Thoughts on God, Sin, and Forgiveness

I grew up in a church that offered a means of seeking and finding God’s forgiveness. It gave the members a way to “get rid” of sin. I am talking about the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation, or as we called it back then, the sacrament of confession. 

The upside of the sacrament was that it encourages people to fess up to their sins. After all, admission is the first step in recovery or the beginning of change. If you don’t see your behaviors as in some way wrong or harmful, you aren’t likely to want to change them. The problem is that it never really worked for me. I think the reason is that whenever I confessed my wrongdoings to a priest, I was told to recite a bunch of memorized prayers. Never-ever did a priest tell me to go apologize to someone I had harmed. I was never told to tell the truth when I had lied. I wasn’t told to return something I’d stolen. Nor was I ever offered a way to deal with a weakness of character or to strengthen the opposite virtues. For example, it was never suggested I go to a counselor to find the reason I tended to repeat the same unhealthy behaviors nor was I advised to seek a recovery program for an addiction.

I was taught that confessing my sins to a priest was like confessing to God. Thus the screen between us – even the priest didn’t know who I was, so my sins were a secret between God and me. But I was never left with any hope that I would be able to keep myself from doing the same things in the future. Unfortunately that was the design of the thing. I eventually gave it up as pretty useless. I knew that if God were going to forgive me he would in his own good time or he wouldn’t, depending on how abundant his mercy of the day. Having a priest tell me I was forgiven didn’t change that fact.

Over the years I changed my view of God and with it, my view of sin. Sin ceased to be some act I did or bad thought that came into my head. The idea of sin became pretty simple: doing my will instead of God’s. The Ten Commandments and Church teachings were a guide for people to know in a general way what God’s will is, but as I matured, I came to realize two things about God’s will:

#1. The only commandment worth paying attention to is the one Jesus gave: “Love the Lord God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Granted, it is easy to understand but hard to live. But as Jesus himself taught, if we learn to obey this commandment the rest will take care of themselves.

#2. All those sins I have committed over the years are simply symptoms of my seeking to do my own will instead of God’s. And God attitude about that? It is similar to that of a parent who sees a child reach toward a flame. A loving parent will move toward the child, not away. When a parent pulls a child away from the flame and slaps the child’s hand, shame may begin to brew but the parent doesn’t intend that the child to feel shame but to become wiser about fire. It is the same way for us as adults. When we finally recognize that our behavior is harmful, it isn’t shame that God asks of us, but wisdom.