars convincing people that they simply need to believe in their goodness to succeed. Much of what is marketed by self-help gurus is called moral therapeutic deism. It’s a belief system that says that God is all loving and merciful and He loves you just the way you are regardless of any sins you commit. You are a “good” person and that’s all that matters.
In fact, sin doesn’t have much of a place in moral therapeutic deism. Any progress a person makes in this life is due to that person’s strength and ability and God is merely a spectator in the life of the individual. It is true that God loves each one us, but He doesn’t love or tolerate our sin. Our ultimate happiness lies in Him alone and that means the necessary purging of our attachment to sin in this life and in Purgatory.
“No, God is good. We are sinners. That is what every saint down through the ages has taught.”
Moral therapeutic deism is also a major problem in the Church today. It is one of the many pieces that fit together to show us how we have found ourselves in such dark days.
I sat in a discussion a few weeks back that I have pondered for some time now. The discussion turned to how we are “good”—laity and clergy who haven’t molested anyone—and so we can never understand such egregious sins as what has been brought to light by the scandals. That stuck with me and not because I agreed with this assessment. It is the opposite of what the saints say of themselves throughout Church history. No, God is good. We are sinners. That is what every saint down through the ages has taught.
It is easy for us to look at the grave sins of others and say: “Thank you Lord that I am not so-and-so.” We see this illustrated in Sacred Scripture by Our Lord Himself when he compares the prayers of the Pharisee to the sinner. What we forget is that the only reason we are not “so-and-so” is purely by God’s grace.
We do not sin or fall into those temptations because of God’s grace working in our lives. He has kept us upright, through no merit of our own. We are not prone to weakness in every area. There are temptations we haven’t had to face. We haven’t had to battle those demons. Thanks be to God! This should humble us greatly.
As I heard it said ‘that we could never understand these sins because we are good’, I thought to myself, “But I do understand how these men could commit these sins.” I don’t need to ask “why” because I know the darkness in my own heart. In fact, I’m positive that Our Lord hasn’t even shown me the blackest parts of my heart quite yet because, in His mercy, He knows I’m not ready to confront them, but I will have to, in His appointed time.
No, it’s not the exact same type of darkness as these egregious sins, but the more Christ sheds His purifying light into my own soul, the more I see how weak and sinful I am. It is through this process born of prayer, frequent reception of the Sacraments, intense periods of desolation, and spiritual warfare that I have come to understand the deep wound the Fall inflicted on human nature at a visceral level. The Fall has wounded us far deeper than most of us realize. These scandals should horrify us, but not surprise us. We are all capable of great evil without God’s grace.
“We don’t get a pass simply because we haven’t engaged in truly horrifying sins.”
It is why the saints called themselves great sinners. St. Paul refers to himself as the “chief among sinners” because by God’s light he saw how much he fails. He could see the evil in his own heart. We often choose “the very thing we hate” in this life. The more we progress spiritually, the more God reveals this to be the case for each one of us.
When our soul comes into contact with the blinding light of Almighty God we are able to see the darkness within us, even if it isn’t objectively as bad as the next person’s. We don’t get a pass simply because we haven’t engaged in truly horrifying sins, and not all grave sins are “horrifying” to our culture.
The Fall has wounded us at the deepest levels of our being. We are in a constant battle with the flesh. The faculties of the soul—intellect and will—are constantly overrun by the passions and our desires for fulfillment, which point to our longing for God. All of us in our woundedness seek comfort in the material goods around us. We think in a moment of weakness that the longing we feel deep within us will be satiated if we only give into the pleasure before us. We don’t even realize in our daily lives that demons are prowling about the world seeking to ruin us.
There are times we will only discover in prayer that we have committed sins we weren’t even aware of when we were doing them. Not because we don’t know that a certain action is sinful, but because we were too blind to even see our own motives or responses at the time. We are masters of self-deception and blindness. Only the light of His grace will show us where we have chosen what is lower, base, or evil.
“There is nothing in myself that can be relied on.”
We are good in that we are made by God and for God, but we are not “good” day-in-and-day-out because we continue to sin. We also have vague notions of goodness within our culture that have permeated the Church. If I’m not abusing children or murdering other people then I’m a “good” person. Every sin we commit required the death of Our Savior on the Cross. That is how serious sin is in reality. The Son of God, the Creator of Heaven and earth had to take on human flesh and die a brutal torturous death in atonement for every single sin we commit. He is Good, we often are not.
This is not meant to lead to a type of despair, self-loathing, or scrupulosity. God often allows us to be tempted so that we can come to realize how weak we truly are when we do not rely fully on Him. We often become idolaters in our daily lives without being consciously aware of it. We would rather have the creature or the material good right in front of us over God. It is a deeply humbling realization to come to in the spiritual life because the first thought is not: “I’m good.” Our first thought is “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”
St. Teresa of Avila in her autobiography says: “There is nothing in myself that can be relied on.” She was aware of her weakness and inclination to sin, so she turned to God and relied fully on Him. She knew any goodness within her came from God. That is what each one of us is called to do. Any good we do is because of God, not because of us. We choose to cooperate in the good, but that good is given to us solely by God.
“None of this is ultimately up to us. It is up to God, so let us rely fully on Him, who is Goodness Itself.”
God showing us our sinfulness leads us to praise His Holy Name. It leads us to thanksgiving. It enkindles a deeper love and devotion to Him. The purpose of coming to see that we are often not “good” is so that we will turn completely to God and in so doing He can rightly order our souls. We come to see that we are not meant primarily to be some banal notion of “good”, but rather, we are called to be holy. Holiness is radiance. It is to shine like the sun because it is God who shines through us, who purifies us, and who allows us to enter into His Goodness.
In this time of crisis, many people are calling the laity to stand up and walk side-by-side with our spiritual fathers/brothers in the priesthood. This is necessary and good, but before any of us—clergy and laity alike—can truly help bring renewal, all of which will be accomplished through God’s will, grace, and time, we must be willing to enter into the darkness within our own hearts. We can no longer say to ourselves that we are “good” people, because more-often-than-not this thinking leads to pride, laziness, tepidity, apathy, indifference, and sloth. We are all called to be transformed into saints and that means combating the sins we battle.
Our focus cannot primarily be out there in the wider Church. It must be on overcoming the sins and temptations that ensnare each one of us on a daily basis. By allowing God to transfigure us into the saints we are meant to be, we will be able to cooperate with His plan for purging and renewing the Church. None of this is ultimately up to us. It is up to God, so let us rely fully on Him, who is Goodness Itself.