More Numerous Than the Hairs of My Head? A Reflection on Sin and Its Consequences

I. King David
Julia Margaret Cameron, Study of King David (1866).
The photograph depicts Sir Henry Taylor as David

In Psalm 40:11-12, King David confesses that his sins are greater than the number of hairs on his head, as he cries out to God for help:

Do not thou, O Lord, withhold thy mercy from me,
let thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness ever preserve me!
For evils have encompassed me without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me.

I understand that this is poetic language, but I was still curious about how the number of our sins compares to the number of hairs on our heads. Do we really have more sins than hairs? Obviously, the answer will depend largely upon the individual. A toddler has more hair than sins, while a bald man has more sins than hair. But how about an ordinary believer?

Of course, this answer requires knowing two things: the number of hairs on our heads, and the number of sins that we’ve committed.

The first of these is easy enough: according to biologists, humans have an average of 90,000-150,000 hairs on their heads. I have no idea how they determined this number, but they have even broken it down by hair color: blonde (~150,000), brown (~110,000), black (~100,000) or red (~90,000). So King David, being Semitic, probably had roughly 100,000 hairs on his head.

But quantifying the number of sins that we’ve committed is obviously much harder. Likely, the closest that we can get is a line from Proverbs 24:16, which says that “a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.” This passage was understood to mean seven times a day (see Luke 17:4), although the ancient commentators recognized that this passage wasn’t meant to be an exact formula.
Rather, it’s meant simply to say that even the righteous sin often. Both the righteous and the wicked sin; the critical difference is that the righteous man repents.  And of course, the “seven times a day” number describes the righteous man, not the wicked one (who presumably sins more often). But David is a righteous man, so let’s assume, for purposes of our calculations, that he only sinned roughly seven times a day.

Now, this daily struggle with sin only occurs with the age of reason. Before we’re old enough to understand right from wrong, we can’t be held morally responsible for our actions. Therefore, actual sin isn’t possible. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that, as a general rule, the age of reason “happens at the age of seven, or thereabouts, though the use of reason requisite for moral discernment may come before, or may be delayed until notably after, that time.” So barring exceptional cases (particularly astute children, the mentally handicapped, etc.), seven years old is a nice, rough estimate.

Putting all of that together, here’s what we get. Assuming that David began sinning an average of seven times a day, every day, from his seventh birthday forwards, and that he had 100,000 hairs on his head, he would be 47 years old when the number of his sins surpassed the number of hairs on his head. More precisely, it would be about 14,285.7 days after his seventh birthday. (In more concrete terms, today is September 3, 2013. If you were born on July 25, 1967, today would be 14,285 days after your seventh birthday.)

In other words, by the time King David is writing this Psalm, the number of his sins probably is far greater than the number of hairs on his head. Likewise, if you’re middle-aged, or haven’t lived your life like the righteous man (for example, by sinning more than seven times a day), odds are good that your sins outnumber the hairs on your head.

II. Jesus in the Garden

This is more than just idle mathematical curiosity. Each one of those sins contributes to the suffering of Jesus
Christ and His Church. Pope Pius XI described how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ had perfect foreknowledge of every sin that we would ever commit. Each one of these sins contributes to the suffering that He endured, which is why Hebrews 6:6 can describe apostasy as crucifying Christ again.

Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane (1890)

The chief suffering Christ faced wasn’t the physical brutality of His Passion, but the knowledge of how we had sinned, were sinning, and would sin. He is our God, and He knew how these sins would alienate us from Him, and lead to our own misery. That is, Christ’s chief suffering was so thoroughly selfless that it could only be felt by One who loved. Pius explains it this way:

For any one who has great love of God, if he will look back through the tract of past time may dwell in meditation on Christ, and see Him laboring for man, sorrowing, suffering the greatest hardships, “for us men and for our salvation,” well-nigh worn out with sadness, with anguish, nay “bruised for our sins” (Isaias liii, 5), and healing us by His bruises. And the minds of the pious meditate on all these things the more truly, because the sins of men and their crimes committed in every age were the cause why Christ was delivered up to death, and now also they would of themselves bring death to Christ, joined with the same griefs and sorrows, since each several sin in its own way is held to renew the passion of Our Lord: “Crucifying again to themselves the Son of God, and making him a mockery” (Hebrews vi, 6).

The Body of Christ, the Church, also suffers as a result of every sin, and benefits as a result of all Christian merit. Scripture is clear on this. In speaking of the Body of Christ, St. Paul writes that, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). This is why, when Saul persecuted the Church, Jesus describes it as a persecution against Himself (Acts 9:1, 5). Blessed Pope John Paul II explained that, as a result of this communion of the Saints,

Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world. In other words, there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family.

Fortunately, this isn’t the end of the story. Just as our sinful actions now cause Him suffering in the past, the same is true for our good actions. When we repent of our sins, this brings Him solace there in the Garden, as He begins His Passion for us once for all. Pius Pius XI again:

Now if, because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then, too, already He derived somewhat of solace from our reparation, which was likewise foreseen, when “there appeared to Him an angel from heaven” (Luke xxii, 43), in order that His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation. And so even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that Most Sacred Heart which is continually wounded by the sins of thankless men, since – as we also read in the sacred liturgy – Christ Himself, by the mouth of the Psalmist complains that He is forsaken by His friends: “My Heart hath expected reproach and misery, and I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none: and for one that would comfort me, and I found none” (Psalm lxviii, 21).

This is true of the Church, too. Just as each Christian’s sins harm the whole Church, each Christian’s sanctification brings healing and joy to the whole Church. This is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 12:26.

III. You, Today

My hope is that you will take two things away from all of this. First, that it will call you to repentance. Your sins may number more than the hairs on your head, but that’s all the more reason to turn back. Proverbs 24:16 reminds us that both the righteous and the wicked fall. The chief difference is that the righteous get back up again. You may have caused Christ an enormous amount of grief as a result of your sins. But it’s never too late to bring solace to Him in His Passion by turning towards Him.

Second, I hope that this knowledge leads you to immense joy. Christ foresaw you, sins and all, and decided that you were worth going to the Cross for. You should live your life in the joy and knowledge of this truth, as the Apostles point out. St. Peter writes, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). St. Paul says the same: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19b-20).

3 Comments

  1. “For evils have encompassed me without number;
    my iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see;
    they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me.”

    It seems that the King David is expressing the various effects of grave sin as it affects both body and soul. Guilt, compunction and contrition are well known to induce physical reactions, the most common being that of crying or some other type of mental anguish. On the contrary, a man at peace with God can often feel the opposing sensations that joy produce, and those especially felt in the area of the physical heart and can be expressed in song and music. This joy seems to be either reduced or extinguished to the degree of culpability and also to the degree that a soul is sensitive to both God and sin. Sometimes, a highly scrupulous person will feel such anguish even over somewhat insignificant venial sins or defects, due to the overly sensitive nature of their souls or spiritual life. But, that the heart fails one due to the effects of guilt, should be easily understood by anyone who both loves God and is also sensitive to that relationship of love, and this is caused by the perception that God is not as close to the soul as He has been previously. The psalms are filled with these types of emotional expressions. It seems that the reference to the hairs relates to the high, or even overwhelming, level of mental thought that a guilty person can experience, sensations affecting particularly the eyes..”I cannot see” (God within me) and the head which is trying will all it’s might to rectify the situation and regain peace and joy with God.

    May God bring all contrite people back to His loving and peace filled communion and protect us all from anything that might ever separate us from Him again.

    – Awlms

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