By Fr Edward Hopkins
When this title was suggested to me, I thought, “Now that’s a provocative question!” I had time to think about it. And so I’d like to offer you a short answer and then a more involved one.
Short answer: “When you are NOT sorry” that’s when God does not forgive sins in confession.
And now, the more profound explanation…
Attitudes toward Confession:
- Psychological fix: So that you can feel better about yourself
- Superstition: Discount it because “I go directly to God”
- Excuse to sin: “I can always go to confession…”
All these critical attitudes do in fact contain some truth. But, the real truth goes far beyond the partial understanding when we succumb to thinking this way.
The Confidence of Faith
One of the great gifts a Catholic enjoys is literally knowing in faith that he or she is forgiven. It the experience of so many who encounter Jesus in the Gospel: the paralytic who was let down through the roof, the adulterous women who was not stoned to death, the weeping woman at Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee… They all KNEW they were forgiven – because they heard the words come from the Son of God: “Your sins are forgiven.” They believed in his words, that through this Jesus they could see, God had removed their sins and guilt.
Jesus’ words are powerful. The Gospel reveals that many exclaimed “No one has ever spoken like this man” And “he speaks with authority, not like the scribes…”
Interestingly enough these same powerful words of forgiveness echoed in the ears of Jesus’ enemies, but they reacted differently (because of their pride and lack of faith): “He makes himself equal to God, for no one but God can forgive sins.” Little wonder that they sought his death.
Getting the Message Across
Clearly Jesus felt it was important that He not only win forgiveness on the cross but that he communicate that forgiveness clearly, directly and personally to each wounded sinner he encountered. It was SO IMPORTANT that he was willing to be persecuted, arrested, condemned and killed for little more that this: Speaking and acting as God, forgiving sins!!
Today’s world not only is drifting away from belief in God, but more specifically, it is drifting from belief in a God of Love, from the knowledge and experience of God’s Mercy. I had a high school religion teacher once challenge as to “Why the crucifix is the symbol of our Faith?” The answer, which he never gave us, was that God wants his mercy to be seen and believed.
God takes extreme measures to make his love tangible. HE is the God of “extreme measures”. He does the unthinkable and becomes man, takes on our humanity – becomes “incarnate”… all to show us in a graphic, visible manner the otherwise unbelievable depths of his mercy and love for us.
An Accessible Forgiveness
I have always envied those people who had the privilege and joy of seeing and touching Jesus. (I can’t wait to walk the ground he walked in the Holy lands some day, God willing.) Even more awesome and life changing must have been to have heard those words of forgiveness from the God in Jesus (God incarnate). And we can rightfully complain, “Why can’t we have that experience?!” Well, we can and do.
Jesus knows our needs and desires. (A famous Jewish psychologist once said that if confession did not exist we would have had to invent it… We need to say it, “I’m sorry!” and hear it, “You are forgiven!”) And so he left us a Church and a Sacrament through which we could hear his words and experience his forgiveness in a very personal, direct and clear way. He entrusted his priesthood and ministry of forgiveness to his apostles; He breathed on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” [Jn. 20:22-23]
God communicated his forgiveness through the humanity of Jesus. Today he communicates it through the humanity of his priests, who are consecrated and act in the person of Jesus when they hear confessions. In either case faith is required. But what we ultimately believe in is God’s Mercy.
Jesus blessed us with an accessible source of forgiveness. We have a place we can go. We have someone we can go to, see and give sins and sorrow to. For this reason, a priest should always be accessible and ready to hear your confession whenever you ask, day or night. We should not lock this gift away in a church for a brief 45 minute period every week. But this is another question and challenge…
So why a priest? Why can’t we just go straight to God to ask forgiveness? WE can and we should. As soon as we are aware of sin we need to repent and ask the Lord for forgiveness. And then we must seek Sacramental Confession, particularly in the case of serious sin.
When we ask forgiveness directly of God we can doubt whether we are forgiven, we can’t hear his response. We can doubt whether we are truly sorry or whether our sorrow, contrition is pure: “Am sorry because I have failed, or dirtied myself, or because I fear condemnation or my just punishment… or am I sorry purely because I have offended him?” Without a pure love, a pure sorrow for offending my beloved, my contrition is selfish, imperfect and unable to receive his forgiveness.
Sacramental Confession makes up for any lack of contrition in my heart. While a perfect contrition can “obtain forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” [CCC #1452], imperfect contrition, by itself insufficient, “will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution.” [CCC#1453]
Now that’s a deal!
