Many of us frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation but we find ourselves not improving in our spiritual life and Christian conduct. Almost right after the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we would commit the same sins that we have just confessed. It is indeed very frustrating that the more we want to give up sin, the more the Devil works to tempt us into sin. What the letter of Hebrews tells us is true, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Heb 12:4) So some of us give up going for confession because we feel that it does not work. We might as well continue sinning.

Such thinking is dangerous. We are walking on a slippery road to perdition. Sin never comes singly. Sin always has offspring. One sin will lead to another sin. When we do not confess our sins, our sensitivity to sin will be numbed by a dull conscience. And because we are numbed to sin, we grow in sinfulness in depth day by day till what is a neglect of the soul becomes an indifference. Very soon it will lead to hostility because, absorbed by our sins, we will not be willing to live under reprimand from others. So those who sin will have to justify that what they are doing is not wrong. This explains why the Church, which is the teacher of truth, faces much opposition from the world, especially in the area of sexuality, because this is where the entertainment world makes its money from. By speaking against promiscuity, we hurt their pockets.

So what is the cause of the apparent ineffectiveness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? It is the lack of contrition of heart. Contrition is the most important dimension of an efficacious confession. Without contrition of heart, we will naturally sin again because we are not convicted that what we did is wrong, is hurting ourselves and hurting others. Indeed, isn’t this is the reason why many people sin because they think it is a small thing? They think that having pre-marital sex is harmless because it is by mutual consent. They think that having a fling is merely engaging in pleasure. They justify masturbation as a release of one’s excess energy and healing for their frustrations. Even stealing is now termed as lifting something that is not yours. Truly, so long as we can justify and rationalize our sins, there is no reason for us to give it up. That is why the Lord asks for a contrite heart. “But may the contrite soul, the humbled spirit be as acceptable to you as holocausts of rams and bullocks, as thousands of fattened lambs: such let our sacrifice be to you today, and may it be your will that we follow you wholeheartedly, since those who put their trust in you will not be disappointed.”

But why is it that the contrition of heart is lacking? First, many of us who frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation hardly prepare ourselves. We rush into confession because the queue is shorter. We do not take time to go through our past and the sins we commit. We do not ask and inquire into whether what we have done is harmful to peace and love, and what motivates us to do what we did. Unless we spend time examining our conscience and understanding what drove us to sin, we cannot properly confess our sins and be conscious that our sins are hurting our cherished dream, which is love. This is particularly true of penitential services. Due to time constraints, the Penitential service is kept short. There is hardly any time for serious reflection on our past. This is why those who come for Penitential service should already be thinking about their sins long before their confession. They should spend a few days asking the Lord to reveal the sins that they had committed and forgotten.

The second reason why we lack contrition of heart is that we do not acknowledge our sins as they are. We do not accept the judgment of God on what is right or wrong, as the psalmist says, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” (Ps 51:4).

We disagree with the teachings of Sacred Scripture and the magisterium on what is right or wrong. Instead of sincerely searching for the truth by reading and seeking to understand the Church’s teachings on moral issues, we side with the world and embrace their opinions. If we want to feel sorry for our sins, we need to confess and admit them as they are. This was what Azariah did. “Lord, now we are the least of all the nations, now we are despised throughout the world, today, because of our sins. We have at this time no leader, no prophet, no prince, no holocaust, no sacrifice, no oblation, no incense, no place where we can offer you the first-fruits and win your favour.”

Photo Credit: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore

Third, if we lack contrition, it is because we do not place ourselves in the shoes of those whom we hurt. We often apply double standards in life. We know what it is to suffer, especially injustices done to us. We cannot forgive people who cheat us and slander us. We want justice, but only to be rendered to us, not to others. With others, it is ok for us to do to them what we find objectionable when done to us. That is why Confucius gave us the golden rule of life, “Do not do unto others what you would not like them to do unto you.” If we observe this universal principle of humanity, we will live lives that are more peaceful and there will be greater harmony. This was the case of the unforgiving servant. He was forgiven by the master but upon release, he immediately pounded on his fellow servant who owed him an insignificant amount compared to what he himself had cheated the master of. That is why the master said to him, upon receiving reports on what he did, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?”

However, more often than not, it is because we cannot forgive ourselves. If we lack mercy for ourselves, then we cannot have the same mercy for others. By not forgiving ourselves and by being hard on ourselves, we are naturally hard on others. Often, it is the sin of pride that prevents us from letting go of our pain. At times, it is neurotic guilt which leads one into self-pity. Unless we learn to forgive ourselves, recognizing that we are also sinners and always in need of forgiveness, we cannot do the same for others. This is the message of our Lord when He told Peter that we do not only forgive “seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.” So long as the person asks for forgiveness, we must be ever ready to forgive. Otherwise we make ourselves the prisoner of our enemies. “And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.”

But why is it that we cannot forgive ourselves and others? It is simply because we have failed to realize the unconditional love and mercy of God. In the scriptures, we read that God is always faithful to us. He is faithful to His covenant. This is how Azariah prayed, “Oh! Do not abandon us forever, for the sake of your name; do not repudiate your covenant, do not withdraw your favour from us, for the sake of Abraham, your friend, of Isaac your servant, and of Israel your holy one, to whom you promised descendants as countless as the stars of heaven and as the grains of sand on the seashore.” We must appeal to God’s fidelity to us. He wants us to be saved rather than be destroyed. He knows that we are sinners and always in need of forgiveness. This was also how the psalmist also prayed, “Remember your mercy, Lord, and the love you have shown from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth because of your goodness, O Lord. The Lord is good and upright. He shows the path to those who stray. He guides the humble in the right path; he teaches his way to the poor.” So we need to cling to God’s mercy. The depth of God’s mercy is brought out in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant when the master forgave his servant 10,000 talents, which of course is an exaggerated amount as it would be the salary of an ordinary worker for 150,000 years!

The question is, did not the servant experience his unfathomable mercy and love for him? No, he did not because he did not even reflect on his own sins. He was just afraid to be punished. Once the punishment was lifted, he went about looking for “a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him.” For a day’s wage which was owed to him, he could not forgive him! He had no real contrition of heart. He did not go through his many sins and therefore cannot sympathize with fellow sinners.

So, the sacrament of reconciliation is only effective provided we cooperate with the grace of God. We must pray from our heart, “may it be your will that we follow you wholeheartedly, since those who put their trust in you will not be disappointed. And now we put our whole heart into following you, into fearing you and seeking your face once more. Do not disappoint us; treat us gently, as you yourself are gentle and very merciful. Grant us deliverance worthy of your wonderful deeds, let your name win glory, Lord.” If we are sincere and truly repentant of our sins, we can be sure that receiving His forgiveness for our grievous sins against Him, our Lord and God, we will learn to forgive ourselves and forgive others. In this way, the cycle of forgiveness is complete.