sin & The Passions

Unfortunately the word “sin” carries a cargo plane of baggage and is largely misunderstood. In Western culture the word has been used to censure, control, judge and condemn. Sin has become a forbidden action that requires the scourge of guilt and punishment as a correction. It has been used as a tool to cause harm and because of this it is now confused with feelings of guilt and shame.

A proper understanding on sin can enlighten and even inspire. Therefore it is of great benefit to pry into its mysteries. As German philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer (†1945), who is best known for being executed by Hitler for his work in the Nazi resistance, said of sin:

“The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this.”

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In order for us to discover what sin in, I will have to ask you to strip away all preconceived ideas and feelings that are tangles up with the word. As always, let’s start with the history and origin of a word. When the word “sin” appears in the New Testament the Greek word that is used is often ἁμαρτία (hamartia). In literal terms hamartia means: to miss the mark or target. Hamartia in ancient Greek was a word the meant: accident, mistake, error or wrongdoing. It is believed that the word is a term developed by Aristotle in his works Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics. Here Aristotle described hamartia as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. This concept was further developed and explored in Greek literature and theatre with the lead hero suffering a great downfall due to his hamartia or “tragic flaw”. Aristotle and the Greek literary giants were merely expounding on the self-evident truth that humans make mistakes, and that human nature is incomplete and has flaws.

This incompleteness is made obvious by the various forms of suffering we humans subject ourselves to by the choices we make. What was obvious to Aristotle is something of an enigma to modern man. From the shallows of pop culture to the cutting edge of science, the concept of sin is slowly and methodically being eliminated from our way of thinking. People simply prefer to believe that sin doesn’t exist, and that human nature “isn’t all that bad”, or that everyone is basically good. Modern thought has arrived at this conclusion because sin is inseparably bound to the notion of the existence of deity and moral order. However, sin, as G.K. Chesterton cleverly asserted, “is the only part of Christian Theology which can really be proved.”

So why do we dread sin? Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we in fact make mistakes? There are many other areas in life that we are not only willing, but driven to identify our deficiencies. Take sports for example. The athlete spends his entire career learning his or her deficiencies to become the very best athlete in the field. The baseball player is consumed with avoiding errors and the football player watches tape to observe his weaknesses on the field. The archer shoots at his target from a distance, and once his quiver is empty he approaches the target to see if he is shooting too low or too high. Analyzing how the archer misses the mark helps the archer achieve perfection in the sport. Ah, did I say “miss the mark?” Were right back to hamartia. Some scholars believe the origin of the word “sin” comes from archery.

So what is the meaning of sin and how does it impact our lives? How does it effect our spiritual life? According to Orthodox Theology, sin causes disharmony within, with those around us, and with God. It is a state or act that causes disharmony and separation from God. The origin of sin as put forth by Moses in the book of Genesis offers a profound insight into sin and human nature. In the account of creation man is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26); that is sinless and without passions. To preserve this state of perfection man was to avoid one thing: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man desired this knowledge, which is also knowledge of the created world which produces both pleasure and pain . Once man disregarded this one command, to not partake of this knowledge, sin entered humanity. Human nature, which was filled with light, became dim and darkened. About Adam’s fall St. Macarius the Great said, “he clothed himself with darkness in his own soul”  and darkness and illness entered humanity. With this fall from perfection followed disconnectedness with God, and thus all forms of illness and brokenness entered humanity. The 6th century monk St. Dorotheos of Gaza, had this to say about this narrative:

“In the beginning when God created man he set him in paradise (as the divine holy scripture says), adorned with every virtue, and gave him a command not to eat of the tree in the middle of paradise.  He was provided for in paradise, in prayer and contemplation in the midst of honor and glory; healthy in his emotions and sense perceptions, and perfect in his nature as he was created. For, to the likeness of God did God make man, that is, immortal, having the power to act freely, and adorned with all the virtues.  When he disobeyed the command and ate of the tree that God commanded him not to eat of, he was thrown out of paradise and fell from a state in accord with his nature to a state contrary to nature, i.e. a prey to sin, to ambition, to a love of the pleasures of this life and other passions; and he was mastered by them, and became a slave of them through his transgression.  Then little by little evil increased and death reigned.”

