“Ask a Priest: How do I get out of the loop of sinning and then continually asking for forgiveness?”

Q: If we are saved, what are the negative impacts of sin? If we are forgiven for anything, why should we do good? I want to do better and I need motivation. What I constantly hear is that we are forgiven and that if we ask for forgiveness then everything is fine again, and it sets me in a loop where I can just sin and then ask for forgiveness over and over. –J.W.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Be careful. It’s easy to misinterpret that phrase “We are saved.” True, the Catechism in No. 621 says, “Jesus freely offered himself for our salvation.” No. 622 adds, “The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many.'”

A cursory reading of those numbers could give the impression that our salvation is assured because of Jesus’ sacrifice. What is assured is that Jesus has opened the possibility of our reaching heaven. But that is no guarantee that everyone will, in fact, do so.

No. 1949 of the Catechism uses more nuance: “Called to beatitude but wounded by sin, man stands in need of salvation from God. Divine help comes to him in Christ through the law that guides him and the grace that sustains him: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.'”

Note those words “man stands in need of salvation” — we need salvation, it’s not a given.

The negative impacts of sin are numerous — just pick up any newspaper or click into a news website to get a sampling of the evils out there. And that’s just the stuff that gets reported. The Catechism in No. 1855 says, “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”

Now to the rest of your question. It’s good that you want to do better. It’s important that you seek forgiveness for your sins. But, again, be careful about language. To say that “everything is fine again” after we ask for forgiveness needs to be clarified.

Yes, our sins are forgiven when we make a good confession (see here). But a good confession demands contrition (sorrow of some kind for having sinned) and a resolution to not sin again. Ideally that resolution should be real and fervent. That means we come out of confession wanting to amend our ways. Without some kind of resolution, the confession might not even be valid. We couldn’t confess, for instance, having watched bad videos, when we have every intention of then going home and watching the same kinds of videos.

That we fall into sin again is another matter. We are human, we are weak. Our Lord knows this. The important thing is that we keep trying to fight bad habits and develop good habits. All that demands effort and prayer and sacrifice — a lifelong task. So to say “everything is fine again” after confession doesn’t do justice to how much we have to fight to overcome our faults and failings.

Then, too, receiving absolution for our sins and doing the penance is not enough. There is still a temporal punishment due for sins. Think of this analogy: Imagine your neighbor through negligence breaks your car windshield. He apologizes and you forgive him. You have “absolved” him, in a sense. But justice demands that he also pay for a new windshield — that’s what temporal punishment is about. It’s about restoring a certain order to things.

No. 1472 of the Catechism touches on this theme: “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”

What this means in practice is that we need to make up for the temporal punishment due to our sins. We can do this through a range of remedies: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, acts of charity, etc. These are the kinds of things that can and should keep us busy all our life. What we don’t make up for in this world, we would have to make up in purgatory (assuming we don’t die in mortal sin, in which case we are lost forever).

So, if someone sins with the idea that he can just confess it later and get off the hook, well, that’s a very faulty attitude. It treats of God’s mercy in so casual a way as to be presumptuous.

What all of us need to do, in the face of our sinfulness, is be humble, ask forgiveness, start over, and make a daily effort at growing in our relationship with God. This helps us to rise above that “loop” that you mention, and to really strive for holiness — and happiness too.

True happiness comes from a deeper and deeper friendship with God. Every sin wounds the friendship. Yes, God will forgive us, but how can our friendship really grow (and thus my happiness in this life really grow), if I am constantly offending my friend and then asking for forgiveness? The friendship will never get to advance in that way. To really grow in holiness and happiness, my friendship has to grow, and that means I have to stop offending my friend.

When you go into confession, resolve to come out a man recommitted to doing your Friend’s will at every moment. And remember Pope Francis’ words, “The Lord never tires of forgiving.… It is we who tire of asking for forgiveness.” Count on my prayers that you never tire of asking forgiveness and resolving to do better. God bless.

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