According to the Course, we never sin, we merely make mistakes. This is a hugely important distinction. A sin says that you are guilty and should be punished. A mistake says you’re completely innocent and just need to do it better next time. It’s a very healing contrast. It’s easy, however, to misunderstand what the Course means by this contrast. Behind what it really means lies a crucial truth about our psychology and our nature.
A mistake is where you are aiming for one result and you get another. A classic line from Hamlet captures this idea:
I have shot mine arrow o’er the house, And hurt my brother.
That’s a mistake, right? I was just shooting an arrow. I didn’t intend for it to actually hit anyone. So hurting my brother was not the result I was “aiming” for. As the oft-quoted phrase has it, I have “missed the mark.” I didn’t sin. I just made a mistake.
There is a problem with this, though. The Course is very clear that we do intend to do harm, far more than we will admit to ourselves. It says, “No one attacks without intent to hurt. This can have no exception” (W-pI.170.1:1-2). In the early dictation, Jesus even criticized the notion of “thoughtless” actions, for they imply, he said, “that if the person had thought, he would not have behaved as he did.” His point is that we do think before we act, always. No actions are truly thoughtless. Hence, more often than we would ever admit, we really did mean it.
So what is the real meaning of the “mistake” concept? Its real target is the enjoyment of the act. That enjoyment is the key. If we think that someone truly enjoys hurting others, we will class that person as evil. Think of the people we generally consider evil. There’s Hitler, of course. There are serial killers. There are men who torture and kill small children. At the heart of our perception that they are evil is the notion that they derive pleasure from hurting others, to the point where they are highly motivated to repeatedly inflict extreme harm. This is the very essence, I think, of what makes someone evil in our eyes—the idea that causing others pain makes them happy.
Yet, of course, it’s not just in a Hitler that we see this concept. In milder forms, we see it everywhere. We see it when a co-worker feels puffed up by making fun of us. We see it when our spouse thinks he gains something from putting us down. We see it whenever anyone attacks, for clearly that person wouldn’t attack unless she saw benefit in it. And wherever we see it, we label it sin. We conclude that person is just a little bit evil.
What the Course is saying, however, is that it’s actually psychologically impossible to gain happiness from hurting others. It’s not in our makeup to do so. An attacker may seem to feel good after the attack, but that, says the Course, is just the most superficial layer of a much bigger story. Underneath that surface, something else entirely is going on. The Course says, “Yet he will suffer, and will look on his [hurtful] intent in nightmares where the smiles are gone, and where the [harmful] purpose rises to meet his horrified awareness and pursue him still.” Then it adds, “For no one thinks of murder and escapes the guilt the thought entails” (T-23.III.1:7-8).
The implications of this are astonishing. It means that no one ever benefited from attacking you. Because of the fundamental innocence of their nature, they just felt worse. They just suffered for it. For their nature is love, and that violation of their nature made them feel violated. Being unloving left them with the lingering pain of self-betrayal. Maybe that pain was buried way down deep. But it was there, and it did rise to the surface in all manner of unhappiness, stretched out over time and apparently disconnected from its original cause.
Now we can see what the Course means by sin being merely a mistake. A mistake, as we saw, is where I aim for one thing and get another. Thus (to recap everything we’ve said), I did attack on purpose—that was no accident. I did try to hurt. In doing so, I was aiming for the happiness that I was certain would come. But it never came. Instead of getting the rose of pleasure I reached out for, all I got were the thorns of guilt, the wounds of self-betrayal. I aimed for one thing but got another. I made a mistake.
That’s a great thing, because if I had really derived pleasure from it, if I had really gained from your loss, it would have been a sin. And I would be evil; maybe not Hitler-evil, but still a little bit evil. Thank goodness I didn’t achieve the happiness I aimed for. Thank goodness I just made a mistake.
When you actually apply this idea, it brings a surprising amount of relief. To do so, I’ve used a practice I distilled from Lesson 133. I’ve found this practice to be a great way of dispelling the pain of guilt. You might want to call to mind something you are feeling guilty about and give it a try:
I tried to gain at your expense.
But I did not sin. I merely failed to gain.