The mercy of God can be a nice idea that leaves us with warm feelings. However, to be more than an idea, we need actually to be having experiences of God’s mercy.

For the Old Testament people of Israel, experiences of mercy were their main experiences of God. It was through these experiences that they came to know God’s love.

It is appropriate, therefore, that in this Year of Mercy we ask ourselves: ‘What are moments in my life when I have experienced the mercy of God?’

Experiences to be accepted

Like any gift or ‘grace’ of God, mercy has to be accepted freely. God always offers and never imposes. God respects human free will.

The first step towards opening ourselves to experiences of God’s mercy is to recognise our need for this gift. And to do this, we need in turn to recognise our sins – the reasons why we need God’s mercy [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1547]

To receive (God’s) mercy, we must admit our faults. ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves …’

This means that if I am self satisfied with my goodness, thinking perhaps: ‘I am overall a pretty good person: I don’t do much wrong’, I will have, at most, limited personal experiences of the mercy of God – and of the love of God which these reveal.

A double grace

Sensitivity to what can offend another person grows as we come to know them. And sensitivity to personal sins grows as our personal relationships with God through Jesus deepen.

St John Paul II showed that being able to recognise our sins is a prior gift of God before the gift of an experience of mercy. Hence, experiences of God’s mercy are double gifts – the gift of recognising our sins (our need for mercy), and the gift of mercy itself [John Paul II; Lord and Giver of Life 31].

What is sin?

Sin traditionally has been defined as any deliberate thought, word or deed against the Law of God. And so there are three conditions for sin.

  • I must know that my thought, word or deed breaks a law of God;
  • I must be free to not break God’s law;
  • I must actually consent to the thought, word or deed so that it is deliberate.

And so those of ancient religions who worshipped through human sacrifice broke the Fifth Commandment ‘You shall not kill.’ However, they did not sin for they had never heard of this Commandment. Similarly someone suffering kleptomania does not sin if they break the Seventh Commandment – ‘You shall not steal’ – by taking what belongs to another as this illness robs them of their freedom not to steal. And someone who accidentally causes injury does not sin because though, again, they break the Fifth Commandment, their action was not deliberate.

Freedom to sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church points to factors which lessen personal freedom and so personal responsibility for breaking God’s laws. These include [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1735]
… duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments and other psychological or social factors.

To steal at gun point breaks the Seventh Commandment, but this duress robs the threatened person of freedom. A person whose anger is caused by a deep seated psychological problem breaks the Fifth Commandment, but they lack the psychological freedom to be responsible – at least, fully responsible.

Some limits on freedom can be the result of initial personal choices to sin – such as addictions to pornography, alcohol or drugs. However, once addicted, people lack freedom – and this lessens their responsibility for breaking God’s laws, and the gravity of their sins.

Mortal and venial sin

Christian believers celebrate with St Paul that ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ [Romans 5:20]. He wrote this in the context of how the Old Testament laws increased people’s awareness of sins against God.

The First Letter of John teaches that there ‘is sin that leads to death’ and ‘sin that is not deadly’ [1 John 5:16]. Here he had in mind the personal choice to reject God and the inner movements by the Holy Spirit. The ‘death’ the author had in mind was the death of the sinner’s relationship with God and, therefore, the death of his or her spiritual bond with other baptised believers in the community of the Church.

The Church recognises other sins also lead to death – mortal sins. These are the deliberate choice to break with full knowledge and freedom a law which God has taught to be grave. The conditions are that the choice must be with full knowledge, the normal deliberation associated with any human decision and grave matter (or an offence God has taught to be grave) [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1857].

The ‘thirst’ of Jesus

God offers a new ‘double grace’ whenever a person commits mortal sin. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, seeks always to renew the relationship between the sinner and himself for he ‘thirsts’ for their relationship [Catechism of the Catholic Church 2560].

It remains for the one who has sinned mortally to respond to the double grace of this mercy of God – by repenting the sin and accepting forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Good Shepherd told us [Luke 15:7]

… there will be more rejoicing in heaven over the sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no repentance.

Godly grief

Some today wonder about the reason why people in mortal sin should not receive Jesus in Holy Communion. St Paul wrote of ‘godly grief’, a sadness resulting from being confronted about one’s way of life when in grave sin.

The occasion was the ‘godly grief’ experienced by the Christians in Corinth as a result of a letter from St Paul, which challenged the serious ways they were failing to live the Gospel of Christ [2 Corinthians 7:9-11]

Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation … For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness …

In practice, this is the situation of those who see that they cannot receive Holy Communion because of unrepented grave sin. St Paul recognises the suffering and loneliness resulting from such situations. He taught that such people should feel love, and should be prayed for by believers.

The basis for godly grief, therefore, is love, for nothing is more important than to experience Christian salvation.

Venial sin

Venial sin weakens but does not kill a believer’s personal relationship with God through Jesus, and the spiritual bond with others in the community of the Church. This weakened relationship leads to a growing insensitivity towards God; weakened ability to discern God’s guidance for the decisions of our daily lives; and weakens our wills against temptations. Overtime, we can drift into mortal sin.

In an earlier era, we thought of venial sins as being not particularly serious matters. However, with the renewed focus on reconciliation with God, and restoring personal relationships with God through Jesus, we realise now that venial sin is a serious matter – just as small accumulating offences against a friend can have serious consequences for our friendship.

Do not judge

Jesus told his followers never to judge another person. To judge others invites God’s judgement on us [Matthew 7:1-2].

No human person, be they lay person or priest, can judge the sinfulness of another. For example, only the person concerned knows his or her level of freedom and whether they were or are under ‘duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments and other psychological or social factors’.

This is not a question of watering down the gravity of mortal sin in particular. It is to insist that only the person concerned can assess their situation, and everyone else should heed Jesus’ teaching against passing judgement.

Sacrament of Reconciliation

When I was a child, I learned about ‘confession’. It was the sacrament in which I confessed my sins and received God’s forgiveness as the priest gave me absolution.
However, when I was a teenager, the Second Vatican Council recalled that God not only forgives sin: Jesus restores our relationships with our God. As our human experiences teach us, others can forgive our offenses – but this does not mean our relationships with them are fully restored.

In John’s Gospel, where Jesus is portrayed instituting this sacrament after his Resurrection, Jesus does not merely forgive the Apostles who deserted him at his arrest – or Peter, who betrayed him. He restores fully their relationship with him by saying ‘Peace be with you’.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, therefore, we received the ‘double gift’ from God that St John Paul wrote of. We recognise first our need for divine mercy as we are moved to confess our sins, and then we receive the gift of God’s mercy as our personal relationships with God are restored.

This sacrament is the normal means for opening ourselves to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness of mortal sin.

Let us accept God’s mercy

As mentioned earlier, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’. Let us open ourselves to the experiences of that mercy God wants to give each of us by examining our consciences daily, particularly during our prayer before going to bed, expressing sincere sorrow to God – and celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the mercy of God as Jesus renews our personal relationships with our Creator through him.