…so I pass this correspondence along (anonymous, of course) for the benefits of others who likewise struggle with the notion that God is just about to demand Terrifying Colossal Superhuman Perfection of them:
My reader writes:
Hi Mark, I have a question about sin and God’s will that I’m hoping you can help me with. I don’t think I’m ready to give up everything and follow God.
That’s okay. Nobody else is either. And God does not ask that of us, so you are good.
If God asked me to leave everything I have or pursue a religious vocation, I don’t think I could. Is this a sin? On one hand, I’m not aware that God has actually asked me to do a particular thing.
No. It’s normal. And since you don’t know that God is asking that of you, I would set it aside and give that fear back to him. Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow since tomorrow will worry about itself. Your task, like the task of every other person who encounters Jesus, is to live in the present and ask what is pleasing to him in the here and now. The answer will be close at hand: in the love of your neighbor at your elbow, in the work of love and justice you need to do today, in the present offering of thanks for the blessings you have right now, in the prayers of petition you need for the pittance of daily bread you and those in your life require. If there are any Herculean feats Jesus demands of you, he will give you the grace and clear guidance to do them and you will want to do them. If you don’t want to do them, take that as your first clue that nobody is asking you to do them.
On the other, it seems like it must be a sin to know that I wouldn’t do it. And if it is a sin, doesn’t that mean I can’t receive absolution?
This is scrupulosity, not sin. Jesus desires your happiness, not your tripping over yourself in guilt about something you haven’t done and he has not asked you to do. Stop punishing yourself over not doing things he never asked you to do. Focus on what he does ask. Begin with very simple questions like “How do I love my neighbor in the here and now?” The answer will likely be very small and simple: Make him a sandwich, change his diaper, do the report she asked for, say the prayer you promised them. Keep it very small. Assume that any voice demanding Seven Herculean Feats from you is from Satan, not God, and tell him to buzz off in the Name of Jesus if he tries it.
I told all this to a priest recently just before confession, and he still heard my confession and granted absolution; was this valid? Any insight you can provide would be appreciated!
Yes. The absolution was most certainly valid. Trust it over this condemning voice in your head every time.
First of all: Thanks, Mark. I needed to hear that bit about God giving the desire to do his will as a clue about what his will actually is. This is something I’ve struggled with myself.
Second, just to echo what Mark is saying: Even if the thing you don’t want to do is God’s will, not wanting it isn’t a sin. The sin is when you obey your wants instead of God’s will. Didn’t want to do The Thing and don’t know whether it’s God’s will or not? No sin. Morally certain that The Thing is God’s will, didn’t want to do it, but did it anyway? No sin. Knew God’s will, didn’t want to do it, and therefore didn’t do it? Now that’s where the sin comes in.
It’s a big problem to fall into the trap of thinking that, because God often calls us to do what is difficult and because God brings good out of suffering, whatever difficult thing we don’t want to do that would cause us to suffer must therefore be God’s will. God doesn’t want our suffering; he allows it because he can bring about a proportionately greater good. Sometimes there’s suffering involved in doing his will, but the suffering itself is not his will.
Caveat: Don’t let this become something else to be scrupulous about. If you’ve subjected yourself to suffering because you thought it was god’s will (e.g. a strict penance), know that you were mistaken (again, God doesn’t want suffering as an end in itself) but you weren’t sinning: The sincere intention to please God pleases God and he’s not going to hold an honest mistake against you. And if you struggle with scrupulosity, you’re going to make a lot of honest mistakes in your quest to please God.
Trust God to be as gentle with you as you’d ask him to be with any other sinner.
And, however, and by whatever sin, you got into your present situation – remember that your present situation is God’s will for you – and He intends to bless you in it. You robbed a bank and got caught? You are now in prison. OK. Obviously, robbing the bank was a sin. But … now you are in prison; then God’s will for you is precisely to be in that prison; to be the best person you can be right there in prison.
I knew a man – an older man, very dear to me; not a Catholic – who told me, when I told him that I had become a Christian, that, yes, he had been a Christian; but that he had sinned by getting divorced – so that now there was no hope for him. The only hope would have been if he had gone back to his wife – but she was married, now. He could not do that. He knew he would be in hell.
I was a brand-new, 27-year-old vaguely evangelical Christian. I didn’t know what to answer him, but told him that I was sure that if he told God that he was sorry, he would be with God in Heaven. He died something like thirty or so years ago. God keep him and rest his soul.
“I told all this to a priest recently just before confession, and he still heard my confession and granted absolution; was this valid? Any insight you can provide would be appreciated!”
This is an amazing and beautiful things about Confession. You told Father the truth, even if it came out in a muddle (my confessions do sometimes) and Father absolved you — that’s it, it’s everything.
If you told Father that you struggle and he absolves you it’s valid, and if he tells you it’s not a sin but pray for divine help and gives you absolution, that’s it, that’s everything.
If you told Father that you sinned and can’t wait to do it again, you won’t be absolved, because you have to mean to do better. If you tell him you sinned and are afraid to sin again — the grace you receive in Confession will help you to avoid it. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think evil is less about what is lax or even debauched. Evil always apes what is Godly–it seeks a kind of brutal and cold perfection. The dark voice that tries to beckon us to scrupulosity would like nothing more than to direct our soul.