Knowledge about God without an awareness of our misery produces vanity. Knowledge of our misery without an awareness of God produces despair. Knowledge of Jesus Christ provides the middle ground, because in him we find both God and our misery.
I’m of the view that the devil can use the same snare on any number of people—it is only a case of using different bait depending on the individual. At the same time, people tend to be pretty good at sneering at other people caught in the snares while ignoring that we seem to be somehow stuck after going for that bait tasty looking morsel just sitting there.
The trap is pride/vanity and the bait is the way we justify ourselves into thinking we have done nothing wrong—that the fault is exclusively on the other side of whatever either-or equation we have set up for ourselves. Either we haven’t sinned, or else it’s someone else’s fault that we have sinned. If anyone should indicate that we are doing wrong in a specific way (as opposed to a generic “yeah I’m a sinner, but oh well… so is everyone else), we get angry. Someone saying I am doing wrong and am at risk of losing my soul over it is seen as an unjust insult, while when I speak out on the flaw of another, I am merely admonishing the sinner—one of the spiritual works of mercy.
This seems to be reaching a peak of hostility, where the Church receives hatred from both sides and both sides can see the hypocrisy of the other side, but not their own. One Catholic sees the sins of his ideological foe, and correctly sees they are wrong, but is blind to his own flaws. His foe looks at him and sees the same. But neither says “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."
I think this is the real point of Matthew 7:1-5...
1 “Stop judging,* that you may not be judged. 2 For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. 3 Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? 5 You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
This quote is taken grossly out of context to mean “Don’t you dare say what I do is wrong,” when it should be telling us to look at our own faults and failings and realize we are not sinless judges, but also sinners in need of repentance.
Thus, we can deny that what we do is a sin, we can claim that the teaching which labels what we do is sinful lacks authority, or we can focus on the wrongs of others being more serious and therefore people should not be focussing on us. By doing this, we refuse to repent and instead focus on “the other guy."
For example, people who rebel against the Catholic teaching on morality tend to say “God doesn’t care about X!” This X can be contraception, abortion, divorce/remarriage, premarital or adulterous sexual relationships (or many others, but these are the current “hot button” issues). This is denial.
Others ignore the Church teaching by trying to negate the authority of the teachings to bind. “That’s not ex cathedra!” The Pope’s a Marxist!” “The Bishop’s a Right Winger!” “The Church fell into heresy after Vatican II!” “The Church is homophobic and anti-woman!" I could go on and on (and the excuses do go on and on), with people from both sides of our political spectrum rejecting that a Church teaching binds in a case where the individual dislikes what is said.
Still others point to the Church taking action against their disobedience, saying, “What they do is worse than what I do! Why do you only focus on me?” Such a view ignores the very real fact that the person using this tactic has done wrong and has no excuse for it.
All of these cases prey on our vanity, We know God exists and commands us to do good and avoid evil. But (as Pascal pointed out in the opening quote) if we don’t know (or of we ignore) our own misery (in the sense of wretchedness—needing deliverance from our sins) we produce vanity. It does no good to point out our own disadvantages or another’s advantages. Each one of us will be held accountable for how we tried to live in accord with God’s teaching. As Fulton J. Sheen wrote:
We are all on the roadway of life in this world but we travel in different vehicles. Some are in trucks, jeeps, and ambulances. Others are in twelve cylinder cars and others in broken down old wrecks, but each of us is doing the driving.The judgment is something like being stopped by a policeman. When we are stopped by God, He does not say to us, as the policeman does not say, “What kind of a car are you driving?” God is no respecter of persons. He asks,“ How well did you drive? Did you obey the laws?”
At death we leave our vehicles behind, our emotions, prejudices, feelings, our state in life, our opportunities, the accidents of talent, duty, intelligence, and position. It will make no difference to God if we were crippled, ignorant, or hated by the world; our judgment will be based not on our social position, but on the way we lived, on the choices we made, on the things we loved. Do not think when you go before the judgment seat of God that you will argue a case. You will plead no extenuating circumstances, you will not ask for a new trial or a new jury; you will be your own judge! You will be your own jury. As scripture says, We will be condemned out of our own mouths. God will merely seal our judgment. [Sheen, Fulton J. Your Life is Worth Living (Kindle Locations 4166-4174). St. Andrew's Press. Kindle Edition.]
Yes, we do have to speak out for the truth, and instruct the ignorant and even admonish the sinner. But if we refuse to keep in mind our own sinfulness in doing so, we’ve fallen into the devil’s trap, so concerned with what others do that we forget to look to the state of our own souls. If so, we may find Our Lord saying to us:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)