What is the most serious sin?

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Q: What do you think is the most serious sin in people's lives today?

A: It is difficult to say that there is one sin which is both the most serious and that is occurring in most people’s lives today. Because of our fallen nature, we each experience weakness and temptation in different ways.

With that being stated, it is my opinion that the sin of pride is probably the most frequent and greatest obstacle that we face in our society. Pride is nothing new to humanity. The Book of Genesis relates that pride is really the first and fundamental sin committed by humanity in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve attempted to be “like God.” St. Thomas Aquinas thought pride was a special sin, because as an inordinate desire of one’s own excellence, it makes us despise God’s law and can give rise to all other vices. (see ST, II-IIae, q. 162, a. 2)

We commonly understand pride as the tendency to think more of ourselves than we really are. According to this understanding, then, prideful people are those who continue to think of themselves as greater than they are, more important than they are, or take credit for things they did not accomplish.

In light of these tendencies, we would do well to remember the teaching of St. Anthony of Padua: “Attribute to God every good that you have received. If you take credit for something that does not belong to you, you will be guilty of theft.” Humility is the virtue which helps us to overcome prideful tendencies. St. Anthony went on to esteem the power of humility: “The spirit of humility is sweeter than honey, and those who nourish themselves with this honey produce sweet fruit.”

Humility, however, is a misunderstood virtue. Some people believe it means having a degraded view of oneself, as though humility were to be equated with poor self-image. That is not true. Humility means having an honest, truthful and balanced view of oneself. Such a self-perception always reminds us of who we are as “dust of the ground” filled with the gift of life from God. (Genesis 2:7) Interestingly, humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning ground, a constant reminder of our fundamental identity: created beings blessed by God.

This honest and truthful self-awareness of our identity will lead us to give credit and praise to God for every moment of our life and for life itself. It will also lead us to serve God as our Creator and submit our lives to the Lord.

There is another kind of pride that I believe is especially damaging to too many people today. It is a pride not based on false claims of greatness, but rather on an overestimation of one’s weakness or failure.

It is the pride of believing that one’s sin is greater than God’s mercy. This disposition leads us to a defect in our souls known as pusillanimity, the tendency to cling to our opinion of ourselves as incompetent for those things for which we are actually competent. (see ST, II-IIae, q. 133, a. 1)

This type of pride can also lead people to think they must become the authors of their own salvation. It is ultimately this presumption which most separates people from God’s love, forgiveness and grace because it leads them to believe they are not worthy of our Lord’s presence and mercy.

This overestimation of one’s failure can lead to despair and gives rise to the false perception that we are defined by our greatest sin. This lie always comes from the Evil One who accuses us because of our failures and tries to convince us that God either cannot or will not forgive someone who has sinned in such a way. (see John 8:44; Revelation 12:10) This is the sin of Judas who fundamentally believed that no power in heaven or on earth could undo the wrong he had committed and in his despair gave up hope in the possibility of God’s love and forgiveness.

Sometimes that’s what stops us from making a good and honest confession — we, too, believe more in our sin than in God’s love and mercy.

Anytime we believe that we are the authors of our own selves — for better or for worse — we have committed the sin of pride and have left little room for God as our Creator and Redeemer.

With St. Ignatius of Loyola, let us cry out always, “Give me loving humility, Lord!”

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - September 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.