“Love comes to its perfection in us when we can face the Day of Judgement fearlessly, because even in this world, we have become as He is. In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear implies punishment and no one who is afraid has come to perfection in love. Let us love, then, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:17-19)
In my last article, I responded to a question from my friend about whether it is unreasonable and unfair to have to love and worship God, or else be sent to Hell. I’ve continued to reflect on the question as it continues to be a stumbling block for his faith. In my last article, I commented that sometimes the fear of Hell can be a good—although not ideal—thing, because we are easily distracted by the temptations to sin, and a stern reminder of the consequences can help refocus and reorient us back to God. I ended the post by quoting Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.” Note what that verse says: that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is the starting point, not the destination, and hopefully, not even too much of the journey.
Perhaps it might sound strange for a Catholic to say that by and large I don’t think about Hell very often, and when I do, “fear” typically isn’t the emotion I feel—or at least, not fear for myself. Admittedly, when I have been worried about Hell, it’s because I know that I haven’t been living faithfully to God’s Laws. Even then, though, for the most part, that fear of Hell is secondary to the pain that comes from disappointing the One I love.
I was fortunate to have grown up in a loving family. I was, on the whole, a “good” kid. I didn’t get into a lot of trouble, but when I did, there were firm, but fair, punishments. Now, obviously, as a kid, when I had done something wrong, I feared the spanking or the grounding or whatever my parents deemed appropriate to the crime, but even before the sentencing began, there was the look—the one that let you know how disappointed mom and dad were with your behaviour. In many ways, that sense of disappointing them was in itself worse than the subsequent punishment.
In the spiritual life, this dynamic plays itself out in the Confessional. After confessing our sins, and before the priest gives absolution for them, he asks us to make an “act of contrition”. Theologically, the Church uses two terms for sorrow for sin: attrition and contrition. Attrition is the fear of Hell that we’ve been discussing—sorrow for our sins because of fear of the punishments, or as the saying goes, “You’re just sorry you got caught.” It’s not a great reason to be sorry, because it is inherently “me-focussed”. Sin could be defined as putting our own desires ahead of God and others. Attrition is more or less being sorry for putting our own desires first because we have another desire not to be punished. The only upshot of attrition is that it at least realigns our focus on God again, albeit imperfectly. Thanks to God’s infinite mercy, His grace given in the Sacrament of Confession is so immense that it can forgive even those sins for which we only have attrition in our hearts.
Contrition, on the other hand, is being sorry for our sins not out of fear of the punishment, but because of our love for God, and our regret at failing to love Him and others more than our own selfish desires. It’s the recognition that you have disappointed the One you love, and the sadness that that recognition brings. This brings us back to the Confessional, and the “Act of Contrition”, which is a prayer (or a type of prayer, more accurately, since there are various version of it) that expresses our sorrow for sin because of our love of God, and our resolution to not sin again. The version which I have memorised runs thus:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for my sins,
for I fear the loss of heaven and the pain of hell;
but most of all, my Lord, I detest all my sins
because I have offended You who are all good and all worthy of my love.
And I firmly resolve, through the help of Your grace,
to turn from my sins,
to do penance,
and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
When we know the truth, beauty, and goodness of God, when we understand how much He loves us, and when we grow to love Him in return, His grace at work in our lives transforms us, bit by bit, to become more and more like Him. Ultimately, this transformation will bring us at last to be face to face with Him in heaven, if we cooperate with and are faithful to the grace He gives us. The fear of Hell becomes a distant memory, replaced by the very different sort of fear of ever wanting to offend Him who loved us so much as to suffer and die for us.
This is the revelation of God’s love for us, that God sent His only Son into the world that we might have life through Him. Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent His Son to expiate our sins. My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another (1 John 4:9-11).
Have a blessed Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced through for love of us!
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