Bob Ross came up in conversation the other day, as cultural icons are wont to do, and I quoted his famous quip, “We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents.” I pointed out that while it sounded nice, it wasn’t very theologically correct. Of course I make mistakes—sins—and they’re not so happy.
One of my priest friends came back with St. Augustine and the Easter Proclamation, reminding me, “O happy fault!”
But I protested. “That refers to Adam’s sin, not mine!”
With that, he steered me to St. Francis de Sales. Now, St. Francis de Sales clearly believed in sin—his masterpiece, An Introduction to the Devout Life is replete with wisdom about avoiding temptation and sin, and at the beginning, he reminds us that we must “not only forsake sin, but wholly cleanse your heart of all attachments to sin.” But in his gentle way, de Sales reminds us not to despair when we do sin. “Therefore when your heart has fallen raise it gently, humbling yourself greatly before God, and acknowledging your fault, but without marveling at your fall; since it is not marvel that infirmity should be infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail.”
How often do we moan our own sins more out of pride than out of real contrition? Rather than focusing on the mistake, turn and embrace the love and mercy of God. Let the sin be a reason to call on His love and mercy. “For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sum III, I, iii, ad. 3).
So what would St. Francis de Sales say about Bob Ross’ quip? Ross used the phrase to remind viewers that anything—a splotch of paint where it didn’t belong, a line or spot you didn’t intend, or simply a painting that missed the mark—could be turned around. Simply turn the blotch into a tree or a cloud, or make a little white wave in the ocean. Was it a mistake? Yes, but there was no need to dwell on the spilled paint. Instead, he instructed, “We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents… Learn how to use what happens.”
Yes, we sin, but after we sin, we must immediately turn them into “happy accidents.” Learn humility and let your sin be a path to God. Francis de Sales reminds us, “God will hold you in his hand, and if he lets you stumble, it will be only so that you realize that you would collapse entirely if he did not hold you, and thus to make you tighten your grip upon his hand.”
Even our sin can be transformed into a moment of grace. In another part of An Introduction to the Devout Life, de Sales reminds us, “go on bravely in the spirit of humility to make your general confession;—but I entreat you, be not troubled by any sort of fearfulness. The scorpion who stings us is venomous, but when his oil has been distilled, it is the best remedy for his bite: even so, sin is shameful when we commit it, but when reduced to repentance and confession, it becomes salutary and honorable.” Sin becomes honorable! How? Because it moves us to seek God’s mercy. It humbles us, helps us to see the frail invalid that we are, and spurs us to seek the embrace of the Divine Physician.
Maybe Bob Ross wasn’t so far off. St. Ambrose seems to agree: “My fault has become for me the price of redemption, through which Christ came to me. For me Christ tasted death. Transgression is more profitable than innocence. Innocence had made me arrogant, transgression made me humble.”
We don’t seek out mistakes, but when they happen—because we’re foolish and fallen human beings—we learn how to use what happened to achieve the good. Transgression is more profitable than innocence—not because sin is good, but because Christ has won a victory for us, and we have the humility to seek it out and beg to be saved.
Once again, the classic optimism of Bob Ross is a deeper than a Pollyanna idealism. Who would have thought that a painter on public television had so much to teach me?
Even our gravest sins have an answer: the love and mercy of Christ. Even the darkest of days, the day we killed our God, is Good. From the Exsultet…
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!