Psychology and Sin

By Steven Prasinos, Ph.D.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Bible: I John 1:18

Sin is generally defined as a transgression of a religious or moral law. A moral failure, if you will. It is of course a highly charged word. Sin is often associated with offending God. It has been used to justify witch burnings and hand amputations. The sense of self as “sinner” has burdened countless lives with shame. Sin can be deemed horrible enough to merit eternal damnation. Sinners risk Hell.  

It is no wonder that there exists in mental health a bias against a concept that can be so destructive. Yet for millennia all the great religions have acknowledged the problem of sin. Clearly, one cannot address the human condition without facing the problem of moral failure. This article argues for the importance of the concept of sin for psychology.  

“Moral failure,” choosing wrong over right, is of course a relative concept. One person’s right is another’s wrong and so forth. Yet everyone faces moral choices within the framework of their own morality. Regardless of where our moral standards originate from, we eventually develop a personal morality. And we all at times fail to meet our own moral standards. These are our problems of conscience. These are our sins.  

From this point of view, sin is ubiquitous. No one is morally perfect. We may have a sense of sin (moral failure) when we snap at a child. When we demean a spouse. When we won’t admit someone is right. When we enjoy another’s failure. When we cruelly gossip. When we curse a slow driver or have unkind thoughts.   

So sin need not be so dramatic as murder, theft or adultery. Moral dilemma are woven into human relations. We all sin. Sin is ordinary.  

To recognize that we all sin is strangely comforting. It is not only I who has had innumerable moral failures, but you as well. We need not pose as morally perfect. That’s a sham. We are all morally flawed.   Accepting this truth engenders humility. We replace narcissism (believing we can or should be perfect) with the poignant acceptance of our perpetual moral struggles. This connects us to one another in that we all share in the struggle toward goodness. Narcissism separates. Humility connects. This is the beauty of humility.  

As psychotherapists we can assist patients by helping them to mercifully consider their moral failures. To deepen their relationship to their conscience. We can encourage them to accept regret about having behaved badly. But also to have compassion for the sinner they (and we) are. The point is not to send the sinner to hell, but to lift him up out of it. This is the beauty of mercy.

Psychotherapy is very confessional. One must first admit error before forgiveness can engage. Self-acceptance does not require moral perfection. It is accepting oneself as flawed yet lovable. This is liberating.

The psychotherapist disapproves of sin but also accepts and understands. This is the beauty of forgiveness.  So the central problem is not so much sinning as rather hating oneself for sinning. The relentless demand that one be morally perfect destroys lives. Recognizing sin without compassion is a soul killer. This is toxic shame. Life without mercy is Hell.  

There are of course some who are in full rebellion against morality. The evil and sadistic. Those who have abandoned membership in the human community. They often seek destruction or revenge. They sin without conscience. They are miserable and alienated. They may seek to visit upon others the hell in which they reside. Misery seeking company.  

That extreme points to a central truth: Morality is fundamental to well being.  It is a template for achieving harmony within and without. Morality is a system of rules aimed at caring for the “We.” We are herd creatures. The “We” is as important as the “I.” 

The cornerstone of well-being is arguably the capacity to create satisfying interpersonal relationships. Morality shows us how to accomplish this. Our sins show us how we deviate.  Thus the Dali Lama states his religion is “kindness.” Jesus says “Love one another.” The point is not to robotically follow rules. Rather the idea is that love and kindness benefit the “I” and the “We.” Self and others thrive via humility, mercy and love. 

Love, like hate, extends outwards and inwards. We treat others as we treat ourselves.  Our sins are signposts indicating the next steps in our quest to more fully love. It is vital we learn from sin.  So a central thrust in psychotherapy is to assist patients in acknowledging their sins (whether we use the word or not). Only then can mercy and forgiveness arise. Much marital conflict, for example, is essentially this: “You are a sinner!” “No, YOU are!” Such egocentric conflict can endure for lifetimes. This same projection dynamic is at work in prejudice, hate crimes and genocide: “There is no evil in me. It is in YOU.”   Humility is the resolution: “We all sin. I cannot scorn you for I am flawed as well.” Again: Narcissism separates. Humility connects.  

If we see God as the ultimate “We” then God (the collective) wants us to be moral. Morality is how we love one another and achieve social harmony. Obviously varying moralities conflict and evolve. As a species we may be moving towards a collective secular morality. Currently, for example, women’s rights and freedom of expression are increasingly global moral positions.   

When we face and learn from our sins we are heroes. It takes courage to look, right in the eye, the enemy within. To exit victim-hood and take responsibility for our sins. This is a gift to our-selves and to the “We”, the collective or God. This is the only path I can imagine towards a peaceful world.

Steven Prasinos, Ph.D.

(203) 266-4003

39 Sherman Hill Rd. Suite C202B, Woodbury, CT 06798