There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea, Fr Faber tells us in his hymn. But the same hymn also comes with a warning:
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own.
There are two ways we might impose false limits on the mercy of God. The more obvious is by refusing to show mercy and forgiveness ourselves. Christ gives us many warnings in the Gospels by showing us how the scribes and pharisees fail to show mercy and take offence when sinners repent and are forgiven. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! (Matt. 23:4) We make God’s love too narrow if we impose on others expectations that are impossible to fulfil, and more than God himself asks of them.
But there is another way in which we might try to make God too small, and that’s by being too strict on ourselves. One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic has been a growing number of people suffering from scruples (even the BBC has covered it). Even if we do not currently suffer from this problem, it’s one that it’s good to be aware of, both to prevent ourselves from falling into it, and to help those we are close to if they should find themselves struggling in this way.
Scruples might arise in several stages of repentance. We might think that our sins are far worse than they really are. We might feel that we’re not really sorry enough for our sins to be forgiven. Or we might doubt whether our confession was actually valid because we feel we didn’t confess ‘properly’, because of a forgotten sin or a missing detail. Scruples will often lead a person to trying to be sure that their sins were forgiven, and may find themselves going to confession more frequently than they need to, or re-confessing sins, or confessing in far more detail than is necessary.
The underlying problem with scruples is that it does not reflect God as the loving Father he really is. He is more willing to forgive than we are to ask for forgiveness, so it doesn’t makes sense to think that these small imperfections in the way that we confess would be enough for him to refuse us forgiveness. God is not sitting in heaven with a list of our sins on a clipboard, waiting to catch us out with the sins we’ve forgotten!
This is where the Church’s distinction between mortal and venial sin comes to our help. These distinctions are not there so that we can condemn people who’ve definitely done something evil, but so that we can assure ourselves when we haven’t. Mortal sins are those actions that cut us off from the life of God — and you can’t do that kind of thing by accident. They’re actually quite hard to commit. They always involve something serious (‘grave matter’) like breaking one of the ten commandments. You can’t sin mortally with a fleeting thought.
And you have to have full knowledge of what you’re doing, and full consent as well. So if you’re under the influence of another — or even of your own bad habits — those are mitigating factors. A mortal sin can only be committed if we choose to do it freely. We cannot cut ourselves off from God by something we do by accident. These definitions are not about being sure that we have sinned, but about being sure, actually, that in spite of doing something truly serious, we haven’t cut ourselves off from God — and therefore that there is still hope for us.
St Philip’s advice to those suffering from scruples was as follows:
When any person is troubled with scruples from not knowing whether he has consented to the suggestion, especially in thought, he should observe these two rules. The first is to consider whether, during the temptation, he had always a lively love of the virtue contrary to the vice to which he is tempted, and a hatred of that vice, since, in that case, there will be a sufficient presumption that he has not consented. Secondly, the holy Father would have the scrupulous commit themselves in all things to the judgment of their confessor, and despise their own scruples.
(The School of Saint Philip Neri)
Judging whether or not we have consented to a sin can be very difficult — St Philip gives us a way to step back and try to observe our actions objectively, both by ourselves and with the help of a priest. If we are striving to overcome our sinful bad habits, if we regularly bring our sins to confession and mean it when we make a firm purpose of amendment, it will be very difficult for us to consent fully to those sins.
This doesn’t mean we can do what we like. Of course we still want to stop sinning in every way. Sin stops us from being happy. But at least we know that in our fight against sin, we are not constantly being abandoned by God. And that’s reassuring, because we can’t be good without his help.
This problem is not a new one in the Church. Six hundred years ago, Mother Julian of Norwich dealt with the question of how those who are trying to be good could still commit sin, and whether they made it impossible for themselves to achieve holiness by doing so. She was given the comforting revelation:
And I saw that he wants us to understand that he does not take the falling of any creature that shall be saved harder than he took the falling of Adam, who, we know, was endlessly loved and securely kept in the time of all his need, and now is blissfully restored in supreme overpassing joy. For our Lord is so good, so gentle, and so courteous, that he may never assign fault in those in whom he shall ever be blessed and praised. And my desire was partly answered by what I have just told, and my great difficulty some deal eased, by the lovely, gracious revelation of our good Lord. In which revelation I saw and understood with full certainty that in every soul that shall be saved is a Godly Will that never assented to sin, nor ever shall. This Will is so good that it may never desire evil, but it wills good forevermore continuously; and it works good in the sight of God. Therefore our Lord wills that we know this in Faith and trust; and especially that we have all this blessed Will whole and safe in our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 53)