Perhaps the only thing we hate more than sin is to acknowledge that we are sinful.
This past January I had a conversation with a student. She was obviously in a small life crisis, similar to the ones I remember having (and still have from time to time), when there is a moment of growth, like a green shoot coming up through hardened soil. The topic that this particular student brought up has been echoed by other students before, but this time it was asked in such a straight forward and honest way, “why, if I’ve asked for forgiveness, gone to confession, and done penance, do I still feel guilt for my past sins?”
I had no idea how to answer her because, I later realized, I had never allowed myself to process those questions with my own sins. I muttered something like, “well, sometimes forgiveness isn’t an emotion but a decision.” I told her, “it’s like making the decision to love someone even if sometimes we don’t feel like loving them.” She accepted my barely insightful answer graciously and went on her way, still visibly with questions.
“Are even you still without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:16-20).
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel cuts to the heart of the matter and brings much-needed insight to the question that student posed to me – it is the same question that we should all be asking in our spiritual walk and especially during this penitential Lenten season. Christ’s words provide some food for thought as to why we still feel guilt about our past sins, food for thought that we would do well to chew on for a while:
Our guilt comes from Christ. Here I am not talking about shame, but rather guilt, which is an important nuance. Shame is that persistent lie from the Devil that we are defined by our sin and are controlled by our sin. Shame places our sins above us as if they are our master. Prudential guilt, by contrast, comes from the Good Spirit. Guilt reminds us of our imperfection; it keeps us humble. It reminds us that we are children of Adam, through which sin entered the world, and then encourages us with the reminder that we are also children of the New Adam through which we are sharers in eternal life. This puts us in touch with original sin, a reality that many claim is unproven and un-Biblical, but, as G.K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, “original sin is the only part of faith that we can affirm with absolute certainty because we have experienced it firsthand.”
The prudential guilt we feel when we look back at our failures is a reminder that we owe a debt that we cannot pay; it is the hand of justice that we feel. Our sins can be forgiven perfectly through reconciliation, but we still bear on our souls the temporal punishment due to sin. Whenever we come closer to Christ we begin to feel sorrow for our sins because of his great goodness. This we should understand as a virtue even though it makes us uncomfortable – and to be sure, it will make us uncomfortable because it begins to rain grace on our ‘perfect’ papier mache sculptures we’ve constructed of ourselves, melting them in the process.
The fact is, we try to be our own savior and construct our own salvation. The thing about forgiveness and mercy is that it’s gratuitous; we do not earn it, we do not deserve it, we cannot repay it. We would love to do all three, though. When Christ forgives us at confession we are reminded of our debt to him. We hate that – especially us from the United States. Going to confession isn’t that hard, really it’s quite nice. We go in and pronounce our shortcomings and that can be very therapeutic. But if we leave the confessional singing Sinatra’s I Did It My Way then we’ve failed to grasp the depth of the Sacrament, and it means we weren’t well-disposed to receive all the grace of that Sacrament.
We’ve heard that Pelagianism was a heresy and we’d roundly reject someone that supported the idea that we can work to attain our salvation. But I agree with the great Dr. William Portier, a professor at the University of Dayton, when he leaned over his podium one day in class and, glaring into our wide-eyed faces, whispered accusingly, insightfully, “you’re all little pelagians!” Yes, search your soul, because you probably have a little heretic in there if you’re like me and walk out of the confessional nonchalant as if our going there was our carrying of the cross and our speaking our sins aloud to the priest were driving nails into our own sacred hands. We forget that the forgiveness in the confessional isn’t due to our holiness, but Christ’s.
The final insight from my reflections, which is stated explicitly in Matthew 15, is that we still feel guilt for our past sins because we still want to keep sinning. Yes, those sins that we just stated that we abhor are the very things that we, with a mischievous smile, would like to do above anything else. Whether we like it or not, our sins come from our own hearts. And as much as we would like to separate ourselves from them we simply cannot; they are destined to be a thorn in our side, as Saint Paul laments, for quite some time.
“Ah!” we say, “but the Psalmist declares that, ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far has [God] removed our sins from us.’” Well, this is true. God removes our sins from us, not our sinful inclinations (unless that be his will). We walk out of the confessional and are immediately slammed in the face with the temptation to sin again – that frightens us. Why do we still feel the guilt of our past sins? Because we still love our past sins more than Gollum loved that ring. It disturbs us because we’ve got a little Gollum running around in our souls with Pelagius and that’s just not a good combo. Imagine inviting friends over for a house party and there, sitting on the couch are your roommates, Gollum and Pelagius. That’s our soul. “How do I get them to leave?” you might ask. “They’re terrible roommates,” you complain.
“Well,” one might reply, “you can begin by stop letting them eat your food and paying their rent. They might not leave but at least they’ll be broke and a little less arrogant.”
The awareness of our brokenness is a good thing, not something to be fixed; it is a virtue, not the absence of. The awareness of our weakness produces humility and humility produces faith. Humility is the opposite of pride. Humility chokes our ego of its hot air (and quiets Gollum and Pelagius). St. Faustina transcribed the words of Christ when she wrote, “The torrents of grace inundate humble souls. The proud remain always in poverty and misery, because My grace turns away from them to humble souls” (Divine Mercy In My Soul). The Psalmist echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not spurn.”
So the next time a student comes to me with the question, “why do I still feel guilt for my past sins?” I’ll be better able to answer them with the confidence that only comes from one who has sinned and asked for forgiveness approaching 70×7: ‘We experience guilt because we are hopeless sinners who find hope in God alone; it is by his stripes that we are healed. Remember your weakness and your guilt because that will bring humility and faith.’
But, come to think of it, all this can be summed up with words we’ve all heard before: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Paul Riffon is a Ukrainian Catholic working as a campus minister at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. As a native West Virginian, he finds solace in the Appalachians and can often be found adventuring through the hills on top of a mountain bike with a backpack and hammock in tow.