[February 16, 2017]
My daughter-in-law, Khouria Jocelyn Mathewes, has a good column today on repentance, as we head into Great Lent. She makes a point about accepting forgiveness for past sins (not the ones that continue in the present, but completed deeds in the past.) She reminds us that we must accept forgiveness and move on, and not keep revisiting them and “beating yourself up.”
I think that, when we continue to be distraught over a forgiven sin in the past, it’s linked to our pride. It’s that we can’t believe we would ever do such a thing. It doesn’t fit our sense of the “kind of person” we are. So we can never quite assimilate it; we keep being startled by it, and regard it as strange and appalling. We think of it as something inexplicable that “happened,” rather than something we did.
Yet it stares back at us steadily, reminding us that we did do it. Apparently, we are the kind of person who would do that. Maybe only that one time, maybe only under extreme circumstances, only when exhausted or under terrible stress. But there it is.
People usually say that such a person “won’t accept forgiveness,” but I think what we won’t accept is that we did it in the first place.
Speaking very precisely, God is never disappointed in us. He’s never disappointed. That’s because his expectations weren’t that high to begin with. We’re the ones with an artificially-inflated idea of our innate goodness, and groundless certainty about the things we’d never do. But God knows what combination of temptations would be able to overthrow us. He knows us, even if we don’t know ourselves.
My spiritual father, Fr George Calciu (1925-2006) was tortured in communist prison, and compelled to renounce his faith. And he did. When out of your mind with pain, you don’t even know what you are saying. The torturers added outrage to outrage, and compelled the prisoners to do things they never would otherwise have done. Their aim was to create in the prisoners a horror of themselves, breaking them down psychologically, in order to rebuild them into the “ideal communist man.”
But, Fr. George said, when he was taken back to his cell at night, and could pray and weep, the mercy and forgiveness he sensed streaming from God was profoundly sweet. He had learned he was capable of doing things he thought it would be impossible for him to do. But God had known his limits, all along; God knew him better than he knew himself.
Broken down in repentance, Father George could receive mercy more deeply than he ever had. The expert brain-washers never did Fr George into the “ideal communist man.” He became instead man of faith and courage, who spent his life as a valiant witness for Christ.
Deep repentance can do that for you. But first you have to accept that you really did do the things you want God to forgive.