Confession: How do we understand sin and fear within the context of who God is?

Through this series on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation let us continue to focus on confession by examining different aspects of this sacrament. This we do by looking back to the past (how people perceived the sacrament), the present (modern society's view of Confession) and the future (how we can properly understand this sacrament). Last week I discussed how frequently we should go to Confession and the formation of our consciences. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we should receive this sacrament regularly and develop an active personal formation of our conscience. This week we turn to several other aspects that are integrally involved in our reception of the sacrament: God, sin and fear.

All too often, when we think of these three aspects of Confession we misunderstand them. First of all, when we think of God, some among us have a peculiar concept of Him in our minds, which is not found in the Scriptures. Secondly, the presence of sin in our lives is often wrongly or narrowly understood. Finally, we know that fear is often a motivating a factor in going to Confession, especially when mortal sin is present. Let us examine each one of these in turn.

The controlling factor in this reflection is our concept of God. Who is He? What is He like? In the past, many saw God as someone to fear because of His power and authority. He was perceived as the "Policeman in the Sky" or a "Divine Score-keeper." This led to viewing our relationship with God and His with us in terms of "keeping the rules." Moreover, some ended up asking "How much can I get away with?" or "What do I have to do?" In more recent years, there has been an emphasis on a loving God. However, this concept often has become so exaggerated that God is then perceived as an indulgent parent. Our sin no longer carries any weight or consequence; it does not matter how we act.

So, now and in the future, we need to return to the genuinely biblical concept of God as our Father: the best sense of "Father," utterly faithful and loving and forgiving! We know that the Lord is forgiving: "though your sins be like crimson, they may become white as snow " (Isaiah 1:18). The Psalms tells us of the Lord's faithfulness: "Even if my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in" (Psalm 27:10). Instead of living in fear, the Lord tells us to "Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God" (Isaiah 41:10). God invites us to respond to Him in filial love, neither viewing Him as punitive nor as indulgent.

By recognizing that God is caring and forgiving, we are able to participate in a relationship that is marked by love and fidelity. Through Baptism, real bonds were created between Him and the members of the Church; bonds of love. Because He loves, God respects our freedom and awaits the response of our love and obedience. After all, love and force cannot go together. If we choose to refuse the invitation to return love, God cannot change our decision or its effects. So, coming to a real understanding and genuine appreciation of Penance fosters a personal decision to go to confession regularly. Through this sacrament, the bonds between God and each one of us and between each of us and the Church community, both of which were broken through sin, are now restored.

This Lent, we also need to change our conception of sin. In past days, so much seemed sinful - even to the most passive of consciences. In modern society, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme: people concluding that nothing is sinful and that they do not really sin. We must realize that sin is real; it is here among us - just look around! Moreover, "Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1865). Sin is our refusal to love God and one another. Sin can definitely affects our relationship: in the case of mortal sin it will sever, and in the case of venial sin it will loosen, our ties with God and with the Church. In Confession, the priest acting in the Name and Person of Christ, restores the bonds that were broken and confirms that these bonds have been solidified again. The Catechism states clearly, referring to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (no. 22, par. 2) "Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God" (no 1445). Recall how the Catechism expresses this same truth in the following manner "Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation" (Catechism, no. 1440, referring to Lumen Gentium, no. 11)

We now examine fear in the context of the past, present and future. In the past we had a fear of hell. We concluded that God would "get even" with us for all of the sins we had committed by condemning us to hell. Today, people deny any fear by not taking Hell seriously; some even claim that there is "no such thing." Of course, hell is real. It is that "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and to be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives" (Catechism, Glossary and also no. 1033). So, God does not send us to hell; He isn't getting even. He respects our choice. We should not fear being punished, but rather refusing to love the Lord of our hearts, He who was sent precisely to free us from fear and to restore us to love.

Therefore, Confession is a sacrament or sign that includes the realization that we have entered into a personal relationship with God, and through Him, with the Church, that we have sinned (seriously or not so seriously) in failing to return God's love, and that we come to confess our failures honestly, seeking mercy from Him, not through fear but through hope which is rooted in His reconciling mercy and love.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I propose that we commit ourselves to a new understanding of God, of sin and of fear. Let us recognize that God loves us and respects our choice to live in friendship with Him or to turn to a life of vice; nonetheless, He constantly invites us to join our will with His as we seek His mercy. Let us remember that our only fear is our own personal choice to sin. And finally, let us commit ourselves to pursuing a life of virtue, that when we fail, we will not despair, but, rather, we will seek God's mercy in the Sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009