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Catholic Spiritual Direction

How can I identify my root sin?

I identify my root sinDear Father John, I am not in spiritual direction right now, but I am trying to put together a program of life anyway. Can you give me some pointers about identifying my “root sin”?

You are already on the right track. A program of life is worthless (well, almost worthless, at least) without having identified our root sin. Unless we understand the dynamism underlying our frequent faults and failings, we will never be able to work intelligently to overcome them. It’s like gardening. If you want to get rid of the weeds, you can just pull out the stems; you have to get at the roots. Otherwise, progress is short-lived and unsubstantial, and sooner or later discouragement and frustration set in.

In trying to identify our root sin, the wisdom of the Church comes in handy. Spiritual writers through the ages have identified three possible candidates. Before I describe them, however, it behooves us to make one clarification. All of us, simply because of our fallen human nature, have sinful tendencies linked to all three of the candidates. Saying that we have a “root sin” simply means that for each of us, one of the three is dominant. It’s bigger than the others and exerts greater influence on our day-to-day behavior.

That said, here are the three possible root sins: pride, vanity, and sensuality. Pride, in this sense, refers to a disordered attachment to our own excellence. The proud person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in their own achievements and conquests. Vanity is a disordered attachment to the approval of other people. The vain person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in being appreciated or liked by other people. Sensuality is a disordered attachment to comfort, ease, and pleasure. The sensual person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in taking it easy and simply enjoying life. Notice that each of these root sins is a disordered attachment to something. The things in themselves – achievements, relationships, pleasures – are not evil. The problem comes when we seek meaning and fulfillment in those temporal, created realities. In fact, we are created and called to seek our meaning and fulfillment in God alone, in our ever-deepening relationship with him. Achievements, relationships, and pleasures are meant to be ordered around and towards that principle and foundation of our life. As the Catechism puts it in #27:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.

Again, it is important to realize that we each have tendencies that spring from pride, vanity, and sensuality. None of us is exempt from any of them, because we all have inherited a fallen human nature. But in each of us, one of the three is usually dominant. If we can identify which one, we can better aim our efforts to grow spiritually; we can strive to develop the virtues that counteract the cause, the root, of our falls and faults. We can identify this root sin, also called “dominant defect” by some spiritual writers, by looking at the common manifestations of each. The manifestations which are strongest in your life can clue you in to your root sin.

Below you will find a list of these common manifestations. Read through them once quickly and make a note of the ones that characterize you most. You will find that sometimes you fall into all of them, but some of them will jump out at you as particularly common or strong in your life. Whichever of the three has more of those is, most likely, your root sin. As you go through this exercise, you may find it more difficult than you would like. That’s because self-knowledge is slippery. And that’s one of the most compelling reasons for finding a spiritual director to help us be objective in our spiritual work. I hope you keep looking, and pray that God will lead you to one.

COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF PRIDE

  • too high an opinion of myself
  • annoyance with those who contradict me, brooking no contradictions
  • anger if I don’t get my way or am not taken into account
  • easily judgmental, putting others down, gossiping about them
  • slow to recognize my own mistakes, or to see when I hurt others, and inability to seek and give forgiveness
  • rage when others don’t thank me for favors
  • unwillingness to serve, rebellion against what I don’t like
  • impatience, distance, brusqueness in my daily contact with others
  • thinking I am the only one who knows how to do things right, unwillingness to let others help
  • inflated idea of my own intelligence and understanding, dismissing what I do not understand or what others see differently
  • not feeling a need for God, even though I do say prayers
  • nursing grudges, even in small matters
  • never taking orders
  • inflexible in preferences
  • always putting myself and my things first, indifference towards others and their needs, never putting myself out for them
  • centering everything (conversation, choices..) on myself and my likes
  • calculating in my relations with God and with others

COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF VANITY

  • always seeking admiration and praise, worrying about not getting it
  • excessive concern about physical appearance
  • being guided by the opinions of others rather than principle (this is sometimes called “human respect”)
  • some types of shyness
  • sacrificing principles in order to fit in
  • placing too much a premium on popularity and acceptance
  • easily discouraged at my failures
  • taking pleasure in listening to gossip and hearing about others’ failures
  • always wanting to be the center of attention, at times stretching the truth, or lying outright, or being uncharitable in my words in order to achieve this

COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF SENSUALITY

  • laziness
  • always the most comfortable, what requires least effort
  • not going the extra mile for others
  • procrastination, last-minute in everything
  • shoddiness, complaining, excessively affected by minor discomforts
  • inability to sacrifice
  • not doing my part at home
  • expecting everyone else to serve me always
  • behavior and decisions ruled by my feelings and moods instead of my principles
  • daydreaming a lot with self at center
  • unable to control my thoughts when they attract me, even if they are not good
  • doing only what I enjoy (choice of food, work, etc)
  • uncontrolled and overpowering curiosity, wanting to see and experience everything and every pleasure
  • my senses and impulses overrule what I know is right and wrong
  • acting out my feelings (frustrations, desires…) with no regard for my conscience, God or others
  • only working with those I like, being easily hurt
  • fickleness and inconstancy
  • can never finish what I start

Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC, STL

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Linda

    Ouch. I thought I knew what my root sin was, until I read through your “check list”. Now I wonder if one can have two root sins, or if I’m just really, really bad. Thank you. This was very helpful. Even more helpful would be “common ways to overcome the root sins of pride, vanity, and sensuality”.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/aevandro Augustine

    Perhaps practicing the opposite virtues would help transform one’s heart. So, if one’s root sin is pride, seeking situations to be humble would be recommended, if it’s vanity, then situations to be charitable. If it’s sensuality, however, it seems that one could not seek situations to be chaste, as they could pose temptations, leaving the practice of mortification. However, nowadays, such practices are often frowned upon and almost no spiritual director allows them, in spite of their rich presence in the lives of the saints. Has the Church thrown the baby with the water when it rightly toned down excesses?

    TIA

  • $1650412

    “Ouch. I thought I knew what my root sin was, until I read through your “check list”. Now I wonder if one can have two root sins, or if I’m just really, really bad. ”

    Linda, I felt like that too when I read the checklists! :o) Good luck and God bless!

    • Maria Carvalho

      Do you know what? We are all struggling to come to terms with this because all of us fit into the three or some of this check list. I am so glad we are saved by Grace and not by deeds or none of us would be saved. I am glad that we have the blood of Jesus that covers for our sins and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Romans 8. I am glad that I am no longer a sinner trying to be a saint. I am now a saint in Christ fighting against sin. My fight is not alone, my fight is with the Grace and the virtue of the Holy Spirit. I pray that the God of all mercies will bless us all in this blog that we may experience the blessings of His unconditional love. May the Holy Spirit make us recognise our failures, repent and move on without condemnation serving and experiencing the Joy of the LORD. Lets us focus in rejoicing and praising God. We were called to be worshipers.

  • Rebecca

    Wow. . .I have been praying to know my predominant fault, and after reading this post, I have no doubt what it is. Prayer answered! Unfortunately I have a severe case of sensuality, and now I need to find ways to combat it. . .all of which will probably involve work and discomfort. Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a slacker.

  • ansen

    let more lessons to grow in virtues appear.Please explain the ways to get rid of all unwanted habbits.

  • Rebecca

    While googling some ideas on combating root sins, I found this helpful link on overcoming our root sin tendencies: http://www.totustuus.com/overcome.htm

  • Guest

    Everytime I visit this site I learn more and more about myself. I pray every day that I can grow closer to God. I am looking for a Spiritual Director to guide in the right direction. Each of these readings show me the insignificance of me and what a wonderful father God is to me.

  • Sharon

    All I want now are some fig leaves…. ;) Great and informative post! Thanks:)

  • roberdine

    I have seen suggestions on what to do do about scrupulosity, but what about the opposite,not being able to see anything much sinful in one’s self? I suspect that vanity might be the root sin, but examining my conscience is hard because I don’t really see anything there. I’m sure God sees plenty, just not me.

