A Reflection on Sin and Mercy

By: Christopher West


I would like to reflect on a really bad three-letter word that rarely gets mentioned anymore: sin.   We needn’t fear this word so long as we never talk about it, think about it, or otherwise acknowledge it outside the context of its five-letter antidote: mercy.  In a world that has lost a sense of sin, one sin remains: Thou shalt not make people feel guilty (except, of course, about making people feel guilty).   In other words, the only sin today is to remind people about sin, or to call something a sin.   Those who call sin sin aren’t “tolerant.”   They fail in the “respect for ‘diversity’ department.”

As an aside, have you ever noticed that those who preach “tolerance” are often quite intolerant of anyone who doesn’t think like they do?   Have you ever noticed that those who insist on an uncritical respect for “diversity” are often quite critical and disrespectful of those who diverge from their point of view?  The Christian remedy for guilt is not to wish sin away in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity.”   The Christian remedy for guilt is to abandon oneself with total confidence to God’s mercy.

But I’m not convinced that the majority of Catholics today really believe in God’s mercy.   We say we do, but do we?   If we really believed in God’s mercy, why are we so quick to rationalize sin rather than admit it, confess it, and be forgiven?  In my experience speaking to Catholic audiences around the country, it seems many of us still believe that our eternal destiny will be determined by a scale weighing our good works against our sins.   If this is the case, we simply can’t afford to admit the amount of sin in our lives.   The implications are too devastating.   So we rationalize our sin and continue to comfort ourselves by recalling that we’re not nearly as bad as “those really nasty sinners down the street.”

We are Repentant, God is Merciful

Where is the death and resurrection of Jesus in this view of salvation?   If we are convinced we’re going to heaven because, well, “I’m a good person,” what do we need a savior for?  To counter this notion of the tipping scales, a wise retreat-master once explained judgment to me as follows.   Each of us will be “on trial” before God the Father, the eternal judge.   The prosecuting attorney, the devil, will be listing all our sins one by one.   All those things the deceiver convinced us where good in this life he will now throw in our face as evidence against us, snarling with certainty as he does, “Guilty… guilty …guilty.”

Knowing we are indeed guilty, we will have no defense, unless… unless we have paid the proper fee to the only defense attorney who can save us from our fate.   The defense attorney, of course, is Jesus.   The fee: our very lives.   If in this life we have abandoned ourselves entirely to Christ, on judgment day, he will wrap us in his blood stained cloak, and every time the devil snarls, “Guilty… guilty… guilty,” Christ will look to his Father and proclaim, “Forgiven… forgiven… forgiven.”

There is only one unforgivable sin.   Christ called it blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is none other than the refusal to admit we need God’s mercy.   In other words, the only unforgivable sin is the obstinate rationalization of sin.   “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves…. If we confess our sins, he …will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8-9).

One final thought: God loves us not in spite of the misery of our sin.   It is our misery, in fact, as Father d’Elbee observes in his marvelous book I Believe in Love, that attracts God’s mercy.   Mercy in Latin – misericordia – actually means “a heart which gives itself to those in misery.”

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