extenuating circumstances

You don’t need to look far for evidence that humankind labours (now, post-Fall) in what the Shorter Catechism calls “a state of sin and misery.” And even though sin and misery can sometimes be dissociated, it is often the case that misery enters human experience as a result of sin.

A question for your consideration is, then, to what extent is it legitimate to pity people who have brought their misery on themselves very largely through their own sin? This seems to be one of the issues raised in a blogpost which I read a wee while back, where the writer seemed to be suggesting that being able to rationalise why someone committed a particular sin does not allow you to pity the sinner in their resulting misery – or at least not unless they are repenting of their sin.*

The writer argued like this (summarised):

I’m uncomfortable with the “here’s why {anyone} sinned, so feel compassion” line, as if a rationale for sin enables pity for the sinner. Let me explain why … [S]uppose … we were talking about adultery … a man who has committed adultery. … Are you interested in a discussion of why he did it, so you can feel more compassion for him? Do you want to hear about how cold, distant, and disrespectful his wife was? Do you want to hear about how she shamed him publicly, and shunned him privately? Do you want to hear about our society, the pressure it puts on men, the allurements to infidelity, and so on?
No, I’m sure you don’t. I don’t, either! In fact, I’d bet cash money that the percentage of readers ready to sympathize with Sinner A dropped dramatically when I shifted to Sinner B.
But why? Is sin sin, or is it not? Are some sins special sins?

Sin, the writer says later, is always inexcusable – and he also says (as I agree) there’s no use trying to alleviate people’s feelings of guilt by shirking the issue that they really are guilty.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that all sins are equally heinous, even considered in themselves. There are also various ‘aggravations’ which can enter in too, to borrow from the Larger Catechism: If a sin is committed (a) maliciously (b) against someone who has been very kind to you (c) in front of someone who is likely to be shocked by it (d) when you should know better, these factors give the sin a much greater aggravation than it would otherwise have, even supposing it was no more than a word or two. (Larger Catechism 151).

On the other hand, sins which are not attended with these aggravating factors should be correspondingly understood, still as sins, but as to some extent or another less heinous. People who have been underexposed to fully biblical values – who are unfamiliar with the practice (and viability) of living according to plain principles regardless of possible negative consequences – and who lack access to anyone who might help them through a moral dilemma – such people might well end up committing sins that would rightly be diagnosed as inexcusable, ugly, unnecessary, and repellent to God and man. Yet when flawed sinners find themselves in complex circumstances, are pressurised into taking the sinful courses of action which fallen creatures are only too ready to follow, and end up now suffering, whether from feelings of guilt and shame or anything more tangible: shouldn’t we feel compassion for them?

This applies more straightforwardly to some sins than others. In fact, Proverbs 6 makes a comparison between men who cheat on their wives (the blogger’s example), and the significantly less abhorrent and outrageous sin of someone who steals food to feed themselves when they’re starving. The thief is still a thief – the theft is ugly, repellent, and more – but if a greater percentage of readers was ready to sympathise with this sinner than with another sinner, that wouldn’t after all be such a bad thing.

And surely that goes for the consequences of sin too – even granting that it was a person’s sin that led to them making decisions which put them in difficult circumstances, the misery of their state calls for our compassion (considering, whoever ‘we’ are, we’re only sinners too) even though the sin of their-and-our state calls for their and our repentance. Imagine a situation where a mother acted in a way that brought such harm to her child that the child then died. Her action leading to the child’s death is undeniably sinful, but it can also easily be imagined that she may have acted as she did without realising the magnitude of what she was doing, or that there was any alternative course of action available to her, for example. If she now experiences guilt, depression, and feelings of bereavement, it’s impossible to deny that it was her own bad actions that brought this on her, but surely it should also be extremely difficult to view her hard-heartedly, without some compassion for her misery – even though her misery is the result of her sin, and regardless, additionally, of whether or not she is repenting in the sight of God yet.

You don’t need to condone the sins that sinners commit, I suppose I’m trying to say, but surely compassion for our miserable fellow-sinners goes hand in hand with hatred for their and our sin as something that should characterise any Christian heart. Surely?

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* (Seemed, I’m saying, since it feels like the point was inserted into the argument as a minor afterthought in spite of its greater apparent conceptual relevance to what sparked off the post in the first place; post is here if you feel like judging for yourself.)

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5 thoughts on “extenuating circumstances

  1. surely the sin is in itself a ground for pity? Being a wicked terrible sinner, I mean. Don’t you feel sorry for people who habitually beat up old ladies, steal, con, masturbate, or whatever? Or indeed, once off?

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  2. not sure about that.

    There are aspects of a sinner’s sinfulness that call for pity. That it deprives them of much good. That it exposes them to dreadful consequences. That their condition is one of hopeless slavery to sin.

    But sin in itself – what makes it to be sin is that it is against God who is holy and good. That’s what makes it evil, gives it its heinousness/outrageousness. It’s not pitiable so much as something to hate and fear and strive against – whether in ourselves (especially in ourselves) or in others

    unless i’m missing something?

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  3. I think we should always pity the misery of sin. Of course we brought it on ourselves (and so there’s no good being self-pitying). But Christ wept over Jerusalem when she wasn’t repentant. We need to understand that there is more to the misery of sin than a guilty conscience (sometimes it seems like that is the only misery that Christians feel compassion for).

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  4. (long time later, and I should be in my bed)

    Actually if you are literally starving and someone who has more than enough refuses to feed you, then you are not stealing if you take something from him to keep yourself alive/prevent permanent serious internal damage. The food he has that he doesn’t need that you do doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to you. Property is not an absolute right.

    I mean, the circumstances in which one can take on oneself to act like this are obviously extreme. But the extreme example is important to remember because it shows clearly the way in which we should understand ownership when considering our own property.

    Here is something they used to say of one of the desert fathers, which I don’t like reading:

    “A brother said to Serapion ‘Give me a word’. But he replied ‘What can I say to you? You have taken what belongs to widows and orphans and put it on your window-ledge’. He saw that the window-ledge was full of books.”

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  5. I expect if you are hungry, and someone else has excess, and he sees or is told (by you or someone else) that you are in need, then he does have a moral obligation of some degree to give you of that excess. But I think you do not have the right to take it unless you are in truly desperate need. You can see why this is. Man is a political animal, we live in societies, and those societies would collapse if people could go about deciding that some level of inconvenience justified the breaking of a law as fundamental as that of property.

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