by Jeff Miller
In the Pater Noster* (Our Father) there are two instances of the use of the word forgive. The first instance which I am dealing with is our supplication to God for forgiveness. While the Pater Noster is theologically loaded with meaning, forgiveness really gets down to the nitty gritty of salvation. To answer the question of why he converted to Catholicism, G.K. Chesterton wrote simply:
“To get rid of my sins.”
Our whole need for a redeemer is based on the fact that we have sinned against God and need his forgiveness. One of the main thrusts of the modern world is to deprecate sin and to separate the connection between our actions and God. There is talk of secret sins or sins that hurt no one but the person committing them or to wipe them away if done by consenting adults. Break the connection as a sin being an offense to God and soon you break the connection that something is a sin at all; and then there is no need to seek forgiveness from anyone, much less God.
As an atheist for most of my life and as someone who never believed in God from childhood on, I would not admit of such a charged word as sin or at least at the level of my own actions. Faults, failings, quirks, and certainly areas in need of improvement just to make my own life better certainly, but not sins. I felt no need for any kind of forgiveness, while as a wannabe stoic wanting to improve on my “faults and quirks” hoping to do better next time or at least not get caught at something. It was annoying though that things that were called sins by traditional Christian morality carried Natural Law consequences to them, and my calling them a fault instead of a sin did not reduce those consequences. How could I look for forgiveness for my failing since really my failings were just culturally conditioned standards that I had grown up with? It is often quoted that Satan’s greatest trick was to get people to believe he didn’t exist. Actually the greatest trick is to first deny sin, and soon the existence of Satan along with the need for redemption is simply wiped out in the minds of people.
Sin, as St. Augustine wrote, is “a word, deed or desire in opposition to the eternal law”. More to the point, sin is an affront to the Persons of the Holy Trinity. On the natural level when we repent of some action and ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, there is often some level of healing involved in this. Yet when we leave God out of this equation we are still left with something seemingly undigested that stays with us. The denial of God does not eliminate that need for forgiveness from whom we have truly sinned against. To resort to St. Augustine again, “Our hearts our restless until they rest in you.” That restlessness is a result of our damaged relationship with God and it is only when we repent and receive God’s forgiveness that that restlessness can be quieted.
Luckily for us, sins we have truly repented of can and will be forgiven by God. God the Father so loves us that he sent his son Jesus to physically die for our sins and that forgiveness comes from Christ’s finished work on Calvary.
Look upon the cross and then say your sin doesn’t hurt anybody. God could have chosen one of many ways to forgive us of our sins. Yet the way he choose not only shows us the seriousness of our sins, but also of God’s unfathomably great love for us. Jesus’ healings in the Gospel were not merely medical miracles but were performed in connection with the forgiveness of sin. Jesus prefaced these actions by saying “Your sins are forgiven.” Really, there are hardly more wonderful words than to hear that your sins have been forgiven. Walk out of a psychiatrists office and your wallet might be a little lighter and maybe you have some better insights into your actions, but your sins remain.
It is one thing though to know that God can forgive sins and another to know that he has forgiven our sins. God gave us the Church to help us realize his mercy and forgiveness. The sacrament of Baptism cleanses us of all sin as we our reborn and brought into the Body of Christ. It has often given me great joy to watch older adult members coming into the Church and being baptized and knowing that they walk away as sinless as a newborn babe. We can of course cry to God directly to forgive us of a sin just as we do in this petition of the Pater Noster. If we have perfect contrition, sorrow for sin arising from perfect love, we are fully forgiven. Often though we can fool ourselves as to seriousness of our sin or even sometimes to exaggerate a fault into a more serious sin. To help with this, God has extended his forgiveness via the Priesthood. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23). “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), and then Jesus said he “had given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:8). In the Sacrament of Confession, when we confess our sins and have repented of them we will hear the words of absolution — “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest, as in the Mass, is acting In Persona Christ (In the Person of Christ) and we can be confident that if given absolution our petition to “forgive us our trespasses” has been answered. We should both ask God directly for forgiveness as soon as we have repented and then go to confession and even with perfect contrition we must go to confession upon our first opportunity.
I left behind my atheism and became Catholic “to get rid of my sins” as G.K. Chesterton said, and to in fact continue “to get rid of my sins” since this is not a one time action but a continuous response in the life of grace on the path to growing in holiness. I watered the flood of the confessional with my tears as I recounted my many sins in my first confession and walked out for the first time really knowing what God’s forgiveness meant.
* As a traditionally minded convert I like to pepper my writing with Latin phrases from my extremely limited vocabulary of Latin phrases.
Jeff Miller blogs at The Curt Jester.