From Perfunctory Penitence to Compelling Confession In Four Easy Steps

For many people the Sacrament of Confession is experienced in a rather perfunctory way. Upon preparing to go to confession many are content to look at some matters pertaining to external behavior: “I got angry with my children….I had lustful thoughts…. I was distracted in prayer, or I didn’t pray as much as I should…. I gossiped….and so forth. While the confession of these sorts of things is good and proper it also remains true that,  for confession to really heal,  it is necessary to go deeper. It is necessary to examine the deeper drives and motives of sin; to examine not only what I have done, by to ponder why.

In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus invites us to go a little deeper than a mere examination of outward behavior. He begins with a critique of Jewish purity codes such as the “Kosher” diet and he says:

Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile….Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mat 7:16-17)

The Jews of Jesus time were very meticulous in matters of external purity. The notion of ritual purity and external observances was deeply ingrained. This is not bad in itself but it runs the danger of short-circuiting deeper introspection. It is possible to think I am a hero because I stay away from unclean foods and do other things like pay my tithes but then (on account of my hero status) not look at how I treat others with contempt or have an unforgiving attitude etc. The ritual observance is not wrong, but our carnal nature can twist it and make it deadly by turning holiness into perfunctory external observance.

Already Jewish spirituality cautioned against this possibility with the famous utterance by Moses: Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer (Deut 10:16). Jesus therefore taps into this traditional caution and warns that holiness is far more than ritual observance or merely external behavior.

And then Jesus give us the key to a good confession in these words from today’s Gospel:

But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile. (Mat 7:2-23).

Notice how Jesus focuses on the deeper inner drives that give rise to sin. It is from the heart of man and his evil and errant thoughts that bad behavior issues forth. It is not enough to say, “I got angry.”  Rather we ought to ask additionally: “what is it that causes my anger?” What is there in my heart and in my mind that give rise to anger? Is is fear? Well, then, why am I afraid? Am I afraid because I do not trust God? Am I afraid because I am ego-centric and when the whole world does not think as I do or have the priorities I do, do I get afraid? Am I afraid because I am a control freak and have to have everything go just as I planned exactly? If it does not go exactly as I planned do I then get fearful and my fear issues forth in anger? ….Why AM I angry? What causes it?

The same can be said for every other sin I commit. Why is it that I do these things? What are the drives and sinful attitudes that give rise to sinful behavior?  The drives and bad thoughts are deep within that then give rise to the bad behavior I need to confess.

Jesus teaches us to go deeper, into the heart and mind, to discover what causes our sinful behavior. And this leads us to the recipe for a good confession, for a confession that moves from From perfunctory penitence to compelling  and transformative Confession. What are the basic steps?

  1. Observe your sinful behavior but don’t stop there. See it as a symptom of something deeper.
  2. Once you have observed WHAT you do, ask, “Why?”  Let the Holy Spirit show you the deeper drives that give rise to sinful behavior. To this end it is also helpful to avail yourself of teaching on the seven deadly sins: Pride, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, envy, and sloth. There are a few good resources out there I might recommend to your attention. Peter Kreeft wrote a good book on the subject: Back to Virtue. Fr. Robert Barron has also issued a DVD on the subject: The Seven Deadly Sins . In addition to the seven deadly sins there are innumerable attitudes that give rise to sin;  things like: fear, indifference, laziness, contempt, impurity, hated, malice, cowardice, jealously, revenge, disobedience, hard-heartedness, stinginess, selfishness, pettiness, spite, neglect, prejudice, arrogance, self-centeredness, pomposity, insincerity, impatience, infidelity, ingratitude, disobedience….and on and on. Focus on these deeper drives and attitudes for it is they that give rise to our bad behavior. Learn to name them. Learn to know their moves and tactics. “AH,” but you say, “There is so much to remember here!” Well I am going to help you by offering you a resource I have compile myself from various sources. It is call the Litany of Penance and Reparation. You can get it by clicking on the title. It is a very through listing (if I do say myself) of the deeper drives and sinful attitude that give rise to sinful behavior. Pray it carefully before your confession and you will find help to honor Jesus’ instruction to go deeper and look into the heart and mind to discover the deepest drives that cause bad behavior.
  3. Having prepared in this way, go to confession and confess not only bad behaviors (which are the symptoms) but also articulate these deeper drives and attitudes. Name them! See them for what they are thus learn their moves.
  4. Repeat this process frequently through the year and thus gain self knowledge and self mastery through the years. Confession will break open for it will no longer be a perfunctory laundry list of merely external behaviors. Confession will become a compelling and transformative sacrament that breaks the bondage of sin by the power of God’s grace.

