God’s Mercy and the Forgiveness of Sin
Friday January 30, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (2 Samuel 11:1-4a, 5-10a, 13-17) Gospel (St. Mark 4:26-34)
In the first reading today, we hear the tragic story of David’s adultery and then his murder of Uriah the Hittite. When we consider what it is that David did and just how heinous this crime is that he committed against this woman and her husband, then we look at God’s response. Tomorrow, I suspect, we will see more clearly the response of the Lord; but the fact is that God forgives David. When Nathan the prophet comes and confronts him, he says to David, “God on His part has forgiven you.”
Now, of course, there are going to be consequences to his sin; we have to be very clear about that. The forgiveness of sin does not imply that the effects of the sin are taken away or that there are no consequences for our actions. It would be as if we were to say, “Well, if I take enough drugs, let me see what will happen to my brain and I’ll just repent of it afterwards.” You are still going to have brain damage. The fact that you have destroyed some cells in your brain is not going to go away because you went to confession. This sin itself will be forgiven, assuming that you are truly repentant for what it is that you have done, but the physical effects that it has upon you and the spiritual effect – that is, how far backwards in the spiritual life you have placed yourself because of putting yourself into serious sin – those effects are not taken away by the fact that your sin is forgiven.
Also, we need to be very clear that when we talk about sin being forgiven and the effects remaining, the weaknesses that follow from it remain as well. For instance, if we give in to some point along the same line as David, some point of impurity of whatever variety it might be, and then we realize that what we did was a foolish thing and we get to confession, the memories of what we have done would still be there, certain fantasies or images might still plague us because of what it is that we were willfully giving into. The sin itself is gone, but, once again, the effects remain. We need to be very clear about that distinction between the sin and its effects. Some people assume that because they still struggle with the weaknesses that are remaining due to their sinfulness that their sin has not been forgiven. That is simply not true. If you have been to confession and you are truly sorry for your sin, it is gone; it is no longer on your soul. Now what needs to happen is that through prayer and hard work you need to overcome the effects of the sin. You need to be able to overcome whatever weaknesses are there.
And some effects will never go away. If we go back to the drug idea, your brain cells (unless God works some kind of miracle) are simply not going to reproduce. If you have done something to harm your body, it is not necessarily going to get better if it is a permanent kind of thing. Those effects will be there. God actually allows those things to happen in order to remind us that we can really mess ourselves up badly. It reminds us of our own foolishness, our own weaknesses. So it is not necessarily a bad thing that those effects remain; they can actually become the means to our salvation. For instance, if you think of somebody who is hot-rodding around and gets themselves into an accident and winds up being paralyzed, it is precisely the paralysis which is keeping them from committing a whole lot of other mortal sins. And if they had their ability to walk returned to them, it may well be that they would lose their salvation because of the foolish things that they would be out committing. So, in God’s mercy, He spared them that. He keeps them in a very difficult position, but it is precisely by accepting that and working with it that they become saints. That is how they will save their souls.
We need to be very careful when it comes to these areas of sin to keep the proper distinctions and always to have that complete reliance on God, that no matter how awful the sin might have been – think of the worst thing that you can possibly imagine; it probably is not going to relate quite to what David did, but perhaps some of us have done even worse – you can trust in the mercy of God. When David wrote Psalm 51 and he begged God for mercy, he received it. God on His part had forgiven David his sin; and God, in His mercy, will do the same for us.
The means to the forgiveness of sin is so simple. God did not want us to have to go through anything too extraordinarily difficult, and He wanted it to be very clear for us that indeed our sins are gone. All He is asking is that we would repent, which is to be truly sorry for what we have done with the intention that we will never do it again, and to come before His priest like all of those of old who had to go before the priest with whatever affliction they may have had (their leprosy, physically) and the priest is the one who had to declare them to be clean. So now we come with our spiritual leprosy before the priest, and it is a priest and a priest alone who is able to declare that we have been made clean. We confess our sin to the priest. Just as the people of old had to show their spots on their bodies to the priest, so now we show the spots on our soul to the priest. He is the one and the only one who can remove it; he alone then declares that we are clean. It is the Lord Who speaks at that moment. And when we leave the confessional, we must never ever doubt that indeed our sins have been forgiven, that God in His mercy has removed those sins from our soul. True, the effects remain and we have to work through those, but the sin itself is gone.
It is in that that we must have complete and absolute trust in God. No matter what it is that we have done – no matter how big it is or how bad it is, it does not matter – if you have repented of your sin and you have confessed it in the confessional, it is gone forever. That is the promise of Jesus Christ, and it is a promise that is firm. For our part, even in our weakness, we must trust completely in the promise of God that our sins will be forgiven.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.