The prosecutor showed a number of pictures from the crime scene. The DNA samples matched the defendant’s profile. Two corroborating witnesses testified against the defendant. When the deliberations were completed, the judge asked the foreman of the jury: “Have you reached a verdict? “Yes we have, your honor,” the foreman replied. “We find the defendant guilty as charged.”
Haven’t you ever felt that way when you think about your past sins? It can be very easy to get weighed down with guilt over our failings. They may be sins from long ago, even misdeeds for which we have already apologized. But it doesn’t matter. We just can’t seem to shake the guilt. As “human” a reaction as this may seem, in many cases this kind of guilt is really the result of the devil’s deceitful tactics. And that’s why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is such a powerful blessing. This sacrament not only forgives our sins, it also has the power to remove this heavy burden of guilt.
As we look at this issue, it’s helpful to understand that there are two kinds of guilt: guilt inspired by the Holy Spirit and guilt inspired by the devil. The first kind of guilt is often called “conviction.” The second kind is best called “condemnation.” And there is a big difference between the two.
Conviction. Conviction is the Holy Spirit’s way of moving us to repent and inviting us to draw closer to God. His efforts are gentle and compassionate, similar to the way a mother or father will correct a child. Parents know their child’s weak spots, and work hard to help him overcome them. They bring into the light the wrong that their child has done so that he can discern good from bad and begin to change his ways. And once the correction has been made, the parents make it clear that the matter is closed. They offer a close embrace or some other sign of affection and affirmation.
This is how the Spirit works in our hearts. He brings the truth to light so that we don’t live in darkness. He makes it clear that we have done wrong, but he doesn’t overpower us with guilt. Rather, he urges us to confess our sins. He gives us a sense of the hope and freedom that await us. Then, as we receive absolution, he showers us with his love. He sets us free from guilt, and he fills us with the grace to move forward, confident that he will help us to sin no more. The Spirit convicts us so that we can be set free.
Condemnation. On the other hand, Satan wants to keep us burdened by the past, by the memories of the sins we have committed and the people we have hurt. He wants to turn our past failures into baggage that we carry around everywhere we go. His main goal is condemnation.
Satan uses these memories to form a kind of stronghold of guilt in our minds—an entrenched way of thinking and reacting to situations based on his lies and colorings of the truth. He builds strongholds of guilt, shame, and frustration. He seeks to convince us of things that are just not true, and he uses these lies to oppress us.
What are some of the lies that the devil uses to build these strongholds? He tries to convince us that God doesn’t love us. He tells us that we are unworthy of God’s forgiveness, and that our Father looks upon us with condemnation or anger. He tells us that we can’t trust in the Lord, and that we should be careful about trusting other people as well. “If they knew how bad you were,” he tells us, “they would reject you—just as God has rejected you.” Over time, if we give these lies room to grow, they can become our overriding philosophy of life. They weigh us down, color the way we think about ourselves, and cast a shadow over the way we relate to other people.
But the good news is that these negative strongholds can be dealt with and destroyed with God’s grace. Paul told the Corinthians: “The weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of those “enormously powerful” weapons that God has given to us. It’s in Reconciliation that we discover that God is even more merciful than we dare to believe. It’s in Reconciliation that we learn that our Father is not about condemnation but about freedom. It’s in Reconciliation that we find new strength to stand firm against temptation (Ephesians 6:14).
God doesn’t want to weigh us down with guilt; he wants to remove our sins and give us the strength to overcome sin in the future. Condemnation has only one goal: to weaken us spiritually. Conviction by the Spirit has only one goal: to draw us closer to the Lord.
A Devilish Strategy. There are many reasons why the devil wants to keep us bound in guilt. But one reason we don’t often consider is that he is trying to keep us from this amazing sacrament. Satan knows how powerful a weapon Reconciliation is. He knows that every time we encounter our Father in this sacrament, all his lies are dispelled. We aren’t unworthy! We aren’t unloved! God doesn’t hold anything against us! We come to him like the prodigal son, covered in shame and expecting to be treated harshly, but we are greeted instead with cries of joy, a warm embrace, and a feast: “This child of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Luke 15:24)!
The devil knows how much Reconciliation strengthens us and gives us a desire to stay close to Jesus. That is why he is so determined to keep us from enjoying the Father’s love and mercy. Satan wants to keep us weak. He knows how powerful we can be when we stand in this world as witnesses to the gospel message. He knows how much of a threat believers are to his kingdom of darkness. And so he feeds us his lies so that he can keep us weak and ineffective.
Rich in Mercy. If we want to overcome any hold that the devil has on us through guilt, we need to grasp our Father’s mind. Consider the thief on the cross, the “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet, or the woman caught in adultery. Each of these people was clearly guilty and facing condemnation. But what did Jesus say? To the thief, he said: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). To the sinful woman, he said: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50). To the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11).
These stories show us how eager Jesus is to forgive us. None of these people deserved what they received. Yet they were all forgiven in a matter of moments. They all felt God’s mercy and love. Instead of condemnation they all felt free. Instead of guilt, they all felt rejuvenation.
Brothers and sisters, God is rich in love and mercy (Ephesians 2:4). No sin is too great, no offense too horrible. Jesus wants to wash us all clean so that he can draw us into his embrace and continue his great work of changing our lives. That’s why he gave us this beautiful sacrament.
One More Thing. . . A few years ago, the United States Government bailed out a number of big banks by infusing a massive amount of cash into the financial system. This bailout was so unprecedented that it was on the front page of newspapers throughout the world. But the biggest bailout in history really happened on Calvary. Instead of cash, our Father infused the world with an endless supply of mercy. Instead of giving it to banks, he gave it to the church, so that the church could pour it out freely to all who come.
So don’t waste time worrying about your past sins. Just confess them and start thinking about the new person you are in Christ. Nowhere in Scripture does it tell us to dwell on the past. No, it tells us to ”forget what lies behind” and set our hearts on what lies ahead: “God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14).
Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Let’s put aside our burden of condemnation. Jesus is calling us to his side, right there in the confessional. He died so that we might be set free from guilt. So let’s come to him in the sacrament and let him wash us clean in his mercy. Let’s enjoy the wonderful bailout that Jesus has given us.