Try this method. Never known to fail!

Pat Robertson Gets it Wrong

Enough ink has already been spilled objecting to Pat Robertson’s comments describing Haiti’s disastrous earthquake as the result of a pact they made with the devil 300 years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the comments you can view the video below. Not only are the remarks insensitive and ill-timed, but they bespeak an flawed mentality common in biblical times that Jesus himself moves away from. I’d like in this post to examine the passages where it seems clear that Jesus himself would have something of a rebuke for Mr. Robertson.

First, just a few facts. Whatever pact Mr. Robertson thinks Haitians made 300 years ago with the Devil, the current population of Haiti is overwhelmingly Catholic and Christian. Approximately 80% of Haitians are Catholic. It is true that there are vestiges of voodoo intermingled with the Catholic Faith of some Haitians. Haitians who observe some voodoo rituals still think of and refer to themselves as Catholic. The Catholic Church to be sure condemns this intermixing of ancient voodoo with Catholicism though it persists in some places, especially in rural areas. But voodoo is not satanism. The Church condemns it as idolatry, not as satanic. False or imperfect  religious practice and intermixing of idolatry are not unique to Haiti. But lets be clear the vast majority of Haitians are Catholic Christians, even if some are imperfectly so, they are NOT worshippers of Satan.

Now, let’s return to Pat Robertson’s remarks. The premise of them seems to be a philosopy not uncommon in biblical wherein those who suffered catastrophic loss must have been guilty of some sort of sin for this misfortune to have happened. Perhaps they were born blind, then their parents must have sinned. Perhaps they were killed in a sudden accident, then they must have sinned. At least this was the thinking.

Now such a thinking carried forward into Jesus’ times  and he both encounters and deals with the attitude. In effect he sets such thinking aside or at least dispenses with the notion that God singles out certain people or groups out for punishment. Let’s look at these texts.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:1-3)

Note how the disciples manifest the typical attitude of the day that it must have been the sin of the man or his parents that he is blind. But Jesus says that he is not blind sue to the fact that he sinned and then goes on to set forth an entirely new understanding that suffering is often an opportunity to manifest the glory of God shining through our human weakness. Suffering and the cross lead to glory. But it is clear that Jesus does not accept the notion advanced by his disciples that link this man’s suffering to his or his parents sin. Hence, even if we were to accept Pat Robertson’s rather questionable historical data that the ancestors of these Haitians made a pact with devil it hardly follows from Jesus’ teaching that they are suffering today due to that. Let’s consider another text:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Here again Jesus refers to the attitude that those who suffer calamities are worse sinners than the rest. He refers to it only to reject it. But then Jesus turns the tables on those with such an attitude and warns them that something far worse than the physical loss of life will await them if they do not repent. He warns them that they will perish unto hell. This much is clear  for he goes on to tell a parable (not reproduced here) of a fig tree that comes under judgement. It will be spared for one year more but it still does not bear fruit it will be cut down and thrown into the fire (cf Luke 13:6-9). So here again, Mr. Robertson’s theory that the Haitians have suffered due to some sin that makes them as the parable puts it worse sinners than all the others,  is rejected quite explicitly by Jesus.

Further, consider the over all approach of Jesus toward the crippled, the lepers, the blind, deaf and others with similar physical maladies. Jesus does not say to any of them that they have these problems due to sin that they or their ancestors committed. He heals them without mention of sin being the cause of their distress. There is one exception to this in the paralyzed man let down through the roof (cf  Mark 2:1-12). When healing him Jesus says, have courage son, your sins are forgiven. This causes a stir among the Pharisees who declare that God alone can forgive sins. To prove his power to forgive sins Jesus heals the paralyzed man. And this seems to be the general context of the passage which is more an affirmation of Jesus’ power to forgive sins than a teaching that the man was paralyzed due to his own sin.

