Should I Worry About Sin?

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Book Four

Discussions about sin can cause various reactions. Some intuitively recognize there should be appropriate guilt for doing something wrong (e.g. immoral, unjust, unfair). But, for others, the word “sin” surfaces a history of self-condemning shame and/or the censorious judgmental of others. Let’s explore the subject of sin in more detail:

  • Sin is the absence of love. It dehumanizes self and/or others.
  • Sin is the not a failure to comply with an external religious and legalistic code.  The “legal code” version of sin leads many in religious circles to make severe judgments about the character, motives, and lifestyle choices of others. It also blinds them to their own gossip, judgmental attitudes, resentment, lack of joy, and ingratitude.
  • Teresa of Avila separates sin into two forms: Venial sin (less intentional and less serious sins) and Mortal Sin (intentional or grave sins). I’ve had a number of friends ask the rhetorical question: “Are there degrees of sin?” with the implied answer of “no”. But, sin has different forms of severity. (I deal with this in more detail in the Tree of Life.)

The “Spiritually Mature” and Their Struggle
In this section of the Interior Castle, Teresa discusses “spiritually mature” people and their relationship with sin. These individuals have the intention not to commit sin, including the less intentional, less severe sins. But there is an assumption, by others, that because of their spiritual depth, they don’t struggle with sin. But they do! These individuals are aware of their “imperfections” and it concerns them that their behavior could cause damage to others. They, sometimes out of ignorance, do things they shouldn’t do and don’t do things they should do. This is part of the reason the spiritually mature can be so humble and non-judgmental: They know their own hearts and ignorance — so they cast aside self-righteousness.

Should We Worry About Sin?

  • In one sense: YES! We should be concerned about sin. This is for all the reasons noted above. And so we take measures to eliminate our own sin knowing it could be damaging to self and others. We also take whatever steps we can to immunize ourselves against the destructive behaviors of others.
  • In another sense, NO! We don’t worry about sin because of forgiveness. “There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Since God does not condemn us, we can also forgive ourselves and eliminate shame. Once this happens, our forgiveness can flow into our other relationships. We forgive others. Forgiving others will also set us free from our anger about their past behaviors. Until we can reach that point, we’re still giving them a measure of control over our present and future. Let me add, extending forgiveness does not mean we reenter a destructive relationship. We must combine grace with boundaries.

Sin, grace, and forgiveness are key messages in Christianity. We move from sin (e.g. destructive behaviors). We discard religious legal codes designed to control people. We release self-condemnation. We embrace grace and forgiveness for ourselves. We extend forgiveness and grace to others. We establish healthy and appropriate boundaries.


For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Gratefulness: Favorite Things From 2017

Favorite Books I Read This Year

  • Artist of Life by Bruce Lee: A classic book on martial arts, philosophy, simplicity, and self-expression.
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. (Bruce Lee)


Favorite Movies


Favorite Photo I Think I Took:
We have many skilled photographers in our family. I’m not one of them. So if I have a good photo on my phone, I always entertain the possibility someone borrowed it to take the picture. But, I think I actually took this photo:

Image may contain: sky, cloud, snow, outdoor and nature

Best Spiritual Lesson Re-learned
90% of our spiritual life is recognizing God delights in us (i.e. he loves us, likes us, and enjoys us) and he presents us with unlimited possibilities. This is summarized in Psalm 18: “He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”

Attached is a blog post I wrote about this idea in more detail. It combines one of my childhood memories about Christmas, an old Christmas Hymn, and an early experience with God.


Favorite Busking Video in the New York City Subway
I love New York. I also love busking in the subway (I don’t actually do the busking, I’m only a spectator.) For some subway riders, paying attention to these musicians can result in quite the surprise:

Favorite Album
Semper Femina by Laura Marling

Here is a cut from her album.

Favorite Surprise of the Year
Scott and I went to school together since the first grade. When we hit seventh grade, we had developed a great friendship and spent a lot of time together! Some of my greatest memories were those times. Scott and his amazing family made a significant difference in my life 45 years ago (a difference lasting an entire lifetime!).

Scott moved to Alaska after high school and we lost touch. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years – and only once in 40. About a month ago I received a surprise call inviting me to dinner and Scott was going to join us.

Out of that dinner came another story. The people that bought Scott’s childhood home were doing some remodeling. They found a piece of paper in the wall that had been there over 50 years and called his mom. Of all things, it was one of Scott’s first grade writing assignments in which he had to write about a classmate. Guess Who?

