Perhaps we’re humble enough to admit that we sin. After all, the Bible is pretty clear when it says that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The smallest ounce of honest introspection will force us to admit that we are no exception to the rule. We aren’t perfect. Most of us can admit that.
However I think that plenty of us independent, self-made Americans, who control our own destiny are prideful in another way. We admit that we sin, but we think we have everything in hand and it’s completely within our power to stop. This comes partially from a good place—an acknowledgment of free will. It’s true that we have freedom and that sin results from choices we make. The problem is that both Scripture and Tradition suggest this fact isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
Consider for example the Council of Orange which says that “the sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him” (The Council of Orange, Conclusion).
Or how about St. Augustine who speaks about his will, not as a source of freedom, but as a chain: “I longed to [devote myself entirely to you], but I was held fast…by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains” (Confessions 8:5).
There is so much I could point to in the Bible, but I’ll settle for three verses that make the case best. 1) In Romans 7:18, St. Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” 2) Also in Romans 6:16 he says, “you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” 3) Finally, our Lord himself tells us in John 8:34 that “every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
I might also point to our own experience to illustrate the point. Don’t we often feel sort of tricked or lured into sin? Isn’t this what we mean when we say we “give in” to temptation? As if we were literally incapable of escaping the situation without our spiritual knees buckling under a heavy burden? There is clearly a strange paradox at play here. On one hand we feel like we are really choosing and are responsible, and on the other hand, we feel like a salve to our desires. We can’t resist the thing which is most appealing to us, even if we know it is bad.
Now I certainly don’t have the space in this post (nor the ability I am sure) to explain the mystery of human freedom to you. Hopefully we can take this on in greater depth another time. For now I would just like to challenge your perception of freedom. Do you really have as much control as you think? In the face of temptations, are you immediately and directly able to choose an outcome? Is holiness really won by striving through the most difficult challenges with the pure power of the human will?
Are there some things you do which you can’t seem to stop, even though you’ve tried for years? Are you a small creature in a vast expanse of creation filled with beings more powerful than you? Are you drowning in your sins, trapped in them, and utterly unable to escape them by fighting them yourself? Are you in control of your own destiny, or do you need a savior?