Last week I began a series of articles inspired by my present reading of St. Francis De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. The first article was “What Does It Mean to be Devout?”. I ended that article with a brief mention of “pruning and cutting” by St. Francis De Sales (8).
Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you” (John 15:1-3). We want to be branches on the vine that is Jesus. That means we need to be pruned so that we bear more fruit. We prune our lives by ceasing any activity that does not follow Jesus’ word that He spoke to us.
What about sin? What are we to do to cut away the sins that we have already committed? Of course, Jesus gives us the means to be purified of our past sins. St. Francis De Sales writes, “The first purification to be made is from sin – the means whereby to make it, the sacrament of penance.” (10). Jesus died on the Cross so that our sins will be forgiven. He gives us the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive that forgiveness for sin. How do we prepare ourselves for this sacrament? We need to make an examination of our conscience.
St. Francis writes, “that by sin you have lost God’s grace, rejected your share in paradise, accepted the pains of hell, and renounced God’s eternal love” (10). Sin is a bad choice. The ramifications of it just described by St. Francis De Sales are huge. However, I don’t know if many people sin consciously choosing to reject paradise or to mean to accept hell. Sometimes we just don’t know better. We make bad choices. Thank God (literally) that Jesus has died for our sins so that we can be forgiven.
From there, St. Francis De Sales discusses the importance of making a “general confession” (10). A general confession is when one examines their entire life to confess all of their sins. Normally, when we make an ordinary confession, we only confess our sins since our last confession. That is all we normally need to confession. Everything that we have confessed before is already forgiven.
So, why make a general confession of one’s whole life? St. Francis De Sales suggests a general confession in the context of one who is making a new and significant effort to live a devout life. To do so, one needs to seriously examine one’s life to see what needs to be changed. In doing so, of course, past sins come to mind. We make the general confession to hand our past over to God as we make new to live the devout life.
Here, St. Francis De Sales writes about we might become lax in preparing ourselves for an ordinary confession, making little preparation (examining our conscience) or with little contrition for our sins. Some will come without a firm resolve to sin no more (10-11). Here I want to distinguish between a real desire to stop sinning and one who doesn’t really try to change. Often we do sin again but not because of a lack of desire to sin no more. Rather, we are weak and we don’t know how to change. That’s why we need to keep coming back to God with a real desire to change. We can’t fix ourselves. God can. It may take time. Be patient. Remember Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).
We can have a real desire to stop sinning yet struggle to do so. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Even so there are penitents who forsake sin, yet without forsaking their sinful affects; that is to say, they intend to sin no more, but it goes sorely against them to abstain from the pleasures of sin” (11). He continues, “They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate” (11). As we say in the Act of Contrition, we need to avoid whatever leads us to sin. For example, if drinking alcohol leads you to sin (as it weakens your resistance to sin), than stop drinking.
St. Francis reminds us, “those wretched affections will perpetually enfeeble your mind, and clog it, so that you will be unable to be diligent, ready and frequent in good works, in which nevertheless lies the very essence of all true devotion” (12). We fool ourselves (prompted by the devil) that it won’t matter this one time or think that we haven’t crossed the line. This kind of attitude begins us down the slippery slope to sin.
When we find ourselves repeatedly sinning, especially committing the same sins over and over, we might be tempted to give up, thinking God won’t love us. St. Francis De Sales reminds us, “God brought you out of this nothingness, in order to make you what you are, not because he had any need of you, but solely out of his goodness” (my emphasis, 13). God always loves you. Jesus died for you because He loves you. God will keep forgiving.
How grateful are you for God’s forgiveness? If we are grateful, we will give all effort to change, to stop sinning (St. Francis De Sales, 17). However, as long as we are really trying, we should never despair when we sin. One challenge in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that the focus in what we have done wrong (as it should be). However, that doesn’t mean we don’t do good. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t made improvements. The first place to look might be to ask yourselves if you are sinning less often. If you are sinning less often, thank God for the progress. In this we find hope. The cup is half-full rather than half-empty. Yes, we need to stop all our sins but we rejoice in any progress.
We need to be sincere in examining our conscience with a contrite heart. Once we confess our sins, at the final judgment the devil cannot use any sins we have confessed against us. We do not want to spend eternity in Hell where we are eternally separated from God (St. Francis De Sales, the “loss of God’s glory”, 23). The fear of Hell can be a powerful motivator. Perhaps an even better motivator against sin is that when we are free from sin and do good works, we will spent eternity in paradise. We will be in Heaven. The eternal cup is not simply half-full. It is overflowing with the glory of God.
If we understand what God offers us in Heaven, the eternal happiness of being with him, we will seek to change. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Suppose the angel to set before you paradise, full of delights and joys; and on the other hand hell, with all its torments. Contemplate both, kneeling in imagination before your guardian angel. Consider that you are most truly standing between hell and paradise, and that both the one and the other are open to receive you, according to your own choice” (my emphasis, 26). The problem is that we don’t look at it this way. Rather than see the pains of hell, we seek the immediate earthly pleasure that comes from our action. We don’t see the eternal consequences. We tend to seek the immediate pleasure of this world rather than the eternal pleasure of Heaven. We are stuck in the here and now. We ask God to help us see what lies beyond the here and now. Then our choice will be clear. We will choose Heaven.
Here, I wish to offer a caution against scrupulosity. Do not live thinking you are no good. Do not let your life be consumed by constantly examining your past. General confession is a rare thing. As long as you sincerely examine your conscience, even if you forget a sin, God will and does forgive you. Have no doubt that God loves you. His love for you is absolute. Once you have confessed your sins and done your penance, know for certain that God has forgiven you.
Will you change immediately? Maybe not. Don’t try to fix everything yourself. Living the devout life comes with time. Sometimes we have to unpeel layers of sin, handing each layer over to God. We may not understand why we sin. Venial sin clouds what we see. Mortal sin can blind us to what is really going on. We ask God to help us see why we sin and for the grace to change (see St. Francis De Sales, 32-33).
Sometimes the things that lead us to sin, are neither good or bad in their own. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Sports, balls, plays, festivities, pomps, are not in themselves evil, but rather indifferent matters, capable of being used for good or ill; but nevertheless they are dangerous, and it is still more dangerous to take great delight in them…if you are addicted to these things, they will hinder your devotion, and become extremely hurtful and dangerous to you. The harm lies, not in doing them, but in the degree to which you care for them” (my emphasis, 34). For example, there is nothing wrong in playing football or going fishing. There is something terribly lacking when we choose to play football or go finishing instead of spending the time with God.
No matter what sins you have committed, no matter how much you continue to struggle with sin, know that God loves you.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).