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On the Malice of Mortal Sin


“I have brought up children and exalted them; but they have despised me.”
cf Isaiah 1:2

What does the sinner do when he commits mortal sin? He insults God, he dishonors him, he afflicts him. In the first place, mortal sin is an insult offered to God. The malice of an insult is, as St. Thomas says, estimated from the condition of the person who receives and of the person who offers the insult. It is sinful to offend a peasant; it is more criminal to insult a nobleman: but to treat a monarch with contempt and insolence, is a still greater crime. Who is God? “He is Lord of lords and king of kings” (Revelation 17:14). He is a Being of infinite majesty, before whom all the princes of the earth, and all the saints and angels, are less than an atom of sand. “As a drop of a bucket…as a little dust” (Isaiah 40:15). The prophet Hosea adds, that, compared with the greatness of God, all creatures are as insignificant as if they did not exist. “All nations,” [Isaiah] says, “are before him as if they had no being at all” (cf Isaiah 40:17). Such is God; and what is man? He is, according to St. Bernard, a heap of worms, the food of worms, by which he shall be soon devoured. “Saccus vermium, cibus vermium.” He is “miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Man is a miserable worm, that can do nothing; he is so blind that he knows nothing, and so poor and naked that he possesses nothing. And this miserable worm voluntarily insults a God! “Vile dust,” says the same St. Bernard, “dares to provoke such tremendous majesty.” The angelic doctor, then, had just reason to say that the sin of man contains, as it were, an infinite malice. “Peccatum habet quandam infinitatem malitiae ex infinitate divinae majestatis” (P. 3, q. 2, c. 2, ad. 2.). And St. Augustine calls sin “an infinite evil.” Hence, were all men and angels to offer themselves to death and annihilation, the oblation should not satisfy for a single sin. God punishes sin with the pains of hell; but all theologians teach that this chastisement is less than sin deserves.

JheronimusBoschTableOfTheMortalSins(AcediaSloth)And what punishment can be sufficient for a worm who assails his Lord? God is the Lord of all, because he has created all. “All things are in thy power. . . . Thou hast made heaven, and earth, and all things” (Esther 13:9, 10 [Esther 4:C:1, 2 NAB]). All creatures obey God, “The winds,” says St. Matthew, “and the sea obey him” (Matthew 8:27). “Fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, which fulfill his will” (cf Psalm 148:8). But when man sins, what does he do? He says to God, Lord, I will not serve thee. “Thou hast broken my yoke; thou hast burst my bonds; thou saidst, I will not serve” (Jeremiah 2:20). The Lord says to him, Seek not revenge; take not that property which belongs to another; abstain from that unchaste gratification. But man answers, I will have revenge; I will take possession of that property; I will indulge in that forbidden pleasure. Like Pharaoh, when Moses, on the part of God, commanded him to allow the people to go into the desert, the sinner answers, “Who is the Lord, that I should hear his voice, and let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2). The sinner says the same–Lord, I know you not; I will do what I please. In a word, he insults the Lord to his face, and turns his back upon him. Mortal sin is precisely a turning away–from God. “Aversio ab incommutabili bono” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Part I of Part II, q 24, art 4). Of this the Lord himself complains–“Thou hast forsaken me, saith the Lord thou art gone backward” (cf Jeremiah 15:6). You have, says God, been ungrateful to me; you have abandoned me; you have turned your back upon me; you “are gone backward.” God has declared that he hates sin. Hence he cannot but hate the sinner who commits it. “But to God the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike” (Wisdom 14:9). In committing sin, man dares to declare himself the enemy of God, and to contend single-handed with the Lord. “He hath,” says Job, “strengthened himself against the Almighty” (cf Job 15:25). What would you say if you saw an insect attack an armed soldier? God is the Omnipotent Being who by a nod has “created heaven and earth out of nothing” (cf 2 Maccabees 7:28). And if he wish, he can, by another act of his will, destroy all creatures. “The Almighty Lord, who, at a beck, can utterly destroy…the whole world” (cf 2 Maccabees 8:18). In consenting to sin, the sinner stretches out his hand against the Lord. “He hath,” says Job, “stretched out his hand against God. He hath run against him with his neck raised up, and is armed with a fat neck” (cf Job 15:26). He raises his neck, that is, he swells with pride, and runs to insult God; he arms himself with a fat neck, that is, with ignorance; for a fat neck is the symbol of ignorance, of that ignorance which makes the sinner say, What have I done? What great evil is that sin which I have committed? God is merciful–he pardons sinners. What an insult! What temerity! What blindness!