Finally, a couple of disclaimers. Jesus teaching does not exclude ANY relationship between sin and suffering. First of all, in a general sense,  ALL suffering is traced back to Original Sin which brought suffering and death into the world. Secondly there are surely some sufferings we experience in relationship to sins committed. Maybe it is a hangover from too much drinking, or a sexually transmitted disease from fornication, and so forth. But it is not as though we can claim that everyone who suffers anything is guilty of some sin or that God singles some people out for special punishment. These are things we cannot know, especially in the case of natural disasters that affect so many people.

Let’s be honest, most of us have never gotten the the punishment we really deserve. If God were “fair” we’d all be in hell. As it is he is merciful, thanks be to God! To point to others in a disaster and say, “Look at them, they must have sinned” is to invite disaster upon ourselves. Because as Jesus in effect says above “If you think they are worse sinners than you, wake up, I’ve got something coming for you that might be far worse if you don’t shape up.”  So careful Pat Robertson, not only are you at odds with the New Testament and Jesus himself, you also risk a stern warning from Jesus that you repent or experience something far worse.

Pray for the people of Haiti right now.

Rediscovering The”Plot”of Sacred Scripture

One of the most significant losses in the modern era has been the loss of the Biblical narrative in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the story of the human family told by God himself. In story form He tells us how we were made and why. What happened so that things are the way they are today. Why do we have infinite longing in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin so much? How can we be rescued from sin and death and find our hearts true  satisfaction? The Biblical narrative answers these sorts of questions and more. The Biblical story or narrative, mediates reality to us in a memorable way. God, like any good Father tells us our story and asks us to tell our own children. To know our story is to understand ourselves in relation to God, the world and others.

And what a story it is! It has more of passion, conflict and drama than any great epic. It is the “greatest story ever told” but most people have lost its details and no longer know the story. Hence they are detached from the reality that the story mediates. Many are adrift in a world of little meaning, or competing “meanings” with no way to sort it all out. They have few explanations as to the most basic questions of the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny and so forth. Without the story, life looses its meaning.

To illustrate the loss of the narrative, I was talking to Catholic seventh graders a couple of years ago and I made reference to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became evident to me that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were. They had heard the names before but couldn’t say who they really were or what they had done. About the most erudite statement that came from one of the students was from a young man in the second row who said, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No other specifics emerged from the discussion. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and switch every grade level to a “back to basics” program that emphasized the Biblical narrative.

How has this loss of the narrative happened?  Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. Poor preaching, poor catechesis and pretty soon no one knows the story any more. I do not doubt there is substance to this explanation. But the explanation is still too general for it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. What seems more specifically to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. And what I would like to argue is that we lost touch with the “plot” of sacred Scripture and because of this we were no longer able to tell the story in a compelling and interesting way.

What then is a plot? The plot in a story in the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the center point of a wheel around which everything else revolves. Now a plot, if it is to be successful, always involves some sort of conflict or negative development that must be resolved. This is what holds our interest as the question emerges, “How will this problem be resolved?!” If, in scene one of story, everything is just fine, and scene two everything is fine and in scene three still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:

  1. Exposition – where we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the Story
  2. Conflict – where the negative development occurs that must be resolved
  3. Climax – where the conflict reaches its highest point and the tension is greatest. Here there is often an epic battle, or experience of the conflict. And here the conflict is resolved usually by an heroic figure or striking event.
  4. Falling action – Here is shown the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting, and proceeding events.
  5. Resolution – The Conflict having been resolved,  this last stage of the story shows either a return to normality for the characters or an attainment of an even higher state for our characters than the situation than existed before the conflict. This results in a sense of catharsis (or release of tension and anxiety) for the reader.

