“Yes, I saved America from complete annihilation. But you have to understand, I was having a good day, my spouse was being extra kind, I was caught up at work and just received a raise, my son had just told me that he loved me and all that combined with a little bit of grace and luck made it all possible. But yes, I did it.”
Okay, once in a blue moon you might hear someone speak thusly, but most of the time it’s, “Yah, I did that. It was difficult, but I pulled it off in the end. Thanks to everyone who helped me achieve such a great thing.”
The opposite seems to happen when we have sinned. In a way, I think this is good. We strongly desire to be aligned with the good and so want to identify the good more closely with ourselves. And realizing that evil is ugly, disordered, destructive, and disdainful, often a person will, perhaps even unwittingly, try to distance himself from the action.
“Yes, I tried to annihilate America. But you have to understand, I was having a very bad day, my spouse was nagging me, I was swamped at work and my boss was breathing down my neck, my kids were rebelling, and all that combined with a little drink and some sleepless nights led me to do it. But, yes, I tried to do it.”
As a confessor, though in this latter scenario I can see true symptoms of goodness, (they are confessing after all! Fantastic! And they are trying to distance themselves from evil. Good.) it seems to me they are just one final step away from greatness. Responsibility and freedom.
Let me preface this by saying that confessions is not supposed to be a counseling session as an emergency room is not a place to have physical therapy. Different arrangements are made for each of these. The confessional is an emergency room for the soul.
So when someone comes in who is serious about finding healing for their wounds, it can be pretty impressive, but not as much so when followed by, “But . . .” The “but” might be completely legitimate, but in this moment, is the penitent taking ownership of their actions, or are they saying that in some great extent, it really wasn’t their fault? If it really wasn’t the penitent’s fault, that he was coerced, or forced, or deranged, then it really wasn’t completely in their free will that the person acted and then, perhaps, if completely coerced, not really a sin at all. Put away the tickertape and the streamers, this heroic confession just turned ordinary.
In truth, I don’t think that the penitent really wants to deny that a particular action was really a sin (he or she is confessing it after all) and perhaps he is just trying to understand how he could have done such a thing. So it isn’t really something on which to dwell in the confessional. But here is a secret – according to the laws of the universe in relation to Free Will, we can only love to the extent that we can hate. Not that we have to actually hate (or love) but we must be capable of it. If we can not but love, then we have no Free Will – we are puppets on a string and we do not need a Savior. But as it is, we are capable of hate (Sept. 11th) and therefore capable of astronomical acts of love (World Youth Day).
In 1521 Martin Luther said, “If you sin, sin boldly!” I do not hold to his advice but rather, “If you have sinned, confess boldly!” In this way we take full ownership not only of our good works but of our sinful ones. Presenting ourselves naked as it were before God, we can trust more boldly in his mercy, be that much more open to His grace, that much more unburdened, have that much more joy, be much more healed, experience that much more freedom, and be reminded also how great a capacity we have for love.