You aren’t as Good (or as Bad) as you think you are.

“Latro Paenitens”, or “The Penitent Thief”, 1616.

Today’s topic appears way too frequently in my daily experience to not be mentioned at least once in an article. Let me make a provocative statement: 90% of the world’s problems are caused by people who either believe that they are practically sinless (and so are chronically blind to the damage they cause), or people who believe they are so imperfect that there is nothing that can be done with them to improve, and so self-sabotage.

“I Ain’t Be Doing Much Wrong, Father”

Many, many Priests have had the experience of meeting people, inside and outside of the Confessional context, who believe that they are practically sinless, or if they do have sins, they ultimately can be excused or explained away. I am convinced that many people have a personal ritual of absolution, and when a person sets up a personal ritual of absolution, they automatically close the door to divine grace.

If you haven’t been going to Church for 60 years, or you haven’t given God a thought since your first Holy Communion, I got news for you: your soul is in danger! Usually the riposte from these people is that “well, I’ve lived a pretty decent life, I haven’t killed anybody or anything.” Well, news for you again: there are quite a few ways a person can be damned, and if you have no interest in being close to God while on earth (the vision of God is one of the definitions of heaven), what makes you think you are remotely prepared to be with him for eternity? You don’t have to be Hitler or Genghis Khan to go to hell. It is very possible that a great many “respectable” people will never inherit eternal bliss. Why is this? Because as Christ himself noticed in his own ministry, “prostitutes and tax collectors” (that is to say, “those bad people”) will enter the kingdom of heaven before us; imperfect people (we call those sinners) who know they are as such, and don’t try to worm themselves out of that realization, by their truthful humility, are perfectly placed to receive both divine pardon and assistance.

When people tell me that they are a “good person”, there have been some occasions when I have interjected, “Jesus doesn’t think you’re a good person.” Where do I get that? Matthew 7:11: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” that is, Jesus does not see evil as something attendant to the human condition. It is the human condition!

Self-Hate, Self-Sabotage

The other extreme is people who can never seem to believe that God can possibly forgive them or love them given what they’ve done, and so they spend sometimes years fleeing from God, unwilling or unable to come to terms with their split conscience. On the other hand, there are some who may come to Confession compulsively (we call this disorder “scrupulosity”) in order to rid their minds of the fear that they may have seriously sinned. Both types of people have problems with self-hatred, and a trouble accepting that God loves them, even if they are bad or messed up. Holding these two ideas in creative tension; on the one hand, that I am a sinner, and yet I am loved by a God who bestows willing forgiveness upon the contrite, is a key not only to mental health, but to spiritual growth.

While the person who denies their sinfulness usually can deceive themselves by living only on the surface of their own lived experience and spirituality, the person who is scrupulous or unable to accept God’s forgiveness also lives in a theological unreality, because the fact that Christ came to save sinners just like them somehow eludes them and their everyday consciousness.

The Root: Pride

At their root, both types of people have a vice in common: the belief that we are essentially autonomous, absolutely free agents, and that we can pick ourselves up by our bootstraps as moral and spiritual beings. The first person is proud because he or she won’t admit the sickness. The second person is proud because he or she won’t accept the cure.

Contrition and Thanksgiving: The Cure

I have always admired the wisdom of the Church in recommending to all her members that they make time every night to Memento Mori, to “remember to die”. We do this because, naturally speaking, we are closest to death during the night when we sleep. The Memento Mori is done both in the Liturgy of Hours at Compline (Night Prayers) and also outside of Compline, by exhorting the believer to do an Examination of Conscience. The Examination of Conscience is an activity done in which the believer tries to do essentially a moral inventory, and to see where the individual has failed to live in accord with Christ and his will. There are many methods used and recommended to help the person doing this Examination. Someone, usually a beginner, may benefit from examining one’s life in the light of the Ten Commandments. A more advanced person may want to use the Beatitudes, or a list of the Virtues (Charity, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude) in order to more clearly identify their opposite vices at work. This sets the person on a course for healing and on a good footing for growth the next day.

No matter what, the Examination of Conscience tells us from the get-go that, in the words of the Old Roman axiom, nemo judex in sua causa. No one can be a judge in their own case. By comparing ourselves to Christ and his Commandments, we may see more clearly our state, and be able to make improvements by beseeching divine grace and pardon. This helps dethrone the false god of an autonomous conscience, by giving the individual a true nomos (law) or standard to which we can compare ourselves. The only morally autonomous persons are the devil, his angels, and the damned. In contrast, the redeemed on earth, albeit imperfect, are theonomous, that is, they are not law/nomos unto themselves. Instead, those are the people who measure themselves by God’s standards, (hence the theo in theonomous) not their own or another human’s.

Yet this necessary examination is only half the cure. The Church also exhorts the believer to make Thanksgiving at several points throughout the day: after receiving the Eucharist, at rising from sleep (for the gift of life), before and after meals, and before sleep. By cultivating the virtue of gratitude, what Cicero called the “mother of all other virtues”, we open our mind and heart to receive from God his bounty. That is because, if we want to be be supernaturally good, we have to give up that we can be self-perfecting, and so place ourselves in a mental space to recognize that we are already recipients of God’s goodness on several orders: life, health, family, friends, nutrition, rest, work, etc. It is no mistake, then, that our highest act of worship is in union with the Eucharist, which of course means “to give thanks”. To realize truly that God loves you, and that he sustains your life day after day by many seen and unseen benefits, is to build the foundation by which we can recognize that God is not just a judge, but he is a judge who is for our cause. So too are the saints: intercessors and friends who want to help us get a “leg up”.

So contrition and thanksgiving are the two legs upon which the whole spiritual organism stands. Or better yet, they are the two arms which grasp the embrace of the Heavenly Father. To lack either is to fall from that embrace, and be exposed to the elements of sin, self-hate and cynicism.

A Final Rule of Thumb

It is well known by moralists and spiritual directors that most people have a tendency either to laxity or rigorism. That is, we tend either to be too easy or too hard on ourselves. Sometimes these tendencies can coexist in the same person, in regard to different aspects of his or her life. Over and above finding a Confessor and making a regular Examination of Conscience a staple of one’s spiritual life, a good rule of thumb may be the following phrase:

“I am not as good as I think I am. But I am also not as bad as I think I am.”

If you have a day or a period of time in which you think you have it all figured out and you’re flying high, remember your frailty, and repent. If you are having a spell where you feel depressed, and lower than dirt, remember your dignity and all the trouble Jesus went through to save you, and pick your chin up. This is precisely what St. Ignatius of Loyola and others meant by remembering consolation in desolation, and desolation in consolation. The spiritual life in so many ways is about finding the true center in oneself: and that center is Christ.