Affections and Prayers

Behold, O my God! At thy feet the rash and daring rebel, who has had the temerity and audacity to insult thee so often to thy very face, and to turn his back upon thee. Thou hast said, “Cry to me, and I will hear” (Jeremiah 33:3). Hell is too little for me; this I already know. But remember, O Lord, that I am more sorry for having offended thee, who art infinite goodness, than I would be for the loss of all my property and of my life. Ah, Lord, pardon me, and do not permit me ever to offend thee more. Thou hast waited for me that I may forever bless thy mercy and love thee. Yes, I bless thee, I love thee, and I hope, through the merits of Jesus Christ, that I shall never again be separated from thy love; thy love has rescued me from hell; it is by thy love that I am to be preserved from sin for the future. I thank thee, my Lord, for the light. and the desire thou dost give me to love thee forever. Ah! Take possession of my whole being–of my soul and body–of my powers and senses–of my will and liberty. “I am thine – save me.” Thou art my only good; thou art alone amiable; mayst thou also be my only love. Give me fervor in loving thee. I have offended thee grievously. Hence it is not enough for me to love thee; I wish to love thee ardently, in order to compensate the injuries I have done thee. From thee, who art omnipotent, I hope for this love. I also hope for it through thy prayers, O Mary, which art powerful before God.

Editor’s Note: This meditation is from St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Preparation for Death” (1758).

Art: Detail of Table of the Mortal Sins (Acedia/Sloth)], Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1525, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Charles Fisk

    I read Spiritual direction every morning. It always gives light and guidance. Except this time. It saddened and distressed me. It does not appear to be our loving Father who gave his only Son out of his great love to forgive our sins.
    We sin again and again tripping and stumbling all the days of our lives. He picks us up and forgives us as we do love him so. It is only when we reject him and deny him that we ourselves walk away from him. He does not punish us, we punish ourselves when we sin and deny Him or when we purposely sin and presumptuously believe that we will be forgiven.

    • LizEst

      Charles – This was written by St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church. Your quarrel is with the Saint. Why don’t you talk to him about it in prayer? As well, this is part of series on preparation for death, which are running for Lent. It contains part one of every consideration that is part of this topic. It is geared toward conversion of heart. God is both merciful and just; he does, in fact, exercise both of these.

  • Charles Fisk

    I did pray about this and I still disagree with St Alphonsus. I guess over time I may be able to understand it. Will read the next chapters and hope for his guiding light..

    • Charles – What in specific do you disagree with?

      • Charles Fisk

        What I read and hopefully do not understand is the depiction of God as not having mercy and rejecting all sinners pointing them to the fires of hell. As far as I can understand we are all sinners and when we die we will not be free from all our sins.
        I also think that insulting a peasant may in many instances be far worse than insulting a higher ranking human being. The idea that we are nothing in the eyes of the Lord confuses me as we are made in his image. I read nothing about forgiveness for the repentant sinner St Alphonsus seems to make no distinction between the repentant sinner and the sinner who ignores the love of the Father.I really hope that I have misunderstood. I prayed this days rosary asking for understanding hopefully you can answer my prayer.

        • Dan Burke

          Charles – if you have the time, please join us for this webinar. It provides important insights into the internal struggles of this kind.

          • Charles Fisk

            I will try but I have no webinar experience. How does the webinar work?

          • It is easy. All you need is a computer with an internet connection and good speakers. If your speakers are not that good, you can use your headphones. Once you register then we will send you the link. The day of the webinar you click on the link and your computer will be connected to the webinar. Then, you just sit and enjoy and engage as much as you like.

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    This is very very good. I loved reading this today!
    Can a person who does not know God commit a mortal sin in the same way a person who knows God can? Take for example an atheist who claims not to believe in God, can that person offend God in the same way a believer can? Would it be mortal if they don’t really know God?

  • Gosia

    I somehow agree with Charles . When I read it I felt very sad that no matter what I do I am a horrible worm that I am a sinner. On the other hand I am a child of God and by the Baptism I am set a part . This messages confused me . I will pray for a light . It is hard to swallow to feel loved by God on one account and then nothing ..Christ died for us with love on his lips He conquer the sin and showed us that we can to and as a temples of Holy Spirit we need to believe that we can overcome sin but if I picture myself as a worthless worm how do I see myself as Jesus saw me as a valuable human being.

  • DJDaly

    I read to never dwell on our sins without also considering the precious blood of Christ that was shed for our redemption so we won’t become depressed.

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