--St. Dorotheos of Gaza

Sin was the result of the gift of free will, which God bestowed upon mankind out of love. It is ultimately that which causes separation from God, which in turn causes illness in the soul. This connection with the introduction of sin into humanity by way of the fall was addressed by one of the early Church Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria (†444):

“Man...was given over to illnesses, sufferings, and the other bitter things as to a kind of bridal. Because he did not sensibly restrain himself... he is given over to misfortunes so that by sufferings he might heal in himself the disease which came upon him in the midst of blessedness.”  

--St. Cyril of Alexandria

So how does this apply to us? This account of creation and how suffering was introduced to the world translated to simple terms is this. God is the source of all life. Mankind was created in the image and likeness of God. When we, with our own free, make decisions that are disharmonious with the nature of our own soul, which is connected to God’s divine nature, sin is introduced. The end result: sin causes separation from God which causes the soul to be disharmonious and unhealthy, which causes illness, which is suffering. Therefore, sin is suffering.

We often think of sin as simply being an action one commits. This can be an action committed against one’s self or someone else, both of which distance us from God. Sin can also be against God. The Church Fathers say that the soul is liable to sin in three ways: in actions, in words, and in thoughts.  

“we are liable to sin in three ways: in actions, in words and in thoughts.”

--Ilias the Presbyter

They also say that individual sins are actually not the root of the problem. The origin of all our sins in found in the passions. The saints and ascetics were less concerned with the individual instances of sin, and more concerned with the roots or causes of sin. This is because the Church Fathers knew that sin is the result of a deeper malady of the soul.

“If you wish to be in control of your soul and body, forestall the passions by rooting out their causes.”

--St. Thalassios the Libyan

They referred to these causes of sin as the passions. The word ‘passion’ should not be confused with the modern notion of romance, love, or even things and activities people are “passionate” about. The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin passio, which literally means to suffer. For example, when we speak of Christ's passion, we speak of his suffering. In Greek the word used is πάθος (pathos), which translates as passive, and pathos is the root word for pathology. The etymology of the Latin and Greek words express with precision what the passions are. Therefore, the passions are passive, negative or destructive interior dispositions of the soul that cause us suffering.

So what exactly are the passions and how do they differ from sins? How do they function in a person? Sin is an action or instance when someone decides to do something wrong. Passion is an operative state of the soul. Sin is an instance and a passion is a state, and a passion operates in the soul and a sinful act involves the body , and in some cases is an act of the mind. Passion is the suffering and attachment that is produced by repeated acts sin or habits of sin. This attachment blinds us and leads to compulsive acts that are harmful or disharmonious. Here’s what St. Maximus the Confessor said:

"for example, it is one thing to sin through force of habit and another to sin through being carried away by a sudden impulse. In the latter case the man did not deliberately choose the sin either before committing it, or afterwards; on the contrary, he is deeply distressed that the sin has occurred. It is quite different with the man who sins through force of habit. Prior to that act itself he was already sinning in thought and after it he is still in the same state of mind."

--St. Maximus the Confessor

It should be no surprise that the passions directly correlate with the three powers or faculties of the soul: the mind, will and heart. When a person is using these powers in a way that is disharmonious with their natural functions the passions ultimately distort one or all three aspects of the soul. This introduces disharmony into the whole person. Here’s a more technical definition by St. John Damascene:

“The definition of the passions of the soul is this: passion is a sensible activity of the appetitive (will) faculty [of the soul], depending on the presentation to the mind of something good or bad…passion is an irrational activity of the soul…”

--St. John Damascene

A passion is the irrational activity of the soul. It is when we misuse the soul’s powers that things get out of whack. For instance the misuse of the mind can result in ignorance or delusion, and misuse of the will can turn into self destructive desire and addiction, and misuse of the heart can lead to hatred, envy, apathy and even murder. So it is the misuse of the powers of the soul that causes evil to dominate within. This is the crux of the whole problem. Here’s what St. Maximus the Confessor said:

“Every passion always consists of a combination of some perceived object, a sense faculty, and a natural power [of the soul]—the incensive power [the heart], desire [the will] or the intelligence [the mind]…whose natural function has been distorted.”