What then is the plot of sacred scripture? Simply this:

  1. Exposition – God created Man as an act of love and made him to live in union with his God. In the beginning Adam and Eve accepted this love and experienced a garden paradise. The heart of their happiness was to know the Lord and walk with Him in a loving and trusting relationship.
  2. Conflict – But man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart and he willfully rejected the God who given him everything by listening to an evil tempter who had given him nothing. Adam rebelled against God and refused to be under his loving authority and care. The led to a complete unraveling of everything. Paradise vanished, Adam and Eve experienced a deep and personal disintegration of their inmost being. Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory and embarrassed they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of the God who still loved them and must live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when is not clear. So here is the initial conflict or negative development that defines the plot and rivets our attention. How will this tragic development be resolved? Will Adam and Eve turn back to God? Will they ever be able to experience peace in his presence again? How will Adam and Eve ever recover from the self inflicted wounds they have?  A great love story between humanity and God has gone very sour. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?
  3. Climax – In continually rising action things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children as Cain kills Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must take action, first confusing the languages of Man and humbling him at Babel, then practically starting all over again with the flood. In a sudden development in the plot God chooses the family of Abram and his descendants to set the initial stage for a final conflict with his opponent the devil and to restore Man. Through a series of covenants and actions God prepares a people to receive the great Savior who will resolve this terrible problem. But God must take this chosen people through a series of shocking and powerful purifications so that at least some can be humble enough to receive the cure and be healed. God purifies them through slavery in Egypt, a terrifying but glorious freedom ride through the desert, the giving of the Law, the settlement in a Promised Land. But they are STILL rebellious and more and escalating purifications are necessary: an invasion by Assyrians, then by Babylonians, then exile, then return to their land. All through God sent prophets to rebuke and console. The conflicts and waiting have been continuously escalating. Then at last our savior steps on the scene! our God hero, wonderful counselor Father forever and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). He is named Jesus for he would save his people from their sins! (Matt 1:21) In a crucial and epic battle between God and the devil, Jesus mounts a cross and defeats the devil at his own game. By dying he destroys death! The climax is now reached. The devil seems victorious but on the third day our Savior and God Hero Jesus casts off death like a garment. Ascending forty days later he reopens the gates of paradise.
  4. Falling Action– Now that the epic battle is won, Jesus sends out Apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with the message that the long reign of sin is over and that, through grace it is increasingly possible to live a transformed life, a life no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, hatred and the like but rather a life dominated by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, self control and more. A new world has been opened. Up ahead lie open the gates of paradise.
  5. Resolution – God has resolved the terrible consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve just as he promised. But things do not merely return to normal, they return to supernormal for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one, it is a heavenly one. It’s happiness is not merely natural, it is supernatural. And we the reader experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and he has saved us from this present evil age.

But the plot has been lost  by many – What a story and what a ride. But notice that the plot hinges on a key and negative development: SIN. Without that development there is no plot. And here is where the Church lost the ability to hand on the narrative: we lost the plot, and in particular the negative development that is necessary for a plot and makes it interesting. About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” and that “honey attracted more bees than vinegar.”  Crosses (too negative) were removed from Churches and replaced with “resurrection Jesus.”  Thinking our numbers would increase by a kinder, gentler Church we set aside the key element of the plot. Suddenly our narrative no longer made a lot sense. Everything is basically OK, everyone is really fine, just about everyone will go to heaven. And all along we thought we would be more relevant and inviting to people. In end all we had to say was “God loves you.”

But increasingly we have become irrelevant. If I’m really OK why go to Church, why receive sacraments, why pray, why call on God at all? If I’m fine, who needs a savior?  Who needs Jesus, God or religion? And then comes  the most obvious critique: “Church is boring” and “The Bible is boring!”  Well sure, every story without a well developed plot IS boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough I might just stop reading the story or walk outof the movie. And that is just what people have done. Only 27% of Catholics go to Church anymore. To over 70% our story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Collectively we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes the plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.

Regarding the story, most people no longer “get it” because the whole point has been lost. People no longer remember a story that makes little sense to them. And so it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had never heard of Adam and Eve. It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of  Sacred Scripture, sin. It’s time to speak of it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a plot that is compelling and interesting and help people rediscover the greatest story ever told.

Here is a very creative muscial telling of “the Story”

What Are you Really Afraid Of?

