Part of the challenging role as a priest today is preparing others for the Final Judgement in a culture that broadly acts as if all types of judgements are evil. The reason this is challenging will likely result in a long post. Nonetheless, I do think it is worth time to reflect on, because this applies not just to priests, but all the faithful.
There are two sins against hope, and both are equally dangerous. In my view, one sin is more dominant than the other, more prevailing within our culture, and even the culture of the Church. Nonetheless both need to be addressed, because moving from one extreme can often lead to moving into the next.
The two sins are the sin of presumption and the sin of despair. I believe that most people who operate from a position of presumption do so as a false-coping mechanism in reaction to despair.
What occurs in most conversations, in any polarized arena, is that at the condemnation of one extreme, the alternative extreme is perceived to be advocated for. I believe this is often due to the fact that the “middle position” (in this case, the theological virtue: hope) is not genuinely understood.
Because of “truth” there is a meaning to hope that is defined, and consequently a meaning contrary to hope that is also clarified. These clarifications can cause the soul to take attention, and awake from whatever snare we might fall in.
Despair is of itself a sin, when we look at it from the perspective of one who denies God’s own goodness. We fail to see, as a victim culture, why this is offensive, because for whatever reason we find ourselves preoccupied with our own wounds. These wounds may of themselves be deep, but it is unjust to project a lack of faith on others, most especially God, as a coping mechanism. I do think in such cases, we ought to distinguish though for those who have undergone trauma and may not have the tools to do otherwise from a psychological point. But it nonetheless remains a type of judgement on another that is unfair and unwarranted. Have you ever been judged as arrogant, hateful, mean-hearted? Well as sinners, these judgements aren’t always unwarranted, so we must take them to prayer. But for God, who is not a sinner, to project them upon Him is blasphemous, and gravely offending. If someone died for you, would you doubt their sincerity, or find a way to become a victim, when they in fact were the victim for you?
Jesus teaches us not to be afraid of Him, precisely because He is good, but for us to insist otherwise is to simply not give credit where credit is due. God deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his own goodness, while fellow sinners might involve a bit more of cautious discernment. It nonetheless remains a fact that if we consider ourselves more benevolent than God, we have effectively condemned and judged God. This is the nature of why despair is primarily wrong. Most think it is wrong because of its effect on the individual, but all sin is primarily condemned for its offence against God, then the community and finally the dignity and destiny of the individual. We experience to some degree that offence against God when our good actions and intentions are interpreted as evil. It seems to us that another prefers to see us as a hateful person. If this displeases us, why do we sometimes act as if God is fair game? Perhaps to rebuke this accusation against God’s own goodness, we should simply gaze on the crucifix and remain silent.
Because our culture seems to be far more occupied with “feeling good” than “being good” those who hate the feeling of despair may run so far away from it, and find shelter in the sin of presumption. Yet, while avoiding despair ought to be done with zeal, it must also be done in a way that is not unintelligent but rather wise. We must avoid The spirit of despair, but not necessarily the bad-feelings of being lost, or in need of salvation. These feelings can be blessings and in fact signs of humility. Yet how quickly our culture comes to soothe these wounds with sentiments of a false hope. “It’s okay, it’s not a sin, keep doing what you are doing.”
We cannot stand to admit that all sinners are justly condemned before God on account of our sinfulness. We feel entitled to view ourselves otherwise. As a result we begin to imitate an error in despair, where we ourselves begin to treat God with less respect than he deserves. We believe ourselves entitled to His gift of mercy, rather than seeing ourselves as beggars who need it. We no longer demand of ourselves repentance and seem to imply that God’s mercy is more of a tolerance or licence to sin rather than a condemnation of our choice but a persistent love of the person nonetheless. Yet we think that we can still be married to our sin, while also trying to Marry God in Heaven. We are like a man proposing to his future wife, while asking to continue a relationship on the side with his other girlfriend-friend. Christ in our Gospel this week says that such a mixing of priorities is in fact “not worthy of me.”
God forgives. Nonetheless we have to repent and be sorrowful for sin, otherwise we are mere exploiters of mercy, like the thieves and bandits trying to enter the sheep-fold. This repentance is not something servile, it is done because by it the soul proves its commitment to the way of love. That it is not merely avoiding just-punishment, but rather attempting to reform one’s life, by ceasing acts that offend. But to be married to offensiveness (sin) of itself, is to naturally exclude ourselves from heaven. Heaven is not a place to enter and de facto become joyful. Heaven is a relationship with God, whereby man’s heart is fully given over to God. If our choice is to give ourselves over to something created, God respects this freedom, and we as a result of having a desire for the infinite, yet a choice for the finite, experience perpetual and eternal emptiness.
Hope does not free us from the obligation of repentance, but finds the activity of repentance hopeful. God’s mercy is without conditions, but mercy of itself is conditioned on one thing: Truth. That is to say that mercy is only found when we spiritually subsist in the truth. We cannot create a false-mercy, because it contradicts the very nature of God’s love. What do I mean? Mercy is the forgiveness of sins, to those who repent. Forgiveness does not exist for those who are without sin. One does not forgive God, Because he has done nothing wrong. If those who sin do not repent it is because we would be justifying our non-compliance. This justification, the belief that I am entitled to hold onto this way of life in sin, is of itself a declaration to God that we do not consider it sin. We have thereby dictated to him the truth, and thus made ourselves-righteous. This self-righteousness is what God meant when he taught us that He came for the lost, not the righteous, not those who consider themselves righteous.
No one is actually righteous, all have sinned. And it isn’t enough for us to admit this in a general and abstract way. There are concrete sins we have done, specific examples which occurred. In history. Yet today claiming to be a “fellow sinner” can be more of a sentiment than a real act of humility. It sounds like something a humble person would say, so we say it, yet rarely actually do the uncomfortable thing and Name our sins, especially the ones we love.
The Hope, scripture teaches us comes from those who have the courage to confront their sin, and work to turn away from it. These are those who God is pleased with. When we truly see the horror and malice of our own sin we are weighed down, in truth. Yet, we do not make God out to be evil by interpreting His laws as unjust. Nor do we make Him out to be evil by suggesting he holds grudges. He forgives, and so we trust in that manifestly generous and benevolent act, whereby we actually pay him a compliment. As we become mesmerized by Him, from His goodness, the weight of our sin departs, and joy embraces our soul. This joy is different from the mere relief of freedom from condemnation; it is in fact a type of joy where we become even less aware of ourselves experiencing the joy itself, but are consumed by awe in God. We are no longer weighed down, not because of our own goodness but rather His, and now we seek to imitate Him, rather than seeking Him to imitate us.
God’s mercy is humbling- because our rebellion draws out the best quality in him: mercy. When we are at war with another, it is common for us to search for reasons to despise our enemy. Yet when they return a blessing for a curse, we are doubly wounded in our pride. We are wounded for our malice, but also wounded by having no reason to hate God, since His generosity, in contrast to our own, becomes a humiliation. We see this vividly, like a mirror, that God is in fact good, and we in contrast are wicked. And so we become silent and humble before his mercy, with nothing to boast, but Him.
“For I will re–establish my covenant with you, that you may know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never again open your mouth because of your disgrace, when I pardon you for all you have done—oracle of the Lord GOD.”
Ezekiel 16:62-63 | NABRE