“Ask a Priest: Is Falling Into the Same Sins the Same as Being Unrepentant?”

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Q: I have a lot of recurring sins and a bad habit of making terrible decisions, and I often feel like I have no control over them. But I have been trying to make a bit of progress through talking to the priest at my university and through counseling. My priest told me I should come to confession frequently, and that would help with my problems. But I keep making the same mistakes, falling into the same patterns when I leave the church. I know it’s not right to take absolution in confession if you are not really sorry, so I need to know the difference between recurrent sins and just being unrepentant for them. I felt so much better knowing that I could come to confession every time, but I can’t just go and then not try — that’s just using the priest. I feel so hopeless and trapped about this. – O.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The fact that you are trying to overcome habits of sin, and are going to confession frequently, is a good sign. It indicates that you are serious about your spiritual life.

This is precisely the moment when the devil will try to get you discouraged, so you want to be on guard.

That said, it is good to remember that for a valid confession you need to have contrition and some kind of resolution to avoid sin again.

The contrition, or sorrow, can be perfect (based on love of God) or imperfect (based on fear of punishment). Sometimes it is a mix of the two.

For the sacrament of reconciliation, either type of contrition is sufficient, so long as you have the intention “here and now” not to sin again.

This doesn’t mean that we must convince ourselves that we are going to be perfect the rest of our lives. But we do need to have the intention to try to avoid falling into the same sins.

What we cannot do is go into confession with the intention of casually returning to our sins. We couldn’t, for instance, go into the confessional on a Saturday afternoon to admit to sins of drunkenness while already planning that night’s drinking binge. That would amount to a sacrilege and would render the sacrament invalid.

Now, it shouldn’t shock penitents to find that they are confessing the same sins again and again. We tend to wrestle with the same kinds of vices on a continual basis. This shouldn’t get us discouraged. It is part of the human condition. Many of us are disposed, for various reasons, to one type of sin or another.

If the struggle keeps us humble and keeps us coming back to the sacrament of confession, there is something healthy in that.

Again, the key thing is that we have a desire to leave our sins behind each time we go to confession. God has his way of giving us the grace we need to move forward, but his schedule isn’t always one we can understand fully or one we would prefer.

On a practical note, it would be helpful to work on the virtues most opposite those areas where you sin. If you give in to gossiping, for instance, then work on the habit of speaking well of others. If you give in to gluttony, then offer up a little something at each meal for the person who most needs your sacrifices.

Also, it’s important to deepen your own relationship with God through personal prayer. If you want to grow in this area, you might find “The Better Part” app useful, or this explanation of Christian meditation, or this video about Christian meditation.

Keeping focused on the positive is a great way to overcome the negative. With God’s grace, of course.

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