Few words have fallen out of favor so much as “punishment.” Public school educators and administrators usually label such language “draconian” and try to replace it with the more obscure “consequences.” They want students to understand that their actions have effects, that something follows from what they do. That’s certainly an important message lacking in our common understanding of punishment, which tends to distance the offender from his action. For example, when a thief gets sentenced, he is punished by an authority, and so it’s easy for him to believe his worst mistake was getting caught. He doesn’t understand that his lot is intricately tied up with the choices he has made. 

And yet “consequences” only accomplishes so much. “Punishment” completes what is missing by providing the reason. The original meaning of punishment comes from the word ‘”penalty,” which at its root comes from the Latin “poena,” or pain. A punishment is a painful consequence for sin, and it’s painful for a reason. When we sin we reject God who is the very source of our life, joy and hope. A flower wilts without light, and we are no different. 

The world God made has a natural law of cause and effect built into it. One act of love really benefits the whole of creation, and one sin harms the same whole. On the individual level, our personal sins, as well as our acts of love, mold our character moment by moment, just as food shapes our bodies. As St. John Henry Newman explains in his sermon, “Moral Consequences of Single Sins”, understanding the impact of a single sin on ourselves can help us to appreciate the great responsibility we have.

If our character is shaped over time, our childhood is the beginning and most formative part of the process. Newman argues that the sins we committed at this time – whether we were aware of them or not – are most likely responsible for the “inconsistencies of character which we often witness in our experience of life. I mean, you meet continually with men possessed of a number of good points, amiable and excellent men, yet in one respect perhaps strangely perverted. And you cannot move them, or succeed at all with them, but must leave them as you find them. Perhaps they are weak and over-indulgent towards others, perhaps they are harsh, perhaps they are obstinate.”

It’s easy to see how this plays out in the lives of our friends and family members whose faults we see with greater clarity than our own; and yet we know this must be true of ourselves. Newman cuts right to the chase: “This indeed is all the difference between being a true saint of God, and a second rate or third rate Christian. Few men are great saints. There is always a something; I am not speaking of wilful or admitted sins—sins against the conscience (they of course exclude a man altogether from any hope), but of a defect of view and principle, a perversion of character. This is the common case even with the better sort of Christians; they are deformed in stature, they are not upright, they do not walk perfectly with God. And you cannot tell why it is;—they have ever lived religiously,—they have been removed from temptation, had good training and instruction, and they fulfil their calling, are good husbands or wives, good parents, good neighbours,—still when you come to know them well, there is in them this or that great inconsistency.”

Perhaps there is a way of thinking or behaving that has seemingly always been with us, so much so that we can’t see it for what it is. It shows up here and there in conflicts with others, but it isn’t recognized as the source. As Newman says, the individual sins we have indulged in or neglected are often the roots of other defects, which may not appear connected to these roots. If this is the case, what are we to do?

We should keep a few things in mind:

  • If we want to grow in virtue, we would be wise to seek out a spiritual director or guide. We often need help uncovering our vices and seeing them for what they are. The prophet Nathan had to do this for none other than King David.
  • Of all the knowledge man has accumulated, he is the least knowledgeable about himself. A modern saint, Josemaria Escriva, cautioned: “One’s own mind is a bad adviser, a poor pilot to steer the soul through the storms and tempests and among the reefs of the interior life.”
  • We must ask God daily to forgive us and heal us, for we know not what we do: “What need have we of a cleansing and a restoration day by day! what need have we of drawing near to God in faith and penitence.”
  • The saints – and in this sermon, St. John Henry –  enjoin us to pray for God’s mercy.

Day by day our actions have real life consequences for ourselves and our neighbors. The punishments we bear for our sins should be useful to us. They should rouse us from our sleep and show us from whom we are walking away. These thoughts are sobering and may even cause us to frighten ourselves, as Newman says. But as we take a good look at our character, we should always remember that our hope does not rest in us. We cling instead to the cross of Christ, “on which hung the salvation of the world.”

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