Published in THE NATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, May/June 2019
No one is perfectly just. We can all be, to varying degrees, immoral. Human injustice can range from murder to sarcasm, from theft to a fib. In ways overt or subtle, we all trespass. How we live with our moral imperfection has been called the problem of sin.
Sin of course is a charged word. It can be associated with offending God, leading to Hell or justifying inquisitions. Scorning oneself as “sinner” has poisoned countless lives. No wonder there exists within mental health a bias against a concept that can be so destructive. And yet, this article suggests, sin (moral error) is a vital concept for psychology, necessary for understanding human dynamics.
Consider the archetypal marital conflict: “I’m not the sinner, you are!” Or war: “They are unjust, not us!” Or witch burnings: “The devil possesses you!” Such denial and projection of sin is a profoundly destructive psychological phenomenon.
This perceiving others sins but not ones own is a common form of narcissism. Here there is self-righteous blaming and distortion without learning. This framework promotes victimhood and aggression. It is an angry position.
It is also destructive, however, to deny the sins of others and introject them: “My father demeans me because I am bad.” or “If I were a better wife my husband wouldn’t be cruel.” This framework, like the angry one, requires distortion and again there is no learning. It is a depressive position.
The alternative to these distortions is to recognize that moral fallibility resides not either in you or me but in us. This recognition joins us in a shared humility. This joining is comforting because we are not alone in our struggle with sin. Contrarily, narcissism isolates us because it divides people into better and worse. Narcissism separates and humility connects.
But acknowledging the universality of sin, though comforting, is not enough. We can still toxically shame self and others for innumerable moral errors. Only when we join humility with mercy do we have a healthy relationship to sin.
Mercy, fundamental to psychotherapy, is compassionate towards wrongdoing. In mercy we seek to understand sins. We see, for example, violence as resulting from extreme frustration, theft from deficiency. In the merciful position we humanize, forgive and learn.
Further, through humility and mercy we learn not only why we sin but what sin costs. We can see why relationships fail, why we are angry or depressed and what we really need. We grasp what not to do and seek alternatives. Learning from our sins engenders change and hope.
So sin is a powerful psychological concept. And through examining sin we arrive at a simple truth: Morality is fundamental to well being. Morality is a collective, ever-evolving code aimed at caring for the “We.” We are communal creatures who need each other. Failing to grasp this is the great error of narcissism. “We” is as important as “I.” Morality, then, is a guide towards harmony. It is the collective’s attempt to codify love.
Each of us interprets and internalizes this collective code into a personal morality (conscience). In this sense sin is a secular psychological term indicating a conscience violation. Without mercy it is painful, even intolerable, to acknowledge ones sins. Many people cannot do so and thus suffer a misguided search for harmony. It takes a hero to be humble.
These dynamics apply culturally as well. Extending mercy, for example, to killers, bigots, pedophiles, and other outliers enables the culture to learn and heal. Scorn only pushes such disorders further underground. Mercy promotes personal and social evolution.
So as we accept with humility and learn through mercy, our capacity to love evolves. Our caring increasingly encompasses other persons, other creatures, and even Mother Earth. Our field of consciousness becomes more unitive. This is what it means to develop spiritually.
As spiritual consciousness evolves the self is identified more and more with the “beyond self” (transpersonal). This engenders a sense of membership in a vibrant field of life (God). Recognizing this membership reduces alienation and enhances self worth. Serving the “beyond self” gives life purpose. Spirituality, then, is the culmination of psychological health. Our sins are signposts indicating the next steps in our quest to more fully love.