The Most Subtle of All Sins

The Most Subtle of All Sins February 24, 2023

Read time: 8 minutes

Is there a sin more subtle than the rest? A disposition which lies under the surface of so many evils? Something that acts as the catalyst for all other immoralities, yet which is exceedingly hard to discern, and to overcome?

In Exodus 32, we are confronted with one of the greatest moral failures in the history of God’s people. It is a story which illuminates one of the most subtle of all human problems, the basis for many, if not most, of our failures:

The chapter begins like this:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.

Exodus 32:1 (trans. JPS Torah Commentary, Nahum Sarna)

The Number One Condition for Sin

What leads us to commit sin? The answer isn’t always obvious. If it were, we might have an easier time avoiding it. However, the Bible gives us all kinds of knowledge of sin, to include what precedes sinful acts. One of the most famous instances of apostasy in history is the Israelite’s worshipping the golden calf. It is a story which tells us much about the nature of sin.

Many are familiar with the story of the golden calf. However, we often make the mistake of thinking that in worshipping the calf, the Israelites are worshipping a different god. They are not. The sinful act here is not a breaking of the 1st, but the 2nd commandment. Thus, Israel is still worshipping YHWH, but they are worshipping Him in the wrong way. This should not be surprising. For all sin, in some way, is an attempt at the Good, just in the wrong way. Aristotle knew this from general revelation, and the Bible tells us nothing different here. The term itself just means “to miss the mark.”

The golden-calf incident occurs not too long after Israel had experienced God’s tremendous presence and power: in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moreover, the covenant law had already been given. As such, Israel had clear knowledge of God’s will for their community. If one were reading the Bible for the first time, one might think, after so many signs, wonders and explicit instruction, that all would be well with the soul of Israel. Unfortunately, one would think wrongly.

So what happens at the foot of Mt. Sinai that makes everything go so terribly awry? The answer is really not so much about what happens, but about what doesn’t happen. Moses, having ascended back up the mountain to receive more instructions (24:18), this time for the tabernacle, doesn’t come back down (32:1). In short, Moses leaves and Israel is made to wait. That’s it. Unfortunately, for creatures prone to sin, having to wait is one of the most dangerous conditions we can experience.

Two Features of Having To Wait

There are two aspects of waiting that provide fertile soil for sinful acts to sprout. First, is boredom. Boredom sets in when we don’t know what to do with ourselves, either with our bodies or our minds. When we are idle and without a task to accomplish, our minds become numb and our bodies restless. A desire emerges for a quick fix to both, and that desire is inevitably one that assumes a form of concupiscence, or lust.

Israel became bored without Moses and without the action they had experienced prior to settling at Sinai. This is indicative of our human condition, as most of us require something like constant guidance or constant activity to avoid boredom. Thus, when those are not available to us, especially for an extended period, the danger of moral failure becomes quite real. Having just experienced so many amazing events, and without instruction from their leader, the waiting becomes intolerably boring for Israel.

Second, when we are challenged with waiting, we begin to doubt what we have seen, heard, and experienced of God. Even the most powerful moments, like that of our conversion, seeing someone saved, or even experiencing a miracle, can begin to fade in our memory. As such, doubt about God’s care and providence creeps into our thoughts. We begin to wonder, “did God really say…?” or even “did that really happen?” And so, as boredom and doubt combine in moments of waiting, the conditions for sin are set. The door to some immoral action, be it in thought or in body, is wide open.

However, neither boredom nor doubt are themselves sin. These are but preconditions for sin. They are things we need to be aware of in times of waiting, for in doing so we can detect the danger we are in, and have a better chance of avoiding it. Boredom and doubt are precursors to sin we must combat. We can do this most effectively through the exercising of spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible reading, taking the sacraments, worship, acts of charity, etc.). However, the real sin is the one that comes in light of boredom and doubt combining and us failing to combat them successfully.

The Most Subtle Sin and The Hardest Virtue

The vice that so many of us fall prey to in moments like these, is the most subtle of all sins— the sin of impatience. Impatience is the most subtle sin. It is sinful because it is antithetical to God’s divine nature. Impatience runs directly counter to God’s personal attribute of long-suffering. Thus, although impatience is not an action, it is a sinful disposition. Just as God’s long-suffering is not an action, but a holy disposition. To be impatient, then, is to not be like God.

The sin of impatience is why the Apostles are constantly exhorting us to its opposite: patience (or long-suffering or perseverance). The author of Hebrews puts it this way:

We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Hebrews 6:11-12

James, the brother of Jesus talks about the necessity of patience in the Christian life:

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:7-11

Paul lists patience as one of the many fruits of the Spirit, an indicator of Christ in us:

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Col 3:12-14

To inherit the promises of God requires patience. To experience blessing, one must persevere, which is nothing more than the exercising of patience. To display Christ, one must be clothed in patience. The old maxim “patience is a virtue,” is true, but it is not the whole story. Patience is not only a virtue, it is a divine command. We must practice it, lest we fall into idolatry, as Israel did. But patience, as many have often pointed out, is the hardest virtue to practice and, as such, the hardest command to follow.

Impatient People In An Impatient World

Modern, American culture does not engender patience in its people. There are many reasons for this, but technology is clearly one of them. In a previous post, I wrote about the problem of living in an “on-demand” world, a world in which our minds are shaped in such a way as to expect constant stimulation and instant gratification. From social media use, to streaming movies and sports on demand, to meals delivered to our doorstep via a phone App; we have become unaccustomed to having to wait for much of anything.

Thus, in times when having to wait emerges, our minds and bodies are unsuited for the temptations that accompany waiting. We give in quickly to boredom and doubt, as both set in with incredible speed and power. Or, at least, so it seems to us. As such, we have become creatures almost incapable of exercising patience. In our impatience, we sin, and sin greatly. Pascal summed it up best, when he said:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Pacal, Pensees

And this was spoken in the 17th century!

A lot of evils in our contemporary culture can be attributed to this fatal dynamic of boredom and doubt that come with waiting. Sins of all kinds, some more private, some more public, can often be drawn back to impatience. All of them are damaging to the individuals involved and the culture at large. I speak from experience: when I look back on my own life, I see a fairly consistent pattern of sin, the most egregious of which came at times when I simply did not have the patience to wait in the circumstances God had placed me. As impatient people living in an impatient world, we would do well to recall the incident at Mt. Sinai, as well as the exhortations of the Apostles. Without patience, we are doomed to folly, and folly inevitably leads to destruction. Let us pray not only for peace then, but for patience.

After all, 40 days really isn’t all that long to wait.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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