OCA.COM Mortal versus Venial sin
What is a mortal sin? What are the categories of sins in the Orthodox church?
I am confused because I have a list of the seven grievous sins in the Orthodox Church:
Also, Fr Stanley S. Harakas writes in The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers (p. 147) that:
There is a sin which is mortal. ...All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin which is not mortal” (1 Jn 5:16). Mortal sin, or sins “unto death,” keep us out of heaven as long as we do not repent of them, seek God’s forgiveness for them, and reform our lives. St. Paul is clear: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6:9). Read the rest of that passage for a rather exhaustive list of those “sins unto death” which exclude even “believers” from the Kingdom.
I am very confused and I wish I had a complete list of the mortal sins so that I will know if I am in danger of losing my salvation and if I have an urgent need to go to confession.
Please please help me understand.
Thank you very much for your enquiry. I will do the best to simply things for you.
In the Orthodox Church there are no “categories” of sin as found in the Christian West.
In the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic catechism, sins were categorized as “mortal” and “venial.” In this definition, a “mortal” sin was one which would prevent someone from entering heaven unless one confessed it before death. Not only were such things as pride, lust, and sloth on the list of “mortal” sins, but failing to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation were also considered “mortal” sins. A “venial” sin, according to this line of thinking, did not jeopardize one’s salvation. While stealing a car might be considered a “mortal” sin, stealing a candy bar was not. While a “venial” sin did not jeopardize one’s salvation, it still needed to be confessed and still may have had time in purgatory attached to it. Another way to see this distinction in Roman Catholic teaching—and here I simplifyy a tremendously complex line of reasoning—is as follows: If one commits a mortal sin and dies before confessing it, one would go straight to hell. If one commits a venial sin and dies before confessing it, one would not go straight to hell, but would have to spend time in purgatory before entering heaven.
[The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching on purgatory that developed in more recent times in Roman Catholicism.]
These categories do not exist in the Orthodox Church. Sin is sin.
The Greek word for sin, amartia, means “to miss the mark.” As Christians, the “mark” or “target” for which we “aim” is a Christ-like life, one lived to the best of our ability in line with the teachings, precepts, and commandments of God. When we miss this mark, when we fail to hit this target, we sin. Murder is a sin. Pride and envy are sins. Stealing a car is a sin. Stealing a candy bar is a sin. Refusing to attend the Liturgy is a sin—but so is attending the Liturgy with hatred for others.
Missing the mark is missing the mark. If we aim at the bullseye and miss, it makes no difference if it is by an inch or a yard. In both cases, we have failed to achieve that for which we strive.
In some Orthodox catechisms one finds lists of the “seven deadly sins.” While there can be no doubt that these sins are deadly—here deadly and “mortal” are synonymous, but “mortal” is not used in the same way as in the Roman Catholic “mortal” sin described above—they are not “worse” in the ultimate sense than sins that are not on the list.
[In the quote from Fr. Harakas’ book, the use of the word “mortal” should not be understood in the Roman Catholic definition of “mortal” outlined above. He clearly defines the term as meaning “unto death,” or “deadly.”]
For example, one would not find listening to rock and roll music on the list of deadly sins. However, a person who spends all of his or her time listening to such music, to the point that he or she ignores others, isolates himself or herself from people and other activities, and becomes controlled by his or her desire to listen to such music to the exclusion of other important aspects of life, can find himself or herself in a deadly and sinful condition. Listening to the music is not the sin; the music itself is not the sin; becoming obsessed with the music—and ignoring other aspects of one’s life or the importance of loving relationships with others—is what is sinful.
I cannot produce a list of sins; there are countless things that, while not in and of themselves sinful, can lead one to sin. A list of sins implies that things not found on the list are not sinful. Such is not the case. A better way to look at sin would be the following: Are my actions, my thoughts, my attitudes, my material goods, etc. controlling me, or am I in control of them.
Here I will give you another example: It is not sinful to have a glass of wine or a can of beer. Allowing wine or beer to control me, however, is sinful. Why? Because I have the ability to control what I drink. At the same time, what I drink cannot control me—unless, of course, I allow it to do so. It would be ridiculous to think that a can of beer can force itself down the throat of a person who does not want to drink it. Whether we speak of wine, beer, watching television, giving attention to our car, gossiping, or whatever—we have the ability to control these things. What is sinful is allowing these things, which in and of themselves have no power of their own, to control us. What is even more sinful is when we fail to recognize that we are being controlled by something which, in reality, is within our control, or when we rationalize our sins by claiming “I just couldn’t help it.” Huh? Your television turned itself on and held you captive during nine hours of soap operas while you ignored the needs of your family or coworkers or neighbor?
Concerning Confession, having a list of deadly sins could, in fact, become an obstacle to genuine repentance. For example, imagine that you commit a sin. You look on the list and do not find it listed. It would be very easy to take the attitude that, since it is not on a list of deadly sins, it is not too serious. Hence, you do not feel the need to seek God’s forgiveness right away. A week passes and you have completely forgotten about what you had done. You never sought God’s forgiveness; as a result, you did not receive it, either. We should go to Confession when we sin—at the very least, we should ask God to forgive us daily in our personal prayers. We should not see Confession as a time to confess only those sins which may be found on a list.
Rather than worry about developing a list of sins to avoid, it would be much wiser to make a list of virtues and attitudes and ministries to achieve. While it is good to avoid places of temptation, it is better to seek places of inspiration. While it is good to avoid individuals who may lead you to sin, it is better to seek out individuals who will lead you to virtue. While it is good to shun those things which tend to control us, it is better to seek self control over things which have no power over us unless we give them that power.
I hope this helps answer your questions while giving you a different framework in which to consider the matter of sin. If you would like more help, please do not hesitate to write back.