The Church and the secular world have different understandings of sin. When the media and other secular institutions talk about sin, they often equate sin with evil, with little deviation from this. The Church, on the other hand, from its earliest years has had a different understanding of sin.
There was no single word in the Greek language that can be translated into our English word sin. There are seven Greek words that are translated as sin in the Bible, with the most frequently used word being hamartia. It was used 221 times in the New Testament. Its literal meaning is quite revealing - it sheds some light on how the early Church understood sin. It means, literally, “to miss the mark”. To sin is really to miss the mark; think of an archer that is aiming for the bull’s eye in a target. If he’s really good, he’ll hit the mark. If not, he’ll miss the mark, or, he’ll sin.
With this understanding of sin, we see that our failures are not because we truly desire to bring about evil. Rather, our actions, when they are “sinful”, are short of the real good. We want good, but the problem is that we don’t often know what is the true good, and so we miss the mark.
Let me illustrate this with an example. A man commits adultery. If we were to probe the depths of his desires and look at his reasoning when he decided to commit this act, we would, at the core, find a desire to be loved and to love. It is not that he set out to do an evil act. He was aiming for love, acceptance, and intimacy. All of these are very good things. The problem is that he has a wife, and his actions hurt her and create many other complications for the third party, not to mention for himself and his children if he has any. The Greeks would have seen this as missing the mark; he aims for what is good as he sees it, but his actions ultimately are not in line with the true good, which is the objective moral law given to us by God. In other words, he misses the mark of the true vision of love, intimacy, and acceptance, which is always held together by faithfulness to his spouse.
It becomes clear, then, that the challenge is to have a well formed conscience in order to align our desire for the good as we understand it, with God’s desire for the true good for us. This goes to the heart of the true meaning of the world conscience, which is two Latin words, cum and sciencia (with knowledge). Conscience is knowing what the true good is, and acting accordingly with that knowledge.
It also provides us with a different approach in our pastoral work. When reaching out to those outside of the Church, or who are in the Church and are entrapped in sin, having this definition of sin before us will help us see these people as seekers of the good albeit in a harmful way. I dare to say that it also helps us to understand ourselves and our own sinfulness. Deep down, we desire good things. We desire to be whole, loved, happy, close to God. Perhaps it is a matter of adjusting small subtleties that will free us up to hit the mark.
If only it were so simple and remained at the level of knowledge. Knowing is a large part of the struggle, to know what is truly good and life-giving. It must, however, descend deeper, to the will. St. Paul very perceptively writes: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin [hamartia] which dwells within me” (Rom 7: 15-17). Sin makes a deep imprint upon us. It mars our likeness to God and becomes a part of us, rooted within our will, until God roots it out. Knowing what is the true good is not enough, as St. Paul points out; at some point we come to discover the truth of our actions, but the constant missing of the mark in our past has left its mark. We must now struggle with the help of Divine Grace to overcome perhaps the consequence of years of sinfulness, and this requires great efforts of the will.
The Examen prayer is a powerful tool for examining and understanding our everyday desires. In addition to look at our day, we are able to see what has caused these desires and what the subsequent fruits were. If they led us to bad fruits, the idea is to strive to deal with them better the next time the same situation arises. As we start to pray the Examen initially, we realize that we miss the mark by a lot. But as we are more and more aware of these tendencies and of what causes them, our aim gets better: we become straight shooters.