The shepherd's hook
November 15, 2021 • 8 min
Guilt can be overwhelming. Sometimes we are overwhelmed with our failures, our sins, and our past mistakes. But the good news is, that’s precisely what Jesus came to save us from!
Guilt means two things: it can either mean an emotion of feeling guilty and sad about having done something wrong, or it can mean actually being guilty, in the sense of justice and law.
They’re related, but sometimes that relationship is broken. Sometimes we feel far more guilty than we actually are. Or sometimes far less. This is often the work of the devil, trying either to get us to be presumptuous, or despairing — the two wrong alternatives to hope.
Presumption means we expect God will forgive us even though we’re not really sorry and would probably do it again if we could. It’s hoping without good reason.
But God wants us to be sorry precisely because sin is bad for us, and God wants good for us! He wants to save us from drinking the poisoned cup of sin!
Despair means we don’t think God can or will forgive us, because our sins are too big or too bad or too many. It’s not hoping even though we should.
But then why did Jesus come into the world, if not to forgive us from our sins? Can any sin be bigger than the infinite God? Can any guilt from sin by stronger than the infinite love and mercy of God?
It’s impossible for any sin to be too big or too horrible or too often for God to forgive it. If he told us to forgive 7 × 70 times—that means infinite times—how can He Himself do any less? Surely he will forgive even more than he commanded us to forgive, since he’s infinitely greater than any of us!
But perhaps we don’t really believe he will forgive us even in this life. Maybe we’re stuck with the idea that God will only forgive us in the next life, but punish us harshly in this life, and even destroy us in this life because of our past sins.
It’s true that St. Dismas, the Good Thief, was forgiven by Jesus while on his own cross. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who has sinned is destined to die for those sins immediately, like he did! St. Dismas only shows that there’s hope even for the condemned criminals of this life, and even for those about to die.
Remember what St. Paul says in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians?
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Look! He even says He won’t count our sins against us!
He’s referring here to the Sacraments of Baptism and Confession, which reconcile us to God through the ministry of the Church.
Theologians teach (and they’re not wrong) that these Sacraments only take away eternal punishment in Hell, but that some temporal punishment in this life might still remain. This is explained pretty thoroughly to kids and adults learning their Catholic religion.
But I think it’s too often taken without enough trust in God. We Catholics often start to look at the way God works as a black-and-white law; we begin to think of God’s love and mercy as a law as fixed and finite and limited as physics or thermodynamics.
We start to say “well, God forgives me from Hell, but I’m still going to have to endure the full punishment here on earth. No more happy times for me, I guess.” We start to lose courage and hope for a good life.
At that point, God’s forgiveness starts to seem a bit bleak and, well, not that alluring.
No! God’s love and mercy is infinite!
“I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” — The Holy Spirit, about us
St. Augustine once said that he knows that he received punishment for his sins, but that he also knows it was far less than he deserved.
Think about that! This great Saint, before he was a saint, lived in sin for years if not decades, and even described having committed purely malicious sins too. He even stole and broke the law.
Yet, he was not sent to jail for his sins. He was not stoned to death. He was not imprisoned falsely for years. He was not exiled. He was not starved, or sent to the Colosseum, or left to die at sea.
In fact, he became a Bishop. He led a relatively peaceful life. He preached, he said Mass, he taught his flock, he wrote, he read, he attended and spoke at Catholic councils. He had legal freedom, he had good health, he had friends.
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
There’s no sin that God can’t forgive even in this life, not just the next. What’s the purpose of punishment anyway? God is a merciful and loving Father. And what do fathers punish for? Not for fun, and not mercilessly out of pure justice either—otherwise their children would not survive childhood as healthy young adults.
Fathers punish their children to correct their path when they’re going the wrong way. It’s much like using a shepherd’s hook to guide a sheep back onto the trodden path when it starts to stray into the dark forest full of wolves and robbers.
But if the sheep is already going the right way, what further need is there to punish it? If it’s already sorry, and has already made its way back onto the trodden path, and there’s nothing left to undo, why should it get the hook?
In the same way, if we are truly, sincerely sorry for having offended God by our sins, and if we actually understand why that sin was bad for us, and turning us off the good path and onto one that’s very harmful for us, then what’s left for God to correct? There’s no more need of punishment at that point.
So there is hope that God will forgive us even in this life if we’re truly sorry, so that we can look forward to a peaceful, quiet, happy life in this life, with good health, relative prosperity, and surrounded by loved ones.
But the safest way to get to this point is to learn the lessons God is trying to teach us! Because if we get ourselves back onto the right path, then God has a lot less work to do with us, and a lot less need of punishments.