Saturday, April 01, 2006

Whenever Our Hearts Condemn Us

In Romano Guardini’s book The Living God, he comments on this passage from the First Letter of John: “We…reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything” (3:19-20). He wants to stress both sides of the equation: the full and horrible reality of sin, and the fact that God is greater, and forgives.

“The condemnation of the heart means more than [the reproaches of mind or conscience]… From the condemnation of the mind come the painful insights of reason. From the condemnation of conscience comes the bitter conviction of guilt. But from the condemnation of the heart comes…something that affects us in quite a different way…something that gives rise to quite a different kind of sorrow… Life itself condemns us. Life reproaches us for having wronged life itself…

“The sin that the heart condemns is deep-seated. It implies that we have not merely done wrong in the ethical sense, but that we have sinned against life itself. It has a depth and a grief far greater than any other…

“Excuses avail nothing here… In the condemnation of the heart, it is God Himself who condemns. Wrong has been done to Him. Wrong has been done to the gentle and holy life that He has awakened in the heart, to the holy trust that binds Him to his child. How can man’s self-defense reach these depths? What possible help is there? John says, ‘If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.’

“Observe that this answer comes from the same depth as the condemnation itself… [God] is greater than everything. The holiness to which wrong has been done partakes of the dignity of God. His trust has been infringed. That is terrible. But He Himself, his magnanimity, His creative love, is greater than all this wrong. [God] does not say, ‘Cheer up, it isn’t so bad after all.’ God says, ‘Give these things their full weight. Then I will come to you. I am God.’”

For philosophers like Immanuel Kant, the moral law was absolute. There was nothing beyond that immutable law and human responsibility toward it. If you break the law you must bear the consequences, period. No divine forgiveness, no compassion, just the imperatives of the moral law and the consequences of human responsibility.

That’s part of the picture, but not all. God is the author of the moral law but not the servant of it. God can grant forgiveness to the one who sincerely repents of breaking the law, for He is the Lord. But the fact that forgiveness is available does not reduce the severity of the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” of the moral law. When God forgives, He is not saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to take it seriously.’ That would be merely overlooking a sin, not taking it away. But forgiveness takes away sin, and this can only be done in truth and repentance. When God does find true repentance, He delights in granting mercy. Guardini says in the same book: “God draws man into the mystery of his power…to call the guilty to new innocence. A new creation takes place… man comes forth again renewed and guiltless. There is no need for God to avert his eyes from the sin: it no longer exists… He is not merely the supreme guardian of the moral law…He is the living God, who is able to forgive… to Him there corresponds the man of living faith, who is able to repent. Both constitute a single mystery of holy life.”

We commemorate on the fifth Sunday of Lent St Mary of Egypt, the penitent harlot who became a great saint and mystic (April 1 also happens to be her feast day). But if she were only under the moral law of the philosophers, she would have had no hope, could not have borne responsibility for her countless grievous sins. But she met the living God, who is able to forgive, and by his grace she was able to repent wholeheartedly and change her life and even become holy. In the words of St John, her heart condemned her for her evildoing, but she discovered that God was greater than her heart.

From this we learn something important about the mystery of repentance, something that most people today evidently do not want to accept—that sin is utter darkness, defilement, corruption, and tragic self-destruction, and that grace is boundless light, love, compassion and power to heal the most foul and corrupt soul. True Christian vision, which includes true repentance, sees both the deepest vile darkness of sin and the most brilliant and glorious light of mercy and love. But many people prefer to live in the dull gray of an inadequate understanding of both. They think that sin is no big deal, nothing to be too concerned about (if they acknowledge it at all), and thus mercy becomes relatively meaningless, a way of saying that God good-naturedly looks the other way. When the full sense of sin is lost, so is the full sense of mercy and of holiness. This is tragically wrong.

Going back to what Guardini said, sin is hurting our deepest self, it is doing wrong to life itself, to God Himself. It’s only because God is greater than all that, that we have any hope at all. We have to realize what this means. It doesn’t mean we deserve forgiveness because we’re basically good people after all. It means that even though we’re not good, having repeatedly offended God’s holiness and wounded his loving heart, He is so good as to offer us yet another chance to be faithful. But even though receiving pardon for sins frees us from guilt, it doesn’t undo the damage we have inflicted upon our immortal souls. That’s why St Mary of Egypt spent 47 years in the desert. She knew she was forgiven, but she also knew that she had created huge vulnerabilities to evil in her soul, and those vulnerabilities remained for a long time. She fought them for 17 years before the real repairing of the damage took place within her and she progressed along the road to holiness. Every sin is a setback; every sin harms the soul and must be overcome with labor and prayer and the help of God. If we keep adding to our sins, we delay and hamper our approach to holiness. We have to painfully retrace each step from the places our sin has led us to the place of divine peace, freedom, and joy. With God all things are possible.

So if our hearts condemn us for the deep sin that is beyond minor missteps, we ought to hear it and accept it, and not try to deny or minimize it. But we must remember that God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything—our sin, our repentance, and above all his love and unceasing willingness to forgive and to save.