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Favorite Place to Visit
“Favorite” was too complicated to narrow down, but here was one great place: The Jostedalsbreen Glacier. (Note the blue glacial ice)

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor and nature


Favorite Thing I Wrote This Year
We were “abandoned” on an island in the Norwegian Sea. (Spoiler Alert – We made it back.)

Favorite People
I have amazing family, friends, and co-workers. My appreciation and gratefulness for high quality relationships grew more than ever in 2017. I’ve also had the good fortune this year to make new friends and reconnect with many family and friends I haven’t see in a long time.

Thanks, to each of you for being such a meaningful part of my life. I wish you all a fabulous 2018.

But before I go, I have to award my final item: My Favorite Person of the Year.

This goes to Janet for a record 39 years in a row.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, mountain, ocean, outdoor and water


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In the Bleak Mid-Winter

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Psalm 22.9-10)

I was raised in pre-climate change “Minn-a-soda”:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

In my family of origin, Christmas Eve was the major time of celebration. There was an abundance of presents, children and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Christmas Eve also came with an abundance of fighting, competition, temper tantrums, and scheming. This was from the adults.

In this context was my favorite childhood Christmas memory. I left the house Christmas Eve afternoon and went ice-skating for several hours. My friends were already celebrating or traveling, so I went alone — or should I say in solitude. I pretty much had the rink and chalet to myself. It was snowing. It was perfect.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

There was a public nativity scene in North Mankato. Off to the side was a simple message: “Wise Men Still Seek Him”. While there were a few scattered attempts to get us to church as kids, most of my theology came from TV and Christmas songs. Yet this nativity scene fascinated me. Why? Because I believed this story and in this baby.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

Without being taught, I already had a faith in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John explains this revelation:

  • “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
  • “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

As an eleven-year old boy, I already knew that light. He made himself “visible” to me. Later in life I connected with him at a deeper level. But as a child, I didn’t know what to do with this light. So I did what I could:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The wise may still seek him according to the nativity scene, but there is also a bigger issue at play: He came to seek me! He found a way to reach me apart from the church, theological training, or good works. This is the part many miss about Christianity. It’s the complete acceptance by Jesus Christ of who we are — just as we are. Once we embrace our status that: “We are loved”, it opens up new possibilities. We can then begin the acceptance of ourselves and discard the limiting, and sometimes debilitating, fear and shame that sometimes controls our lives. If God accepts us, we can accept ourselves. Once, we can get to a deeper acceptance of ourselves, we become free to love others: John says, “We love because he first loved us.”

Teresa of Avila, in her book The Interior Castle, writes about Jesus Christ indwelling of our souls and the value he places on our souls:

“So then, what do you think that abode [our souls] will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all good things takes his delight? I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity.”

If Jesus Christ indwells us, what must our souls be like? This Christmas season, I encourage you to embrace your core identity: Someone loved by Jesus Christ — completely accepted — just as your are. And remember: He still seeks you!

My favorite version of In the Bleak Mid-Winter is by Shawn Colvin

Photo: by Janet Small – Nativity Arrangement by Our Grandchildren



For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Why Am I in Pain?

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

“For sometimes our Lord leaves these individuals in their natural state, and then it seems all the poisonous creatures from the outskirts and other dwelling places of this castle band together to take revenge for the time they were unable to have these souls under their control.” (Teresa of Avila)

Before we can figure out why we might be in pain, we have to ask: How much does God control? There are several views:

Theological Determinism
Some assert God controls everything. In this view, all good things and all bad things ultimately come from God for some larger purpose. One of the problems with this view is it makes God responsible for some horrible atrocities. For example: Did God “cause” the holocaust for some larger purpose? This reflects negatively on God’s character and his treatment of the human race.

A position akin to Theological Determinism is God’s Foreknowledge. God didn’t cause bad things, he only knew in advance the precise details of what would happen in the future. And then he created the world. This view still doesn’t let God off the hook. If God knew in advance these horrible things would happen and then triggered an inevitable course of events through creation — he’s still the “cause” of all things.

Open View of the Future
Then there is the “Open View of the Future”. God created the world “good”. He gave rational beings (humans and angels) the power to choose good or evil or a combination of the two — but he created them with an inclination for good. Human choices would solidify over a period of time into habits. Their habits would ultimately become intrinsic to who they were and become their character and destiny.

