Apparently there are many Christians out there who, even after participating in the Catholic sacramental process of confession and reconciliation, find that they continue to worry about past sins for years after they have confessed them. The fact for many people is that the Lord forgives more easily than we can forgive ourselves.
In the New Testament, John 3:17 says it most completely: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Let’s start by dealing with the forgiveness of sins as the Church deals with it. God gave us two ways to be forgiven of our sin. First is the sacrament of Baptism, which I spoke more fully about last weekend at this blog. Baptism was given by God to take away the ‘Original Sin’ committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden, as well as to cleanse our souls of any sins committed by us prior to our baptism.
At Pentecost, Peter, who Christ had left as the first steward of his Church, said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”
Of course, man is an imperfect creature, and he will sin even after being cleansed and forgiven at baptism. To help man with sins committed after baptism, another process was needed. That is a process which has been called by the names confession, penance, and reconciliation after the three main parts of this process.
God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and to forgive them as well. After His resurrection, Jesus said to the apostles: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Knowing that He would not always be among men physically, Christ passed the power to forgive sins on to His followers, and instructed them to pass this along to their successors. Thus we have the formal forgiveness of sins today in the confessional.
Some people are afraid to go into the confessional and face a priest to ask for forgiveness. Maybe they have been away from the Church for a time, perhaps a long time, and are embarrassed both by their sins and by their estrangement.
Others are simply resentful, feeling that they should just be able to deal with God directly, and not have to use a ‘middle man’ like a priest. Some have especially taken this attitude with the emergence in recent years of sexual abuse scandals within the priesthood itself. “Why should I ask those pedophiles to forgive me of my sins?” is an attitude that has been expressed.
The fact is, these are only excuses, not reasons, for missing out on the sin-forgiveness process. Fear needs to simply be overcome, and there is only one way: just do it. Find out when your local church holds confessions, go there during that time, sit in a pew for a few minutes praying for strength and reminding yourself of some of your more egregious sins, and then get into that confessional and lay it all out with the priest, even telling him of your fears.
Pride needs to be overcome, the feeling that maybe you know better how to have your sins forgiven, and give the process a chance.
Once you give up the pride, overcome the fear, and get into the confessional and begin talking to the priest, I guarantee you that the feeling you have on leaving that confessional will be uplifting and freeing.
I hope and pray that more of you actually take the opportunity to get back into the formal penance process, and back into Church itself, sharing in Christ’s body in the Eucharist.
That said, even should you do so, you have only won half the battle. God has fully forgiven you, but you still will need to let go and forgive yourself. First, know this: Jesus loves sinners.
Again in the New Testament, Mark 2:15-17 quotes Jesus Himself as saying: “People who are healthy do not need a doctor; sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the self-righteous.”
In most surveys on the subject, the reason that people have left and stayed away from the Church go back to pain: the pain from sin, abuse, divorce, addiction, abandonment, betrayal, failure, poverty, loneliness, etc.
One of the biggest sources of pain has always been described by respondents as guilt over past sins. This guilt has spoiled relationships, caused sleeplessness and depression, and caused many to say things to themselves such as: “God doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. Sin causes these worries for a reason. Sin is evil, committed intentionally. We have taken some action, said some words, thought some idea that we absolutely know full well is wrong. It is a violation of one of God’s commandments, particularly Jesus’ command for us to love one another as He has loved us.
William McKee has written of three ways to stop worrying about past sins. First, don’t be a ‘connector’. Stop thinking that bad things happen to you now because of your past sins. God doesn’t work that way.
Second, don’t make ‘comparisons’. Just because you perceive someone else to be holier or more perfect than you doesn’t make it so. You have no idea what goes on in someone else mind, or behind their closed doors. You can only worry about yourself and your thoughts, words, and deeds.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, develop a ‘positive self image’. It is not vanity to think well of yourself. It has often been said that you need to love yourself before you can love others, and this is very true.
The roots of your past go deep, but the fact of the matter is that you are likely a much better person at heart than you give yourself credit for. One thing that is important to remember here is that self-love does not really come from ourselves ‘looking in the mirror’. It comes from the reflection that we see of ourselves in others.
How does our family view us? Our friends? Our peers? No matter what you currently think of yourself, start acting differently. Start treating others really well on purpose. Start talking to people in a positive tone, not using profanity, comforting and encouraging them. Do this regularly, and you will be amazed at the response that you receive from them over time, and at the improvement you will feel in your own self image.
You are a child of God, and He sent his Son so that your sins might be forgiven. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be vain. Give the Church another chance. Go to confession, be forgiven, and then most importantly, forgive yourself.
Removing the weight of your sins from your life, your thoughts, your relationships will free you to experience God’s love more fully, and will indeed free you to both love yourself and others more completely. God bless you.