At the end of confession, the priest usually invites me to pray an act of contrition – a prayer saying that I’m sorry for my sins. This is the prayer I usually pray:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because of Your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
When I was first learning this prayer, one thing seemed a little unsettling: what is it about sin that “offends” God? Aren’t I just harming myself by making poor decisions? Well, the answer to that question lies in the way God sees us.
I’ll make this simple and clear: you are the crown jewel of everything that God has made. No matter how grand the mountains are, how breathtaking the Northern Lights seem, how inspiring a double rainbow might be, nor how beautiful it is to listen to the ocean – none of these things match up to the value, dignity, and goodness of a single human person. To top that off, God loves you. Not just generically, or because He has to… but God is crazy, head-over-heels madly in love with you.
This is seen clearly in the first chapter of Genesis immediately after God creates human beings:
“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” -Genesis 1:31
It’s seen in the lengths by which God was willing to go to rescue us from sin – because He doesn’t want us to have anything to do with sin. You could say that God is offended when we sin, because we’re trashing His masterpiece – but it goes far beyond that. We are being called to turn from sin and to turn back to God, because the choices we make either bring us closer to God or lead us way from Him.
It’s critical to understand something here: in challenging us to turn from sin, or in telling us that some behavior, addiction, lifestyle, choice, or action is sinful, neither God nor the Church intends to contradicting our inherent goodness. You may have heard the phrase “love the sinner, but hate the sin” – a phrase with roots that are nearly sixteen centuries old. It was St. Augustine who wrote in the 423 that sin ought to be treated “with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin.”
A lot of people get confused by this statement. How can someone love a person yet hate their sin? It would be worth looking at both parts of this statement: loving a person who is sinning and hating sin.
St. Mary Magdalene (pictured above, encountering the resurrected Christ) was one of Jesus’ disciples, mentioned about a dozen times in the Gospel. We read there that Jesus had cast out seven demons out of her (Mark 16:9), and we can infer from other passages that she may have been a prostitute …possibly even the woman Jesus saved from stoning after being caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Wherever she came from and whatever she went through, she listened to and followed Jesus – because she knew in her heart of hearts that no matter what else happened, Jesus cared for her. Jesus loved the sinner, and accepted her precisely as she was – but He also loved her too much to leave her there. Whatever her past might have been, He called her beyond it.
That being said, calling her to follow Him doesn’t seem to include any acts of hatred – for her, or otherwise. When we talk about “hating sin” – it starts with each one of us. But in the act of contrition, we pray that we “detest all of (our) sins” – and we ask for God’s help to try and grow beyond them.
What of the sins of others? Isn’t part of our life as Christians to lead others away from sin and back to God? What of the biblical calls to repentance – to turn back to God?
That hasn’t changed. But like in the case of the adulterous woman, of Mary Magdalene, of St. Peter, and of countless others who’ve understood this reality best: these changes came from an awareness that the person was loved, and (somehow), what was being done in the past or the present was doing harm to one’s beloved (in this case, God). If I knew that something I did was going to harm my wife – you better believe I’ll go out of my way to avoid doing that… simply because I love her.
If the great reality of our lives is that God loves us (even while we sin) – we are to love others we might understand to be sinners as well. This doesn’t mean accepting every thing they do, particularly if we have some sort of duty or responsibility to them – and it can mean sharing truth even when it’s hard to hear. But much like Mary Magdalene, anyone who struggles in sin will have a hard time hearing the voice of one who only sees their one action or behavior which we have labelled as sinful – particularly when those sins can be a precious (even if it is misguided) aspect of who they are.
Chris Stefanick recently had an interesting take on this – and I’ll leave you his words to conclude this reflection:
“Love the sinner hate the sin.” Here’s why I hate that saying: We’re all “the sinner.” “Judge the act not the person.” That’s better…
— Chris Stefanick (@ChrisStefanick) July 7, 2015