--St. Maximus the Confessor

This distortion of the natural functions of the soul takes place when we are young. According to St. Gregory Palamas the passions are in us from childhood, but initially are not distorted. The passions are good and necessary, as they are a part of our sustaining nature. Then at some point the first passion develops or begins to distort. St. Gregory says that the first one is love of material possessions . This is when our unhealthy attachment to a passion takes place. Although some people are born predisposed towards a particular passion, we all acquire a taste for them in childhood and grow up being very accustomed to them. As we get older, we learn additional passions, and over time they can deepen and multiply, and eventually become embedded in the soul. And although they are harmful and cause us unhappiness, they seem natural to us and we can’t imagine life without them. In the end they can wreak havoc on a person’s inner thoughts, feelings, and dispositions throughout life. They can also hurt friends and loved ones, and can destroy relationships. This is why the Roman philosopher Seneca (†65AD), who some scholars think was a friend of St. Paul, said that a passion is a “tyrant within” . On this tyranny of the passions St. Macarius the Great said:

“Whatever passion a man does not bravely war against, is an object of his affection; and it holds him fast, and weighs him down, it becomes to him a hindrance and a fetter, preventing his mind from going up to God...”

--St. Macarius the Great

When the three powers of the soul are distorted by the passions, the activity of habitual sin leads the person into a sort of slavery or captivity. In modern terms this can sometimes translate to addiction. What starts off as a dabbling in a particular sin leads to further experimentation, which leads to habit, which leads to complete slavery. This we call a state of passion, where the soul is sick and in some cases is even dying. This is known in modern terms as a bad habit. This can apply to so many things, for we are subject to a great myriad of habits that cause us harm. St. John Climacus, the 7th century mystic, who lived in the monastery at the bottom of Mount Sinai, put it this way:

“Passion, they say, is preeminently that which for a long time nestles with persistence in the soul, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free will and proper choice clings to it.”

--St. John Climacus

What’s frustrating about the passions is that they are elusive and hard to pin down. Since they are not physical and cannot be touched or seen. No doctor can do a blood panel to identify the passions, and even conventional psychotherapists have a hard time identifying them and addressing them. They are like phantoms that attend to us and direct us throughout the day. St. Neilos the Ascetic said that they:

“…lack substance, for there is nothing clear and distinct about them. They possess a specious resemblance to reality, but change from day to day. We ourselves give them substance when, in our thoughts we shape fantasies about things that serve no real purpose.”

--St. Neilos the Ascetic

Besides being elusive they are also insatiable. There is a pernicious catch 22 that comes with these bad habits that torments us so. Once rooted in the soul we strive to fulfill them at all cost because we believe that they can be satisfied if only we placate them. But no matter how much one indulges in their passions they will never be satisfied, because they are not natural to the soul. This creates an unending cycle of desire, satiation, emptiness, which is the cycle of disease. About this process St. Dorotheos of Gaza said:

“Virtue and vice are formed in the soul by repeated actions, and ingrained habits bring peace or punishment with them…. By doing repeatedly what is evil we acquire a habit which is foreign to us, something unnatural. We put ourselves, as it were, into a permanent state of pestilential sickness, so that we can no longer be healed without many tears.”

--St. Dorotheos of Gaza

In secular terms, the passions can sometimes be related to the causes of the various mental disorders, spiritual states and addictions that cause us harm. In a soft sense they are our weaknesses, but in the hard and true sense they are referred to as ones demons. They can have a powerful grasp on us, and can affect our lives in so many ways. These mental and spiritual sicknesses can even translate into physical illness. Since the soul and the body function together in unity, as we’ve previously discussed, these passions can cause harm to the body as well as the soul. There are in fact passions of the body and passions of the soul