In 1973, the internationally distinguished psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin. He predicted that the time would come when people no longer believed that there is such a thing as sin. With the growth of humanism and the decline of religion, people would excuse their immorality by blaming their biology, their upbringing, their associates, or even the environment. There would, therefore, be no need for forgiveness since what was formerly known as a sin would be rationalized away.
The Gospel is sufficiently clear about the reality of sin. We read about the woman at the well who was told, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:3-11). Matthew 1:21 states that “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” said Christ, “but the sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
It is difficult to excuse Judas according to modern excuses. He was in good company. All who were close to him were saints and saints prayed for him. He walked in the company of Christ and had no apparent reason, genetic, biological, or otherwise, to betray him. His tragedy was in not seeking forgiveness but despairing and committing suicide.
A certain amount of humility is needed in order for a person to acknowledge his sins. Blaise Pascal pointed out that there are only two kinds of people: “the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous”. The righteous person has no illusions about himself. He knows that he is a sinner, whereas the sinner, blinded by his pride, thinks he is without sin. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7), Christ stated. These words imply that we are all sinners.
Plato stated that “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light”. By virtue of the light of knowledge, one becomes aware of his sins. In this instance, he also becomes eligible for forgiveness.
Secularists who do not believe that there is such a thing as sin, by logical extension, do not believe there is a need for forgiveness. People, nonetheless, suffer when they are mistreated. They tend to hold grudges. Humanistic psychologists do not understand forgiveness the way that Christ employed the term. Christ forgave the sinner, not the one who was sinned against. Secular psychologists believe that the victim should get over his anger for being mistreated so that he no longer feels angry at the person who did him wrong. In this sense, the victim forgives in the sense of getting over his negative feelings. Such “forgiveness,” however, does not exonerate the perpetrator of his mistreatment.
To forgive a person for his deeds is something that Christ alone can achieve. Psychology is helpless when it comes to washing away another person’s guilt. Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque told her confessor that she had conversations with Christ. Her skeptical confessor asked her the next time she conversed with the Lord to ask Him what sin I recently confessed. The saint posed the question to Christ. His answer was, “I do not remember”. Christ’s manner of forgiveness is unique for He truly banishes sins so that the penitent can resume his life free from the stain of sin that would otherwise hamper him.
The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard understood the majestic nature of true forgiveness when he said, “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners”. Saint Augustine would heartily agree with that statement.
In Paul Claudel’s play, The Satin Slipper, an adulterous woman who does not confess her sin is doomed to limp. Unconfessed sin leaves her with a mark that will not disappear without confession. We need to confess our sins so that, in returning to a state of grace, we are in a better position to help others and do not continue to suffer from unresolved guilt. Augustine avers that “Repentant tears work out the stain of sin”.
Secularists who fail to understand true forgiveness also fail to understand the nature of guilt. True guilt results not from scruples or an overactive conscience, but from one’s complicity in wrongdoing. Forgiveness frees a person from the negative consequences of guilt. It also restores a person’s proper relationship with God.
Dr. Menninger was both observant and prescient with regard to the notion of sin. No doubt, however, he did not imagine that once the sinfulness of sin was denied, it soon became approved and soon after that it claimed superiority over virtue. It is a very sad state of affairs in present day society when good Christians are ridiculed or, in some instances, lose their jobs simply because they oppose the acceptance and promotion of sin. If sins are not forgiven, they fester and cause no end of mayhem. It is for good reason, then, that forgiveness and reconciliation are bound together as a Sacrament.
Confessing one’s sins is like freeing a prisoner. Indeed, the state of sin is like being held prisoner. But the joyful surprise is that the person who is freed is none other than oneself.