Near the beginning of his famous Confessions, St. Augustine said to God, "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You."
St. Augustine said so because he learned from personal experience and with great difficulty that no matter where one looked, no matter how hard one tried, nothing in this world can satisfy the human heart except the God Who made it -- not money, not fame, not power, not privilege, not excitement and not prestige. Our chief problem seems to be that we have not yet learned what Augustine knew centuries ago. We insist on looking for love and joy in all the wrong places, in all places but the one where they can actually be found, namely in God. That failure is sin. We have not yet learned what Blaise Pascal knew -- there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart, though we try foolishly to fill it with everything but God, always to our disappointment and injury.
Sin, we fail to realize, results in the fragmenting of our hearts and minds. The one who breaks the law is broken. You do not break the immutable law of righteousness that governs the universe, you break yourself against it. As Plato understood, because of the destructive effects of our own wickedness upon us, the horses that draw our heart's chariot now pull in different directions. We are, so to speak, drawn and quartered by our own sin, though that has not persuaded us to pursue it with any less ardor or glee. Sin is an employer for whom we all work and by whom we all get paid. The payment we receive for our sin is death (Gen. 2: 15-17, Rom. 6: 23). In other words, your sin has issued a death warrant bearing your name. That warrant will be served.
Nevertheless, we take sin lightly, as if it were unimportant, as if it would not eat alive both we ourselves and all those we love. We even maintain our own pet sins, as if evil could be safely or routinely domesticated. But to see sin as it really is, to see it in all its horrific ugliness, we need to see it as God sees it. To do so we need to look carefully at the cross of Christ, at the death of the One Who made us and redeemed us.
Imagine, if you will, that you are the proud and happy parent of a beautiful infant, whom you love. Imagine further that one morning you entered the child's room only to find it lying in its crib, cold, motionless and blue, a snake curled up upon the child's small dead chest. How much would you hate that snake? That's how much we ought to hate sin, and that's a faint hint of how much our Heavenly Father hates sin, which cost Him the life of his only Son. The passion of Jesus Christ expresses with eloquent pathos what God thinks of sin. So does Hell. The crucifixion of his only Son and the punishment that awaits the unrepentant are proof that God takes sin seriously. They are evidence of what one theologian called the uncompromising severity of sin. Still, in our self-deluding foolishness, we imagine that sin can be winked at, that it can be passed off as inconsequential or unimportant. We tell ourselves that one or another particular sin is no longer of consequence because it was committed long ago, as if the mere passing of time were the cure for wickedness. Not clocks ticking but Christ dying atones for sin. That atonement can be appropriated only by faith, not by waiting.
The more you sin, the more likely you are not to feel its sting, and the more likely you are to become oblivious to its approach. Thomas Carlyle was right: The best security against sin is to be shocked by its presence. In that light, we leave ourselves utterly unprotected. If you cannot feel sin's approach, you cannot arm yourself or ready yourself against it. If you no longer feel pangs of conscience once you commit sin, you strip yourself of the remorse that makes you determined not to repeat your mistakes. Without that determination, you sin all the more. Thus, because it is morally debilitating, sin breeds sin. The ancient Jewish Talmud puts it like this: Commit a sin twice and it will no longer seem to you a moral crime.
Because He is completely pure, and because not to punish sin is to condone it, God cannot and will not say of our sin that He shall simply let bygones be bygones. He does not shrug his shoulders and sigh to Himself about how boys will be boys. He either punishes sin or forgives it. There is no other way. As a result, each of us stands in desperate need of mercy and grace. We stand in need of the forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament, to forgive sins means to cover them, to send them away, to blot them out. Forgiveness entails both the absolute putting away of sin and the reinstatement of the sinner. In the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, "Forgiveness of sins means liberation from everything which divides us from God and therefore from a fulfilled and free life" (Pannenberg, The Apostles' Creed, p. 160). Here we see why Christianity is a religion of joy: It restores sinners to the filial relationship they ought to have had with God.
The cure for sin is not moral reform, as important as that might be, but forgiveness, mercy, grace. Forgiveness means that Christ has taken our place, that He has stood in our stead and received the punishment we deserved. If we attach ourselves to Him by faith, his death in our place permits us to go free. Our punishment has been paid. But rather than turning to Christ in faith, too many people seek to deal with sin in a way that does not deal with it at all. They seek to assuage their feelings of guilt but do nothing actually to rid themselves of the sin that spawns it. They seem not to realize that most people feel guilty because they are. All too often, such persons want badly to alleviate the symptoms of their disease but not the disease itself, as if the cancer in our souls would miraculously get better if only we ignored it, as if not going to the doctor were a form of therapy. But sin is a real wickedness; it requires a real remedy. That remedy comes only from the great Physician of our souls. That remedy is the grace of God in the death of Christ. Foolishly, however, rather than availing ourselves of the only antidote to evil, we flock to the secular messiahs of our age, the psychologists and psychiatrists who can lighten the feelings of guilt but not the guilt itself. They drug the conscience instead of quickening it. They cover sin instead of healing it.
We seem not to realize that the pains of sin, our pangs of conscience, are a great grace. We flee from them; we seek to rid ourselves of them by any imaginary means that presents itself rather than the only way possible. To rid ourselves improperly of the pangs of conscience is to infect ourselves with a deadly disease without symptoms. If you have no symptoms, you fail to realize you are sick. If you fail to realize your sickness, you do not go to the doctor. If you do not go to the doctor, you receive no medicine. Without medicine, you die.