Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - Updated: 4:27 pm
QUESTION: What does the church mean when it speaks of “sins of thought?”
ANSWER: This question is really dealing with three things: feelings, temptations and sins of thought.
Feelings can be described as spontaneous outpourings from our inner selves. They usually occur swiftly and can be illogical, unsought and varied. Feelings might include those of fear, distaste, discouragement, anger, suspicion, annoyance or disappointment.
What is the moral value of such feelings? Is a feeling of revulsion wrong when one sees a television image of someone accused of committing an act of mass murder? Is it right or wrong to feel anger at witnessing a helpless person abused? The answer is that it is neither right nor wrong to “feel” such feelings. Feelings in themselves have no moral value. Feelings are responses to stimuli; they do not involve such things as choice, rationality or decision-making (the things from which sin arises).
What are temptations then? Some have defined temptations as situations, persons or things that attract us toward actions we recognize as wrong. A very expensive, unlocked car or pretzels for someone on a salt-free diet could be called temptations. The nature of a temptation is that, despite potentially harmful effects, it appears to be good (good in the sense that it offers pleasure, not pain).
Are temptations immoral? No, despite the fact that some temptations may be debased or repulsive in themselves, temptations are not wrong. How could a beautiful car or a pretzel be intrinsically evil? Temptations may, in fact, be opportunities for growth and strength. They were that for many of the saints.
Having said this about feelings and temptations, what then are sins of thought? Sins of thought are decisions we make regarding feelings and temptations. They involve a rational, internal decision to act upon a temptation. Thus, a sin of thought might involve a decision to inflict pain on an individual causing injury or a decision to enter and steal an unlocked automobile. Sins of thought involve decisions (not merely feelings or temptations).
What distinguishes sins of thought from other sins is that they need not involve a completed action. For example, the person we decided to hurt might move out of town. Does that mean there is no sin? Of course not; the sin was in the decision to undertake the action. The circumstances that prevented its accomplishment had nothing to do with us, and our fundamental intention remained the same (although thwarted).
Christ is quoted as saying: “anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts” (Matthew 5:28). It appears that Jesus is not talking about a feeling of attraction or even a temptation; he is speaking of lust, defined by Christian tradition as a decision to pursue a temptation (even if only in one’s mind).
The church takes seriously the matter of sins of thought. But one must be very clear about what constitutes a sin of thought. For many people temptations or feelings are considered sins of thought, but a sin of thought must involve a decision and not just a feeling or attraction.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.