By Matt Fradd
Matt Fradd is the creator and host of the Pints With Aquinas podcast. He is the author and coauthor of several books including How to Be Happy: Saint Thomas' Secret to the Good Life.
People who struggle with scrupulosity often think that any little misstep is a mortal sin, which is just flat out wrong.
Every time we go to Holy Communion, we’re essentially saying, I’m confident that I’m in a state of grace. And this gave me a tremendous confidence. As my spiritual director said to me, “Matthew, when you come to Christ, when you accept his salvation, you are standing on a mountain, okay? And this mountain is not easy to slip off of. In fact, you can’t slip off of it. If you want to throw yourself off of this mountain, you can, but that takes a free, deliberate, conscious choice.”
And of course, what he’s referring to is mortal sin, but that isn’t something that we slip into. After reading I Believe in Love, which is a retreat based on St. Thérèse’s writings, I came to see that my salvation consists of standing on a mountain with Christ holding me up and, unless I jump off that mountain willingly, I can have a high degree of moral certainty about my salvation.
First, the Bible says that the righteous man stumbles seven times a day—or more informally, “we all make many mistakes.” These are venial sins that blemish our souls and hamper our relationship with God but do not destroy God’s love in our souls or completely cut us off from God in the way a mortal sin does. For a sin to be mortal it must, as the Catechism says, be freely chosen, be grave or serious in nature (like violating one of the Ten Commandments), and you have to know it’s a bad sin (CCC 1857–1860).
But what about the so-called “unforgivable sin”? The most terrifying verse in the Bible for a person who suffers from scruples is Mark 3:28–29: “All sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Forgetting to keep your promise of saying your daily Rosary is not the “eternal sin.” The Catechism says that the “eternal sin” Jesus is talking about is a reference to the sin of never asking for forgiveness for one’s whole life. “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1864). Aquinas says this sin “is said to be unpardonable, since in no way is it pardoned: because the mortal sin wherein a man perseveres until death will not be forgiven in the life to come, since it was not remitted by repentance in this life.” So if you’re worried about seeking God’s forgiveness, then you haven’t committed an “eternal sin,” since that’s the sin of never seeking God’s forgiveness for one’s whole life.
According to support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the greatest lies an addict believes is, “If you really knew me you wouldn’t love me. You wouldn’t stick around. You would know that I’m not worth it.” But to know Christ is to know that’s false. To know Our Lord is to know that I’m loved and I think that’s the truth that we have to accept.
But I think many of us still think, “God loves me but he doesn’t like me. Or maybe he loves me in an obligatory sense like the way I’m supposed to love my parents, but he doesn’t delight in me.” I think that is what I struggle with and I think that a lot of the time the root of this is scrupulosity. In fact, it can be hard to believe God loves us when saints we already think are “perfectly pious” are the ones who tell us about God’s love.
When I was a kid, my mum would affirm all of my drawings, anything I did, like “That’s great, Matt.” But it didn't mean much. But when dad said it, I thought, “Wow, that must have been good.” Likewise, when a saint known for flowery devotional language like, “God is just dripping with mercy for you,” I say, “Yeah, yeah, got it.” But when Aquinas soberly tells me, “It is a false opinion that [God] refuses pardon to the repentant sinner or that he does not turn sinners to himself by sanctifying grace,” I feel relieved. Someone is just telling me the truth—he isn’t trying to merely make me feel better in light of my inadequacy.
Aquinas goes even further and says that “despair, which is in conformity with [this] false opinion about God, is vicious and sinful.” The person who falls into despair because he thinks his sins are too great for God to forgive actually thinks God is too small. While in a state of prayerful ecstasy St. Catherine of Siena dictated this private revelation from God, “My mercy is greater without any comparison than all the sins which any creature can commit; wherefore it greatly displeases Me that they should consider their sins to be greater.”
Meditating on this was really helpful in addition to just sitting before Our Lord. And one of the prayers I used to pray when I was going through this was, “Lord, would you tell me that you love me until I finally believe you? ’Cause I really don’t believe you.” And sometimes maybe it’s because we’re so familiar with the language of “God loves you” that it’s an impediment to growing in our understanding of God’s love.
Another problem for people with scrupulosity is that sometimes we compare our relationship with God to our relationship with other people. We know our relationships with other people can be destroyed through single, major acts of betrayal or by many small annoying and insensitive behaviors. So we think that our daily sins must eventually make God so mad that he wants nothing to do with us anymore.
First, while God is infinitely more merciful than any human being we know and love, our human relationships can still reveal, even in an imperfect way, the goodness of God’s love.
For example, when you’re dating someone, you might fret at the beginning of the relationship about whether it’s going to last. Does she like me more than I like her? Do I like her more than she likes me? Did I do something that’s going to torpedo this whole thing? But I’ve been married for years, so I don’t think that anymore. I’m not trying to have control over my relationship and the love my wife has for me. I submit to her love; I don’t need to fully understand it.
And what’s lovely is that, although my wife can go back on her promises because she’s only human, God can’t do that. Scripture tells us, “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num 23:19). God isn’t subject to the irritabilities that haunt our human relationships. Our constant minor faults can add up to major “breaking points” for some people, but when it comes to venial sins, Aquinas says that the idea that many venial sins can equal a mortal sin is false because “all the venial sins in the world cannot incur a debt of punishment equal to that of one mortal sin.”
God’s mercy and grace are infinitely beyond our human failings, which is why we have confidence in our salvation. That confidence comes not because of our purely human efforts, but because of God’s unfailing divine love. Or as Peter Kreeft puts it, “We can be sure God will never abandon us. We cannot be sure we will not abandon Him. Our faith is in Him, not in ourselves.”
When St. Thérèse was on her deathbed, the sisters said to her, “It’s no wonder that you’re so confident of Heaven, we don’t think you’ve ever committed a mortal sin in your life.” And she said, “It’s not because of my lack of mortal sin that I go to God with confidence. Even if I had committed all of the sins imaginable I would still be this confident because I know that all of my sins compared to his mercy would be like a drop of water flicked into a raging furnace.”
Thérèse is not saying that God doesn’t care if we commit mortal sins. She is saying that God’s mercy that we receive when we confess our sins to him is so powerful that we should let it envelop our fears, concerns, and neuroses about being forgiven and replace it with his peace.
You can believe that God doesn’t like you and he won’t have mercy on you. You’re welcome to do that. You can also believe that the world is flat. That’s fine. But I invite you to reality. And sometimes I think that Christianity, or at least my relationship with Christ, is just the long story of Christ refusing to believe me when I tell him I’m not worthy of his love.
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