  • Albert

    Shocking but true. We are all up to our necks in one or more of these vices, isn’t it horrible. But I do think that admittance is the first step to improvement, and maybe the only step. Fighting against my vices seems to make them stronger. Should we try and rather do good deeds and practice virtues, instead of trying to elliminate our vices?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      There is some wisdom in what you say. Holiness comes from both fighting vice and practicing virtue. Both are necessary. Pursuing one without the other will result in frustration and lack of progress. In Matthew 12:44 and 45 Jesus seems to hint at this problem. If we empty ourselves of vice without filling the empty space up with virtue, we may find ourselves in a very spiritually vulnerable position. In general, I would lean toward practicing virtue but in context of our root sin. That way we are more likely to experience victory in both areas…

  • Anna

    mmm…after reading through this post I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – is it possible to fit under all three?….I think I have to go through the check list again and see which one gets more points – in which, case, that would be the winner (or loser depending on how you look at it!)

  • Justin

    I fit under all of them… I don’t know how to fix such a huge problem… I’ll just ask God to help me tackle them one at a time. Lord have mercy.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Well, the good news is that you are honest. The gray news is that your root sin is not in all three areas. It can only be in one. You may experience sin in all three, but in order to uncover your root sin and focus effectively, you really should talk with a spiritual director…

    • Maria Carvalho

      amem

  • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

    Question about pride. I read somewhere that having a very low opinion of, oneself is also prideful? As in low self-worth and low self -esteem?

    • Becky Ward

      Marie,

      Yes, they are symptoms of pride.  This was a tough one for me to accept……I have had low self-esteem / self-confidence most of my life.  It really hurt when it seemed that people were not returning phone calls or emails……or said something negative about me…..other things like that.  Because of the real internal pain I felt, I ignored the things I read about low self esteem being selfish.  Maybe for other people, but not me!  :)

      Once I had read it or heard it though……..it was inside me and God put it to good use.

      My root sin is vanity, therefore I would do things according to what I thought others expected……..I was a people pleaser, and when I tried real hard to make people happy, and it seemed that I had failed……..I felt awful……..my sense of self-worth was tied to my perception of what others thought of me.  Emphasis on ‘seemed and my perception’….this wasn’t how things really were, but how I thought they were.

      The devil plays both ends against the middle……….so I was never happy…..always being tempted to do more for people  “This will make them like me!” ……..and never feeling that they did.

      Once I understood and was able to believe….even just a little……that God made me and I was good, period.  I made gradual progress in building my self esteem.  For my penance once a priest made me kneel by my bed once a day for prayer and say, “Thank you for loving me.”  It wasn’t easy….lots of emotion and skepticism…….but it finally broke through the protective wall I had erected…….telling myself that I didn’t care.

      What we’re doing when we have low self esteem is essentially saying that we’re so bad or so poor off, lowly, wretched, and miserable that not even God can fix us……..and that’s pride.  We are too focused on ourselves…..as if we were the center of the universe.  (I really hated hearing that one…but it was true…….and the idea that I was being selfish was so abhorrent to me that it helped me to be open to the healing I needed.)

      The Surrender Prayer was also very helpful for me, you can find it here:
      http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2011/06/25/a-prayer-of-surrender

      And some good ideas for overcoming our root sin here:
      http://www.totustuus.com/overcome.htm

      The key is in putting God first.  I have a sticky note that says, “Who am I trying to please?” posted where I see it often.  I would imagine God feeling about me as I do for my children and grandchildren….and now I have solid church teaching on the truth of this to help me shut out the devil and my own negative thoughts…….those things are simply “not of God”.

      It’s been hard!!  I’ve had to change ways of thinking and behaving that I’ve had for almost 50 years…………but it’s also been absolutely worth the effort!!  God will transform us if we allow Him to.  :)

  • Cordelia Naismith

    I have just found this list and it has been most helpful to me. I would like to have your permission to translate it into Spanish and post it in my blog (quoting the source, of course), so it could help other people who cannot understand English

  • Jay

    I read through this and believe I’m guilty of all three. I thought my root sin was that of sensuality but now, it appears it’s more far-fetched making me feeling even more guilty as some of the things I think are normal are not afertall and i have been living with them and feeling very comfortable.
    I guess this is why I have never felt true fulfilment, always knowing there’s an emptiness in my life.
    God please help me to become a better person.

