One of the most frequent things that people say to me when they come to confession is: ‘...and for all the sins of my past life’. Many of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, live in dread of the mistakes we have made in our past. We cannot undo them, but will God forgive us? In spite of the fact that we talk about a merciful God, we don’t seem to be too convinced of this when it comes down to ourselves. Why is this? Probably because of two things: First of all the image of God that we develop over the years is usually not from what we have been told about God, so much as from what we have experienced in practice from our seniors, our parents and our authority figures. I remember hearing about a young man whose father was a devout Christian and was constantly telling him about the love of God. But this man's father used to beat him regularly. Now you can imagine what kind of image of God he grew up with; a terrifying one. It is what we experience more than what we are told, that forms us. Our parents do their best to raise us as well as they can; a task that is difficult even in the most ideal circumstances. But our parents and authority figures are as human and weak as any of us, so inevitably what happens is that we develop a subconscious picture of God that is usually very like what we have experienced growing up; and often this is not a very healthy picture. It is frequently the image of an angry policeman, or a judge or even a monster who is just waiting to catch us out.
Another reason why we often find it hard to believe in a merciful God is from what we see happening in the Church. People who make mistakes in the Church are often shown very little mercy or understanding, and yet we go on talking about a merciful, loving God. This is a real problem. So how are we supposed to develop a healthier picture of God?
When we try to take our faith seriously in any way at all God begins to help us unlearn the unhealthy images of him that we have developed over the years. God then also helps us to discover him anew. Probably the best place to discover the kind of image that God wants us to have of himself is in the Scriptures, the inspired word of God, because this is one of the most powerful ways that God reveals himself to us. The very first line in the first reading today says so much:
No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before.
And then at the end of the same reading it says:
I it is, I it is, who must blot out everything and not remember your sins.
The truth is that God has no interest in our sins. God is interested in us, but sin is what can separate us from God, from the only place we will find true happiness and so God does not want this to be an obstacle for us. That is why God continually gives us a way out of our mistakes, through healing of confession.
The most perfect way that God has spoken to us is in the person of Jesus. The life and death of Jesus is the most perfect way that God has revealed himself to us. His life was a life of total self-giving for others; of compassion, understanding and immense hope; and above all the greatest act of love for another, which is to offer your very life for them. That is what we must keep coming back to when we become afraid of our mistakes/sins. God has done everything to remove our sins from us, and all we have to do is accept that, by confessing what we are aware of and then we have nothing to worry about.
In the Gospel Jesus heals a man who was completely paralysed. Notice that the first thing he says to him is, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.’ Why did he say this? Nobody cared about his sins, they just wanted to see him healed! But Jesus knew that this is far more important than just physical healing. Sickness is hard to live with, but inner torment and suffering is much worse.
I will finish with this story about Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, the saint associated with devotion to the Sacred Heart. It is a beautiful devotion which expresses the burning love of Jesus for us. St. Margaret Mary lived at a time when many people had come to fear God in a very unhealthy way, and people were also afraid to receive Holy Communion. Jesus appeared to her many times during her life and helped her to understand the extraordinary love that God has for each person. While Margaret Mary was having these visions, naturally the bishop was concerned to know if they were real or not. So one day he said to the priest who was dealing with her to ask her for a sign. The sign was this: he said, ‘Tell her to ask Jesus what is my most serious sin.’ So the priest told Margaret Mary to ask Jesus what was the bishop’s most serious sin. And the next time Jesus appeared to her, she did. Naturally the bishop was very curious to know what the answer would be. Eventually the priest came back to him and the bishop asked straight away, ‘What did Jesus say to her?’ The priest reported to him that when Margaret Mary said to Jesus, ‘What is the bishop’s most serious sin?’ ‘Jesus said to her, “I can’t remember”.’ When the bishop heard this he knew that it must be real, because he had been to confession, which meant that the sins he had confessed were gone forever. That is what the Lord wants us to know. He is not interested in our sins. He is interested in us.
No need to recall the past,
No need to think about what was done before.