One of the strongest instincts we possess is that of self-preservation. It is so basic and strong that every creature exhibits it. Think of the lowly fly or bug that is so sly to evade our best attempts at killing them. This instinct is placed in us by God to preserve us and to ensure our continuance in earthly existence. Ultimately it is preservation from death i.e. bodily end.
Alongside this instinct of self-preservation is our avoidance of pain and its corollary, discomfort. From shrinking away from the doctor’s needle to avoidance of fire, we understandably see suffering as something to be avoided.
I think that we can all agree that suffering and death are viewed by every human being as enemies of
humankind. Could there be anything worse? Yes. Sin.
We have no greater authority on this that Christ Himself when He warned his followers “Do not fear those that can hurt the body but fear those that can hurt body and soul and send to Gehenna” (Mt. 10:28). What kills the soul is much more serious since it prevents us from enjoying God forever in the Heaven that God has prepared for us. It has eternal consequences.
Another passage in the Gospel of John sees Jesus walking in the Portico of Bethsaida and curing a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and could not get into the miraculous waters fast enough to be cured. After his cure Jesus gives him some parting advice: “Don’t sin lest something worse happen to you.” Worse? What could be worse than being paralyzed for 38 years? Obviously sin. So the scriptures say very clearly that the ultimate enemy is not Death or Suffering, but it is Sin. This would make a lot of sense in previous ages that had a culture where the supernatural was widely accepted and where the culture had not gone through a thorough secularization or what one philosopher (Charles Taylor) called a disenchantment of reality.
But today we do not see the loss of our supernatural, post death happiness because we don’t believe, at least on a cultural level, in life after death, in judgment by God and in Heaven and Hell. While we say that we do believe in theory, we live our lives and do our daily business as if death is annihilation. So we will spend enormous amounts of money on keeping ourselves wired and artificially breathing in hospitals rather that seeing death as a passage to the fully present love of God. Even the word ‘death’ is disappearing from our daily lexicon. We talk about someone ‘passing’. While there may be a degree of caring and sensitivity to the mourners in avoiding the word ‘death’, it is also an expression, I believe, of our culture’s avoidance of reality.
A distinction at this point needs to be made with the proponents of ‘mercy killing’ or the supposed right of an individual to die with dignity. This has more to do with the avoidance of, sometimes, horrendous suffering. This belief also has adherents who are avowedly atheists and therefore have absolutely no belief in an afterlife. So they, at least, are not afraid of using the word ‘death’ but it is not because they see it as a less evil than sin.
While ‘wrong’ is spoken of by this group, sin is not one of the concepts that they believe even exists. To sin means that there is a good who has established right and wrong and the failure to do good and the choice to do evil is primarily a personal rejection of the love and relationship that God offers us. Could there be anything worse than sin?
Sin is the ultimate enemy of humankind and its avoidance must be the central dynamic of our earthly life. In the distinction between imperfect and perfect contrition we see both reasons to avoid sin at all costs. For we say in the traditional form of the Act of Contrition: “And I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments (imperfect contrition due to fear of hell) but most of all because they offend thee my God who art all good and deserving of all my love” (perfect contrition due to an ungrateful response to a Loving Father). Both because of our sense of eternal self-preservation and because of our love of God, the avoidance of sin should be a goal of the first order not only in Lent but always.