The bottom line is that while Jesus has won for us the graces of forgiveness and he offers us his forgiveness, nevertheless, we must ask for and be disposed to receive that forgiveness. You may have hurt a friend by standing them up. Well even if they are ready and willing to forgive you, you aren’t forgiven until you accept responsibility and express your sorrow. And this is where our initial question becomes more clear…
Forgiveness in Context of Personal Relationship
Neither sin nor forgiveness can be really understood outside the context of a personal relationship. If you don’t have a relationship with someone, you may curse at them as they cut you off on the way home but you don’t lose sleep over the offense. But to the contrary, when a loved one says something that stings or they in some way neglect you, it can really hurt.
So regarding God, many people today have not developed well their relationship with God. Sunday mass or a quick prayer here and there when I need a hand at work or at school, but there is little or no serious, engaged, focused and intentional relationship. So sin is not seen in this light, rather SIN seems more like breaking the law, quite impersonal and even random. I need confession to get back in the game, to pay my fine, to clear my record. But this is not real contrition. Do I really care about how God feels??
Jesus cried out from the cross: “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” Yet not all present, even those heard his words, received forgiveness,… Only those who opened their hearts to receive it.
This is the great mystery of human freedom. We, little creatures, short lived mortals, limited humans can render ineffective the Power and Presence of God’s forgiveness!! Just as Jesus made himself vulnerable to his enemies, so is his forgiveness is subject to our free response. This is true of faith and of love. God asks us to believe, asks us to receive and respond to his love, asks us to follow him and accept his salvation. What a great respect He has for our free will.
Our separated brethren give great importance to “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior”. But this is not foreign to us. WE too must accept him every day and at every confession as Our Lord and Savior. He won’t force himself or his forgiveness upon us!
Depends on my disposition of soul, Contrition
So when does God not forgive in Confession?
- It has nothing to do with the holiness of the priest. Because even if the priest is in sin, God and his sacrament communicate the graces of forgiveness.
- It has nothing to do with how many times we have sinned. He reminded Peter that he had to forgive 77 times, that is an unlimited amount.
- It has nothing to do with how long ago we sinned. God is patient and He runs out to greet the prodigal child who returns to him.
- It has nothing to do with the seriousness* of our sins. For there is no sin God will not forgive in confession when we are sorry.
This brings us to the answer. The key element of our part in confession is our sorrow, our “contrition”. This is why the priest normally requires that you pray an act of contrition. It is not even important that you have it memorized, though it helps, but that you mean it when you pray it! This is why it is recommended that you pray the act of contrition quietly to God before you go in to confession.
[CCC#1451] Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” (Confession and satisfaction are the other acts.)
1 –Sorrow does not require physical tears or overwhelming emotions, but at least a deliberate act of my will, saying I wish I had not down this, I regret and repent of this action. I accuse myself and accept responsibility “for the wrong I have done or the good I have failed to do.”
It is not that grudging attitude of a spouse who grumbles, “Ya! I’m sorry!… OK? Let’s move on,” as though just saying it because the other demands or expects it. NO, it should be from the heart.
2 – To hate sin means to turn myself against the act and say this is horrible, something I never want to do again. I can’t hate sin, if I am open or even interested in committing the sin again if the circumstances are right. I must “contradict” what I said when I did the sin. Then I said I wanted it, I desired it and even loved it. Now I hate, detest and reject it. Do I hate my sin? What should follow if I do?
3 – To resolve not to sin again, means that I intent never to repeat this sin. I set my face against it. I am determined not to… I have decided not to… If I am sincere, coherent with this resolution of my will, then I will try to avoid it and what leads me to sin. If drinking leads me to this sin (sorry bar tender!) then I will stop drinking or find a way to control or limit my drinking. If listening to certain music leads to sin… If staying up late makes me impatient and angry the next day… If cohabitating with my boyfriend leads to… If hanging with certain friends leads me…. In a word, I must remove myself from the situation or near occasion of sin. To remain in the situation when I know where it will lead is to say I am not serious about not sinning again, and therefore not truly sorrowful. I love myself more than I love Jesus!
But the resolution to not sin again, is NOT to say I will not sin, only I will try not to. The just man sins 7 times a day… When promise not to sin again, we honestly to decide and try to avoid it to the best of our human ability. That is all God is asking us to do.
What of the person who sins knowing he can go to confession and then return to his habit of sin… I think you can draw the conclusion as to whether God forgives such a heart… even in confession.