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Confessing the Same Old 'Sticky' Sins
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By John Mallon
©2005 by John Mallon
One of the joys of writing this column is receiving comments and questions from readers. I recently received a question from a woman, an adult convert, who was inspired by my recent column Spiritual Hygiene, (Reality Check, Catholic Online Sept. 2,) to ask some further questions on the Sacrament of Confession. Like so many Catholics she felt somewhat alone in her questions but these are indeed questions many Catholics struggle with.
She writes: "Like you, I too have recently become aware that I want to go to Confession much more often than I do, because I want more of that intimacy with Christ you write about. And the saints loved Confession; that's enough reason right there. Weekly is what I'm aiming for, but how do you go in and say the same things over and over and over and over again? How do you go in, every week, and admit all that wonderful counsel from the week before was apparently useless? How do you make a good act of contrition and then next week there you are again? Where is the firm purpose of amendment? Pray tell me, what on earth do you say, week after week after week with the same sins? How can I honestly say I am sorry for my sins when only days later I'm right back at it? Shouldn't I stop sinning in a particular way at some point if I am sincere? Or does the grace to stop have little to do with me and more to do with Christ?
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"Is the key to just speak to the priest as if you'd never been to confession before and may never have the chance to go again? Is it a matter of really living in just that single moment, as if it were the only one - not looking back, not looking ahead? I think it's the broken record component I'm having trouble with, as you say in your column, the "clingy sins." To me the clingy nature implies there is little to no firm purpose of amendment. What does it say to you?"
I replied: These are excellent questions every serious Catholic encounters. It says to me you are a sincere and dedicated Catholic. The kind of sins you mention here are obviously habitual sins. Some habits are formed over a lifetime and in most cases won't be broken with overnight. You are speaking of the "mysterium iniquitatum," the mystery of iniquity. This even confounded St. Paul who cried, "Why do I do the things I hate?" He more or less responded to this question in his Letter to the Romans. Read it! It is a great comfort to us sinners.
St. Paul also speaks off the "fiery darts of the enemy," the enemy, Satan, fires darts of temptation at us and darts of accusation, among others (See Ephesians 6). Try thinking of it this way: If the devil, who knows where you are weakest, considers you worth his time to relentlessly fire these darts of temptation at you where you are weakest, isn't it also worth your while to confess them as often as necessary at your regular time, monthly or weekly? He would love to discourage you and taunt you about these repititous confessions, because he hates them! You are throwing his attacks back in his face! The last place he wants you is the confessional. If he sees that the more he tempts you to sin the more you confess he may back off because it is self defeating! (Everything the devil does is self defeating.)
All sin does harm, but I am speaking here of sins of less obvious harm which, while still serious, are more sort of personal bad habits. But if, for example, a serial killer came to confession the priest may be well within his rights to make such a person turn himself into the police as a condition of his receiving absolution in order to protect society. But that is an extreme case.
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My friend, teacher and mentor, Peter Kreeft once told me, (I think citing St. Thomas Aquinas) that God often allows us to fall in a lesser sin (for example, lust), to inoculate us against a greater sin, for example, pride. Confessing the same stupid sins over and over is humiliating, but that is exactly why it is good for us, apart from the penance and graces of the sacrament.
The older I get the more I think the most important issue of the spiritual life is humility. We are not God. As unpleasant as it is to be reminded of this fact we need to keep remembering it. We need His grace to do anything good. Don't worry about the priest thinking less of you for confessing the same old thing. He probably has had to confess the same sins over and over himself. Don't worry about next week. Next week will take care of itself. God's grace is always concerned with now. And God's grace is the only thing that gets rid of sin.
The fact that you continue to confess every week demonstrates a firm purpose of amendment. Obviously you are not trying to play games with God by willfully going out and sinning and confessing each week "to be on the safe side." That would be dishonest and presumptuous. Unfortunately some people think that is how Catholics see the sacrament, as a license to cheat on God.
No, your willingness to go to the confessional, repeating the same confession week-to-week is a way of saying to God, "I hate doing this! I don't want this in my life anymore! This sin is not taking me where I want to go! It's embarrassing! I don't want to live this way, God, and only you can help me!" In time you may be surprised to learn that while you may not be sinless, you do find that you do sin less!
It is all God's grace. We cannot do it ourselves. To think we can attain salvation by our own merits is the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which St. Augustine fought against. That you repeat the same sin does not mean that you are not sorry. We all have divided hearts. We are all in a war between what St. Paul calls the "Old Man" (or woman) and the "New Man" in Christ.
Yes, certain sins are "clingy" but confession applies a healthy dose of "Goo Gone" to our souls to make them less sticky. More accurately, it is the Blood of Christ, which is the antidote to the stickiness of sin into which our soul is dipped in this sacrament.
Be ashamed of your sins, yes, but do not be ashamed of confessing them as often as necessary--not more than weekly under normal circumstances, or else you may find yourself caught up in scrupulosity. If weekly confession becomes a habit in order to defeat bad habits, God knows your heart is with Him. The devil hates confession because he doesn't know what goes on in there, and he loses ground every time you go, and you gain ground in the journey toward Heaven.
I hope this helps.
God bless you,
John Mallon holds a BA and MA in Catholic theology, and is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine. If you have a question you would like John to address in his Reality Check column, he can be reached at email@example.com
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