The second reading from Sunday’s Mass included a favorite verse of mine, Romans 8:28:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
The newly ordained priest who said Mass at Holy Trinity Cathedral preached that God works for good even in our sins. Do you believe this? I do, firmly! So did St. Therese of Lisieux.
Today I’d like to examine St. Paul’s teaching on this subject, and what it means for our spiritual lives.
What can separate us from God?
St. Paul writes:
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
I have heard Catholic apologists preach on this passage, noting that Paul did not include “sin” in his list. Sin, they argue, can separate us from God, so that’s why Paul did not mention it here. They are trying to keep people from being presumptuous, from thinking that they could sin as often and as badly as they wanted and still go to Heaven.
The Church’s teaching about mortal sin and true hope is worthy of defense. Nevertheless, I believe, after some reflection on Therese’s little way, that Paul was including sin here. After all, he said “nor anything else”–doesn’t that include sin? Paul was not known to be imprecise. He said what he meant. He did not mince words. If he meant “everything except sin,” surely he would have said so!
Now, Paul would never condone taking sin lightly. He says,
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
Those words leave no room for presumption. But he wrote them to balance out these words, which he had written just previously:
Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. (Romans 5:20)
Let’s step away from Paul’s writing for a moment and reflect on his life. Paul had been a strict follower of the Law of Moses. He was so zealous for the Law, he says, it lead him to persecute the Church (Philippians 3:6). He sinned miserably, standing as witness at St. Stephen’s death, dragging Christians to prison. He multiplied sin after sin–sins that, objectively speaking, were mortal.
But, he says, he acted in ignorance. Therefore, God had mercy on him (1 Timothy 1:13). In fact, Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, temporarily blinding him. After Paul’s baptism, Jesus spoke to him again, teaching him the Gospel and making him an apostle.
Not every sin is mortal
What can we learn from Paul’s life? Sometimes we might commit objectively mortal sins with the best intentions. When we act in ignorance, truly striving to follow God, we do not separate ourselves from Him, even when we do serious wrong. Our sins cannot separate us from God if we are truly ignorant that they are serious sins. When Paul persecuted the Church, thinking he was pleasing God, Jesus stepped in to enlighten him.
This is the first way in which sin fails to separate us from God.
We also know from the teaching of the Church that less serious sins do not separate us from God. They may temporarily keep us from growing closer to Him, but they do not place us outside the life of grace. If they did, even the saints would be in trouble, for many of them acknowledge that they still committed sins of weakness until the end of their lives.
What about mortal sin?
What if we knowingly, willingly commit mortal sin? Well, that’s a serious problem. St. Paul writes
If you live according to the flesh, you will die. (Romans 8:12)
So, how do we interpret this in light of the other passages we have studied? First, Paul does not seem to consider the idea that we could commit serious sin after we come to Christ. He assumes that we are either for God or against Him, in the Spirit or in the flesh. A later generation of Christians would consider the state of people who fall after baptism.
But Jesus knew this would be an issue. He told us that there is only one unforgivable sin–blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Church interprets this as a refusal to submit to the Spirit’s promptings to repent.
The key for us when we have committed mortal sin is repentance. Everyone who is still physically alive still has a chance to be united with Christ. Our sins can only separate us from God if we hang on to them. They can’t keep us away from God unless we will them to by our stubbornness.
What this means for us
Let’s return to Romans 8:28. Paul says that “everything” works for our good–if we love God. If we submit to God’s authority, including confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they work for our good. They teach us about the great mercy of God. They teach us to rely on Him, not our strength.
When we go around thinking about how badly we have failed God, thinking that we can never be holy now, because we missed Mass on Sunday, or embezzled money from the company, or lied under oath, or publicly denied Christ–or any other sin–we stand in the way of God’s plan. We fail to let Him work for good through our sins.
When we sin–venially or mortally–our first act should be to turn our eyes to God. We lay our sin before Him, but focus on His goodness, not our sinfulness. Once we have done this (including sacramental confession when necessary), we can ask God to work good through our sin.
We can ask Him to help us follow Him more carefully after our sin than we did before it. We can believe that our sin, now forgiven, cannot keep us from sanctity. We can believe that it will even help us reach sanctity.
Do we believe that God can work for our good through our sins? Or do we believe our sins are more powerful than God?
Note: I know many of you have bought Trusting God with St. Therese, because I see my sales stats. I would like to thank you personally by inviting you to my online book launch party next Tuesday. Please email your purchase number to crossini4774 at comcast dot net with the subject line “Hangout.” I will send you an invitation to our Google+ Hangout. Do it now so you don’t miss out!