What is it that really hold us in bondage? What is it that is truly  the source of our problem, our sins, our selfishness, our anger, our lust and pride? Original Sin? Yes but where does the wound of sin really set up shop in us and stay open for business? What does it tap into for its strength? Scripture has an interesting answer to this question:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

Now this passage is clear enough that the first origin of sin is the devil. But it also teaches that the devil’s hold on us is the “fear of death.” This is what he exploits to keep us in bondage. When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first. For many, especially the young, death is kind of theoretical. It is not something many people fear on a conscious level. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death) but as a general rule the fear of death is not something that seems to dominate the thoughts of many. So what is  meant by the “fear of death” and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? This can help us to see what this text is getting at. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? At one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter, or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel handsome enough, pretty enough, we’re too tall, too short, too fat, wrong color hair. Maybe we hate that others are richer, more powerful, better spoken, better looking. Maybe we are older and wish we were younger and stronger, thinner and more energetic again. Maybe we are younger and wish were older, wiser, richer and more settled. Maybe we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, nicer home, better kids, or live in a better neighborhood. Maybe we compare ourselves to a brother or sister who did better financially or socially than we did.

Perhaps you can see how the fear of diminishment (the fear that we don’t compare well to others) sets up a thousand sins. It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride too since we seek to compensate our fear of inadequacy by finding people whom we feel superior to. We thus indulge our pride or we seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Perhaps we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really are not. Perhaps we spend money we really don’t have trying to impress people so we feel less adequate. And think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and fit in. Young people, and older ones too, give in to peer pressure and do sometimes terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, gossip etc. Adults too have many of these things on their list. All these things in a quest to be popular and to fit in. And fitting in is about not feeling diminished. And diminishment is about the fear of death because every experience of diminishment is like a mini death.

Advertisers too know how to exploit the fear of death (diminishment) in effectively marketing their product. I remember studying this in the Business School at George Mason University. What advertisers do to exploit our fear of diminishment is to actually diminish us. The logic goes something like this: you are not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough, you don’t look young enough, you have some chronic illness (depression, asthma, E. D. diabetes) , etc. So use our product and you will be adequate again, you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete and basically diminished. If you drink this beer you’ll be happy, have good times and friends will surround you. If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics,  beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you. Message: you are not adequate now, you do not measure up, you are not perfect (you are diminished) but our product will get you there!  You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive. Perhaps you can see how all this appeal plugs into greed, pride, materialism, worldliness, and the lie that these things will actually solve our problem. They will not. In fact appeals like this actually feed our fear of diminishment and death even more because they  feed the notion that we have to measure up to all these false or unrealistic standards.

OK, got the point? Fear of Death (diminishment) is the fundamental drive that keeps us in bondage.  Now the text above says that Jesus died to free us from all this. So if freedom is available where do I find it?  Let me recommend the following steps:

  1. Recognize the demon, name it: “Fear of Death” or if it helps “Fear of Diminishment.” Learn its moves, tactics, hidden appeals (like we discussed above). And when you see the ugly little demon rebuke him in the name of Jesus.
  2. Ask the Lord for the gift of gratitude; the gift to be grateful for what he has given you, how he has made you, the talents and abilities he equipped you with, the home, family and life he has granted.
  3. Beg for the grace to experience that you are mightily loved by God. That you are unique and irreplaceable.
  4. Watch less TV, draw back more from popular culture. Draw deeply from the font of Scripture and Catholic Tradition, read time-tested classics and edifying materials (like this blog ( 🙂 ).
  5. Accept that there are people who have gifts you do not have. Pray for the gift to rejoice in their gifts and that the Lord can bless you through the gifts and talents of others. Realize that you have gifts others do not have and bless them with these gifts too.
  6. Remember that we can only see the outward appearance of things. Often when we size other people up as having a wonderful life we don’t really know what we are talking about. Many people have hidden sorrows, sins and setback of which we know little.
  7. Realize that you are going to die. But realize too that if we die in Jesus we are not diminished, we gain everything. Allow this understanding of physical death to be vision you have of every true diminishment, large or small. It is not ultimately death, it is humility. And without humility we will never get to heaven.
  8. Enjoy what you have.