Mistakes Versus Sins

In 1973, the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The book discussed the moral decline of America which had taken place over the preceding decades before the publishing of the book. As a psychiatrist, Menninger was keenly aware of the moral dimensions of human failures and the price that people pay emotionally for such failures. He took to task the society which had excused moral excesses in the name of freedom. He asked the simple question, “Is anything considered to be wrong anymore?”

That was a good question then, and it still is today. It brings to mind to me the important distinction between mistakes and moral failures. I will share with you that a pet peeve of mine is the juxtaposition of the term “mistake” for what are obvious moral failures.

One does not have to look too far to see this subtle refuge for those who have crossed a moral boundary, and who cover it by claiming the innocence of a “mistake”. After all, everyone makes mistakes, right? Allow me to expound.

Let’s say you file your income tax and you have made a math error on the return. As a result, you are due a refund of an extra $100. That was a mistake.

Your friend also files his tax return, but he deliberately fudges a number which results in his receiving an extra $100 on his tax refund. That was cheating, a moral failure. The results were the same, but the intent was different. That is the difference between a mistake, and a moral failure, or, if you will, sin.

How many times have we heard athletes or actors, or politicians, caught in a transgression, plead that they have “made a mistake” and ask to be forgiven. The politician is caught in an affair, becomes contrite and accepts that he “made a mistake.” The athlete takes steroids, gets caught, and then pleads that he “made a mistake” and asks the public to embrace him again.

Let’s be clear that the above examples are NOT examples of mistakes. They are wrong behaviors watered down to “mistake” so that the behavior can be mitigated and the crime minimized. My mere suggestion is that we be clear about what is a mistake and what is a sin.  I believe in forgiveness, no matter if it is a simple mistake, or if it is a moral failure. However, for the sake of the individual who needs the forgiveness, it is crucial to understand that “sin” is of deliberate intent, and it needs to be acknowledged as such.

As a counselor, I try to help people get moral clarity. I do not judge people, but I do help them to take a moral self inventory (the 4th step of 12 Step programs) so that they can move ahead from past failures.  Acknowledging our failures, as well as differentiating them from honest mistakes, is important in the healing process. We all indeed make mistakes, and we all make wrong moral choices at times. I believe that if we can understand the difference, and own what we do, we are then able to heal and move ahead.

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