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Sin Involves the Misuse of God's Gifts

General Audience — September 3, 1986

—    Friendship with God

Although the formulas of faith use few words when speaking of sin, the term and the concept of "sin" are found with greater frequency in Sacred Scripture. This proves that, while Sacred Scripture is the book of God and about God, it is also a great book about man. It takes him as he is, and as he experiences his existential condition. For sin belongs to man and to his history. It would be futile to attempt to overlook it or to give this obscure reality other names, or other interpretations, as has happened under the influence of the Enlightenment and of secularism. If sin is acknowledged as a reality, we recognize at the same time a profound bond between humanity and God. This is because the evil of sin does not appear in its true dimension outside this relationship between man and God, although it obviously continues to be present in human life and in history. Sin weighs down on man as an obscure and deadly reality. This happens all the more when it is not known, recognized and identified in its essence as denial of and opposition to God. Naturally the human person is the subject and agent of this choice. He can reject the dictates of his own conscience even without explicitly referring to God. But his insane and evil act acquires its full negative meaning only when it is seen against the background of man's relationship with God.

For this reason, Sacred Scripture describes the first sin in the context of the mystery of creation. In other words, the sin committed at the beginning of human history is presented against the background of creation, that is, of God's magnificent gift of existence. In the context of the visible world, man receives his existence as a gift—as the "image and likeness of God," a rational being, endowed with intellect and will. Within the context of God's creative gift we can best see the essence of the first sin—man's free choice made with a misuse of these faculties.

Obviously we are not speaking here of the beginning of history as scientific theories describe it, but of the "beginning" as it appears in the pages of Scripture. Scripture uncovers in this "beginning" the origin of the moral evil which humanity experiences, and identifies it as sin.

1.  Friendship with God

The first narrative of the work of creation appears in Genesis 1:1-28, which is chronologically later than the narrative of Genesis 2:4-15. This first account underlines the original goodness of all that is created, and in particular the goodness of man, created by God as "male and female" (cf. Gen 1:27). It says several times in the description of creation, "God saw that it was good" (cf. Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). Finally, after the creation of man, it declares: "God saw what he had made, and behold it was very good" (Gen 1:31). The phrase indicates the goodness that belongs to such a being in accordance with the plan of the Creator, because it is a case of a created being in the image of God—rational and free.

This is the basis of the truth of faith which the Church teaches about the original innocence of man, his original righteousness (iustitia originalis). This is seen in the description given in Genesis of the human person as he came from the hands of God and lived in full intimacy with him (cf. Gen 2:8-25). The Book of Ecclesiastes also says that "God made man righteous" (Eccl 7:29). The Council of Trent taught that the first Adam lost the holiness and righteousness in which he had been established (Primum hominem Adam...sanctitatem et iustitiam, in qua constitutus fuerat, amisisse: Decree on Original Sin, DS 1511). This means that before sin, man possessed sanctifying grace with all the supernatural gifts that make him righteous before God. We may sum all this up by saying that man was in friendship with God at the beginning.

In the light of the Bible, the state of man before sin appears as a condition of original perfection. Genesis expresses this in a certain way by the image of "paradise" that it offers us. We may ask what the source of this perfection was. The answer is that it was found above all in friendship with God by means of sanctifying grace, and in the other gifts that in theological language are called preternatural, which were lost through sin. Thanks to such divine gifts, man, who was joined in friendship and harmony with his principle of being, had and maintained in himself an interior equilibrium. He was not worried about the prospect of decay and death. The "dominion" over the world, which God had given man from the beginning, was realized first of all in man himself, as dominion over himself. In this self-dominion and equilibrium he had the "integrity" (integritas) of existence, in the sense that man was intact and well-ordered in all his being. He was free from the triple concupiscence that inclines him to the pleasures of the senses, to coveting earthly goods, and to assert himself against the dictates of reason.

Therefore there was also order in his relationship with the other, in the communion and intimacy that make for happiness—as in the initial relationship between man and woman, Adam and Eve, the first couple and also the first nucleus of human society. The brief sentence of Genesis seems very eloquent from this point of view: "Now both were naked, the man and his wife, but they were not ashamed" (Gen 2:25).

The presence of original righteousness and perfection in the human person, created in the image of God, as we know from revelation, did not mean that man, as a creature endowed with liberty like the other spiritual beings, was exempted from the testing of his freedom right from the beginning! Revelation shows us the state of original righteousness of man before sin, in virtue of his friendship with God. The happiness of his existence derived from this. That same revelation also tells of the fundamental test that was reserved for man, and in which he failed.

Genesis describes this test as the prohibition to eat the fruit "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The text reads: "The Lord God gave this commandment to the man: 'You may eat of all the trees of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because on the day you eat of it, you shall certainly die'" (Gen 2:16-17).

This means that from the very beginning the Creator reveals himself to a rational and free being as the God of the covenant and hence of friendship and joy, but also as the source of good and therefore of the distinction between good and evil in the moral sense. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil recalls symbolically the absolute limit which man, as a creature, must recognize and respect. Man depends on the Creator and is subject to the laws by which the Creator has established the order of the created world, the essential order of existence (ordo rerum). Man is also subject to the moral norms which regulate the use of freedom. The primordial test is therefore aimed at the person's free will, at his freedom. Will man confirm the fundamental order of creation in his conduct, and recognize the truth that he himself is created—the truth of the dignity that belongs to him as the image of God, but also the truth of his creaturely limitation?

Unfortunately, we know the results of the test—man failed. Revelation tells us this, but it sets this sad news within the context of the truth of the redemption, so that we can look with confidence to our merciful Creator and Lord.