Guilt For Past Sins

My dear friends,

When we visited the topic of guilt a few weeks ago, I was not able to address a question that often comes up, which runs something like this: “Father, when I remember my past sins, sometimes I feel guilty again, even though I’ve already confessed them. This makes me wonder and doubt whether I’ve been forgiven. Do I need to confess these sins again?”

To begin, it is important to remember that to be forgiven does not mean that we will forget what we have done. Though it is best not to dwell on the past, sometimes things happen in the day that may trigger or bring back a memory. What should we do when we remember a sin of the past that we regret and that still pains us when the faces of those we have hurt pass vividly through our mind?

When these memories come back, it is normal to feel badly, that sorrow would reawaken for what we had done. It’s precisely here that we need to be on guard, careful to reject any temptation to take back the guilt. The devil, whom the Bible calls “the accuser,” will try to “re-accuse” us, lead us back into guilt, and make us doubt the mercy and forgiveness of God. At this moment, it becomes a battle between the returning feelings of guilt and the objective experience of being forgiven by God. Do I go with the feeling, or do I stand in the objective truth of what God did for me?

The objective certitude of forgiveness is one of the blessings given in the sacrament of reconciliation. When these words of Christ are spoken and heard, “I absolve you from your sins,” that which these words signify, actually happens. God’s word alone has the power to bring about what it intends. Jesus said “This is my body,” and the bread becomes his body. Jesus said “Be still,” and the stormy wind became still. Jesus said “rise,” and Lazarus rose from the dead. So when Jesus says to us through the mouth of the priest, “your sins are forgiven,” they are indeed forgiven completely. We never have to confess them again.

Given the trustworthiness of God and the power of His Word, we can stand in faith on the permanent gift of His forgiveness. We may have to pray for the grace to trust and accept God’s forgiveness, even the grace to forgive ourselves, but a thousand doubts could never bring back the sins which the blood of Christ has cleansed and taken away. Claiming this truth is our weapon against “the accuser.”

While we need to reject every temptation to take back the guilt for past sins which have already been forgiven, the memory of our sins can produce good fruits as well, thanks to the presence of God’s grace. There are at least five benefits that come to mind.

The first fruit is how such memories can deepen our contrition and sorrow for sin, for how they have hurt the Lord and the people we love. This sorrow can increase our desire to love better, while also deterring us from committing the same sins again. A second fruit is gratitude, a growing gratitude for the wonder and shear gift of God’s mercy, which has been so generously offered to us throughout our lives. Humility is another fruit; for, as these memories remind me how weak and frail I am, and that “but for the grace of God, there go I,” I am less inclined to boast, to judge or depend on myself.

A further fruit is the growth of virtue. By repeated acts of faith, hope and trust, we grow stronger in these virtues, as we combat temptations of doubt and discouragement. And lastly, the memory of sin reminds us to pray for those we have hurt (including ourselves), to pray for their healing and ability to forgive us, entrusting them to God, who is able to mend and heal all hurts.

I hope this reflection will be helpful. As a general rule, it is always best, as St. Francis de Sales taught, to leave the past in the merciful hands of God, to entrust the future to His good providence, and to live faithfully and peacefully in the present moment. As we enter together into Holy Week, where the Mercy of God is most powerfully revealed, may our hearts be filled with greater joy, the confident joy of those redeemed by the blood of Christ.

God love you,

 Fr. Steven



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