This is Part 3 of my ongoing series exploring what it means to “be pastoral.” Each Lent, we’re asked to repent of our sins. But what does it really mean to be a sinner? And what does it take to stop? The answers might surprise you.
Sin vs. the call to love
In my last column, I noted that the main job for every Christian disciple is recognizing that, because of the Fall, our human understanding of love is hopelessly flawed and woefully deficient. We all want to love and be loved, but even when we try our best, we still end up hurting each other, using each other, demeaning each other and worse. In spite of our deepest wishes to love well and be loved deeply, we really can’t figure out how to do it. Being a true Christian disciple begins with acknowledging that only Christ and his Church can teach us how to give and receive the deep, godly love we were created to enjoy. To love as God does, we’ve got to learn how to:
- Respect the divine dignity of each person, no matter what they look like, where they come from or what they’ve done.
- Defend the life and promote the health of each person.
- Live and love in a manner that respects God’s design of our bodies.
- Actively encourage the full growth and flourishing of each person.
Each of us has the God-given right to expect to be treated in this manner and the God-given responsibility to treat others in the same way. This is the love Jesus commanded his disciples to share when he told them to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39).
Sin, then, is what happens when we choose to accept less than this love from others or give less than this love to others. As the Catechism of the Cathoilc Church states, “Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it” (No. 1850).
Convict or patient?
There are two traditional ways to think about our relationship to sin. The first is to compare committing a sin to breaking the law. The second is to compare being a sinner to contracting an illness. Both are legitimate views with long theological pedigrees. But as a pastoral counselor, I find the second view to be more useful, more effective and, in general, less fraught. Why?
Imagine contracting some life-threatening illness or being in a car accident that breaks every bone in your body. Could you guilt yourself into a full recovery? Could you shame yourself into walking again? Could you hate yourself enough to make the cancer leave? Of course not. We can’t take this approach to healing from sin either.
We can’t heal ourselves of the disease of sin. In fact, believing we can is both a heresy (Pelagianism) and, ironically, a sin — namely, pride. Every single one of us is infected with the spiritual disease that prevents us both from expecting others to love us as we deserve to be loved as children of God and loving others as they deserve to be loved as God’s children, in turn. This disease is sin.
As patients (or disciples), our journey cannot begin until we stop playing around with all the home remedies we use to try to mask the symptoms and finally admit that we’re powerless to cure ourselves. Our healing begins when we turn to God, the Divine Physician, to find the cure for what ails us. Likewise, we only get in the Divine Physician’s way when we insist on trying to “help” him by insulting ourselves (or others), shaming ourselves (or others) or beating up on ourselves (or others) for being sick — for being sinners — in the first place.
How can we heal?
So does that mean we just get to lie around while the Divine Physician makes us all better? Well, no. It’s not that simple. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of being a patient knows that it is hard work. When you’re sick, you might not be able to cure yourself, but you still have to drag yourself to doctor’s appointments, take your medicine, show up for your various therapies and, most likely, make some serious lifestyle changes. Your physician can prescribe a course of treatment, but you need to actually follow your treatment plan if you wanted to be healed.
It’s the same with the Divine Physician. We can’t cure ourselves of the tendency to both accept and give less love than we were created for, but we can participate in the treatment plan that will make us able to give and receive godly love again someday. We can receive the sacraments, cultivate an active, intimate prayer life, learn to let go of the things we consistently choose over the love God wants to give us, find little ways to encourage the other patients on the ward, and make lifestyle changes that enable us to receive and share that deeper love. The more we do this, the healthier we get. We don’t need to beat ourselves up. We just need to follow the plan and trust that the doctor, God, knows what he’s doing.
But what about guilt?
This is usually where people ask me about guilt. How will we ever become holy if we don’t constantly tell ourselves how awful we are? Should not the beatings continue until morale improves? Well, no. In fact, this is one of the most common misunderstandings in Christian spirituality. As I note above, the road to recovery certainly involves making an honest assessment of the seriousness of our disease and a real commitment to working the treatment program. And yes, that requires a great deal of humility, hard work and self-denial. But self-denial is not the same as self-hatred, and guilt is not the same thing as self-condemnation. Jesus said as much in John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.”
In my book “Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart” (Image, $21), I observe that godly guilt is actually a consolation from the Holy Spirit. It both points out the injury that needs to be addressed and, at the same time, comforts us with the knowledge that healing and wholeness are possible. In a sense, godly guilt is just the doctor’s appointment reminder. There is no condemnation in the voicemail the Divine Physician leaves for us, only a loving reminder to seek the treatment we need to heal a particular injury.
So this Lent, confront your sins, but do not beat yourself up over them. Instead, acknowledge the specific ways that it is difficult for you to give and receive the love God wants for you. Honestly bring those wounds to the Divine Physician. Try not to flinch if he pokes around a little bit. And trust that his prescription of receiving the sacraments more frequently, praying more intimately, fasting more willingly, serving others more generously and conforming your life to the Gospel more faithfully will be enough to bring about the higher love and deeper healing you’re longing for.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of “Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart” (Image, $21). Learn more at CatholicCounselors.com.