  • http://www.dailybread.net.nz/ Dailybreadeditor

    Given that the first commandment is to listen and to Love God and the second is to love our neighbour, wouldn’t two candidates for root sin be failure to listen and failure to love?

  • http://www.dailybread.net.nz/ Dailybreadeditor

    How do you tell the difference between caprice and inability. For example, how to tell if you’re lazy or suffering from chronic fatigue?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      See a doctor. :-)

      • LizEst

        Amen, Amen!

    • Becky Ward

      Motive.  If one is truly striving to follow the Lord’s call in their life it will bother them (in their heart) that they cannot do certain things.  If we are lazy, we will likely know that we should be doing something, but will rationalize and find justification for our actions.

      It can be difficult to discern the difference – this is why it is important to get sound spiritual direction, from someone who has the opportunity to get to know us and (through the guidance of the Holy Spirit) can therefore point out those areas where we need help.

  • 1ray1

    Thanks, Father John.  This is excellent advice and seems like it should be worth the search to find a good spiritual director.  At sixty six years of age, I’d say your delineation of human weakness is pretty much right on.  It kind of reminds me of the seven cardinal sins I learned in my youth(from a good woman religious).  As I reflect it seems that I have kind of bounced around your triumvirate of evil from my youth to the present.  God’s grace has blessed me and the more open I am to it the more graces He sends. 

  • GrowinginSpirit

    to one degree or another; we’ve all experienced these sins of our fleshly person-hood; it’s a natural consequence of the cross we carry in our human frail condition.

    Sin by definition is offense against truth, reason, and right conscience. So; if I use shyness as an excuse to not speak up for myself or someone else in need, by positive assertive manner, but then spend the rest of week griping and pulling
    myself and others from God, or to allow a bad situation to continue because of fear of consequences to me, or fail to allow myself to be open to learning about another by sitting with them and listening (not talking) just listening so that I can know them and pray specifically for another – I might be refusing an opportunity God presented to teach someone about God and to glorify God by my life. This might be when shyness is sinful. When I just turn from the horizontal beam
    of personal interactions; back and forth talking, arguing, and
    eventually understanding of another human person. This
    type of shyness would fall in with vanity; I can see. Not
    wanting to share the good that was brought to me by the
    vertical beam; the me and God relating. Thus not being part of the building of God’s kingdom.

    But if shyness is only temporary until we gain experience in a subject or person and then we are more quiet listener than chatty talker. What some call shyness might be ‘meekness’
    and I should not be concerned or try to be different.

    Can a root sin leave us as we grow? Can the root sin at first seem to manifest in various other forms of sin as these 3 categories point out? As we try to over compensate and thus
    turn others away from us?

    • Becky Ward

      If you are looking for answers, try using the site’s search function for ‘root sin’. Fr. John has done a nice job on these articles and I am sure you will find what you are looking for there.
      If you are musing out loud or posing questions for others, kindly ignore this comment.
      God Bless!

      • GrowinginSpirit

        If I muse out loud; I couldn’t not accept someone’s imput. This is why discussion takes place. If I want to muse in the privacy of my room; then of course I would not be open to suggestions from others as they see me. Thanks again Becky.

        • Becky Ward

          If I offended you I am sorry. People pose questions without wanting answers sometimes, and I am guilty of ‘thinking out loud’ with my fingers on the keyboard once in a while. I wasn’t sure where you were coming from.

          • Sherylecoronel

            How kind and humble you are!

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    Well it was easy reading this article to identify….now what? Say you live in a remote area…are there such things as spiritual directors “on line” or by phone how does someone who needs help find help? Where does one turn?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Friend, this is the reason I wrote the book “Navigating the Interior Life.” I provide the answer to this question in detail.