In an Open View of the Future, God knows the possibilities — but either chooses not to know or, more likely, could not completely know the ultimate decisions/outcomes of those with free will — because these decisions and outcomes don’t exist yet. Free will has a degree of unpredictability and mystery to it. Ultimately, God has objectives for the future, but the present is unfolding with billions of free agents exercising their free will apart from his complete control. Consequently, there are an infinite number of variables and scenarios that can play out in the world and in our life.

Extreme Views
One extreme form of the Open View of the Future limits God’s power. It surrenders almost all power to human decisions and other rational beings (angels and demons) instead of recognizing things like prayer, faith, and God’s intervention as powerful variables in potential outcomes.

Another extreme form of the Open View of the Future is God is never the source of pain or so-called negative outcomes: He wants us to have a pain-free life. This one is tricky. I agree God is never the source of evil, but he does allow or causes pain that contributes to our long-term healing and growth (much like an exercise program or medical treatment).  This brings us to Teresa of Avila who says “Sometimes our Lord leaves these individuals [the spiritual mature] in their natural state, and then it seems all the poisonous creatures from the outskirts and other dwelling places of this castle band together to take revenge for the time they were unable to have these souls under their control.”

Teresa of Avila and Healthy Pain
God occasionally brings “healthy pain” (which can sometimes overlap with evil or natural consequences not caused by God). But he always does this for our benefit, the advancement of His kingdom, and the destruction of evil. This happens several ways according to Teresa:

  1. He brings “healthy pain” to ‘clear our head’ so we can develop “stability and good resolutions”. [They way forward in life.]
  2. He brings “healthy pain” to develop resilience and perseverance. Properly centered, perseverance deals a significant blow to the power of evil and provides us strength for the next stages in our journey.
  3. He brings “healthy pain” to develop humility. Humility is the central character trait of the Christian and is the ultimate counter-attack to the evil powers in this world.
  4. He brings “healthy pain” so we become grateful for all the good things we experience. [Gratefulness is a powerful and underestimated force for the advancement of good.]

So why am I in pain? It could be because there is evil in the world. It could be because other people make ignorant or careless choices. It could be the consequences of my own choices. It could be bad luck. It could be God bringing pain to further develop me for the next stages of a great journey. It could also be a combination of any of these. But one this is clear: God wants to end all destructive suffering and help us build a new and vibrant — but not necessarily a pain-free — life.


* I want to acknowledge the influence of Greg Boyd (and to some degree C.S. Lewis) on my thinking on this subject. However, for their sake, I do not want to suggest my views represent their writings or thought processes.

* For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Contemplation and Service

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

Teresa of Avila divides The Interior Castle into “Seven Mansions” with subdivisions totaling 27 chapters. (For a detailed summary – see A Tour of the Interior Castle.) We’re currently studying the Seventh Mansions. We’re also in the final chapter of the Interior Castle. The heading Teresa provides at the beginning of this chapter says, “Concludes by explaining what she thinks our Lord’s purpose is in granting such great favors to the soul and how it is necessary that Martha and Mary join together.”*  As Teresa develops this chapter, she explains the spiritual life is best understood by seeing Mary and Martha as metaphors for an integrated spirituality: Contemplation and service.

The Interior Castle explores mystical prayer and spiritual ecstasy. These can be powerful additions to our spiritual life, however, central to Teresa’s theology is not spiritual ecstasy or great accomplishments, but the supremacy of love and humility expressed in daily action. Near the end of the book Teresa writes, “In sum, Sisters, what I conclude with is that we shouldn’t build castles in the air. The Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.” 

Whenever we reduce our spiritual life to competition marked by “superior experiences” (private or public) or “successful ministry” tallied in church growth and great accomplishments, we lose sight of love and humility as the central character trait of the Christian and the primary evangelistic tool of the Christian faith.


Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez explain the chapter headings in The Interior Castle were written by Teresa herself and then lost. However, someone had the wisdom to realize they were working with a first-rate theologian and made a copy of those headings. It’s a good reminder how fortunate we are to have ancient manuscripts preserved for our benefit.

When Teresa had finished writing her work and was reading it over, she divided it into chapters and summed up in chapter headings what was contained in each one. This reading was done quickly, just to get the idea of where a good place to break a chapter would be. She wrote the chapter headings on separate paper, which was quickly lost. Fortunately, before this happened, one of Teresa’s great admirers, Padre Gracián, had made a copy of these chapter headings, which have thus reached us. 


For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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