Let’s make things right.
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
Come now, let us set things right,
says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson,
they may become white as wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
For my Lenten reading this year, I have been praying about the dynamics of conversion. In that spirit, I am turning to some ecumenical sources: the Dominican order.
I came across an old selection of America’s Catholic Book Club, Faith Within Reason. Kevin Spinale, S.J., highlighted some of Herbert McCabe, O.P’s writing that I have not been able to stop thinking about.
His [the God of Christianity] love does not depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it does not matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God…Contrition, or forgiveness, is self-knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are (157).
Father McCabe has a penchant for distilling Christian wisdom into statements that inspire but also befuddle and frustrate.
God doesn’t care whether I am a sinner? My repentance makes no difference to whether God forgives me? If I’m honest, I feel a bit angry when I read this. This is naive. It’s newage, feel-good deism. But it’s not Christianity.
But there is also another small voice that responds within me: Can you dare to believe it? What if this is not too good to be true?
I think about my own approach to repentance. If I’m honest, there are times when I get caught up in coming up with the “right” way to repent, a way that will convince God that I am really and truly sorry. Do I feel guilty enough for that sin? Have I wallowed enough to prove my love? Because if I do all of this, then God will love me more, or quicker, or better.
McCabe responds to my interior struggle:
Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition for your sins, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what your forgiveness is (158).
It is regular Christian (and even secular) wisdom that you are able to forgive someone who has wronged you without them feeling sorry for it. These are often the most radical witnesses to the power of forgiveness. And if humans are capable of this capacity to forgive without hearing repentance, then surely God’s power to forgive is even greater.
How does this change my image of God, if even in the midst of my sin, he loves me? I think most people profess that God’s love is unconditional, and yet we come up with an untold number of ways to put conditions around it in the ways we pray and practice.
To be sure, McCabe is not saying that sin does not exist, nor that repentance is not an important part of conversion.
But perhaps we would be more ready to leave our sins behind if we truly trusted that God was there, madly in love with us throughout it all.