I grew up, as you may have gathered, in Catholic school. From 2nd to 8th grade, the entire student body would gather in the church every couple months for the sacrament of Confession. Before meeting with a priest, our teacher would lead us in an examination of conscience based on the 10 commandments, which went something like:
“‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not put strange gods before me.’ Have you treated people or things as more important than Jesus?”
“‘Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.’ Have you gone to mass on Sundays and other holy days?”
And so on.
We would sit in the church and listen, thinking about (maybe) our sins, and silently practice what we would tell the priest.
One time, in about 7th grade, I had a laundry list of things to confess. (All 7th graders do, I believe. I blame the hormones.) The priest kept trying to absolve me, and I kept saying, “No, there’s more!”
That was my concept of sin, a list of offenses to God and people around me.
I don’t want to discuss the merits or criticisms of Catholic Reconciliation here right now. If you’re interested, I’d love to talk about it privately.
I do want to point out the benefits and dangers of an examination of conscience and how to use it.
I’ve found that when I am at my most introspective is when I feel closest to Christ. Being aware of my faults and my strengths not only grants me humility, but it gives me something to bring to Jesus. I don’t know if you’re like this, but sometimes I don’t know what to pray for. I’m like, “What’s up, Jesus? Today was pretty uneventful… So just checking in… Cool.” If I reflect a bit on my own before I enter into prayer, I find the conversation much more productive.
Continuing from last week’s discussion about communication with God, a huge part of a relationship with Jesus (or anybody) requires communication with yourself first. For example, how can you ask Jesus for help with your pride if you do not stop to consider how often you compare yourself to other people and feel superior?
So, in that regard, I believe some routine examination of conscience is good and healthy, however uncomfortable it may be. The danger, though, is obsessing over your faults to a point of self-deprecation. Always acknowledge what you’re doing well and how you’ve made progress in addition to what you need God’s help with.
Now, what do we do with the answers we find? Ah, that is the question, friends.
If you’re at all familiar with the sacrament of confession, you know that at the end, the priest gives you a penance, something to do to make up for the sin, basically. It’s usually like, “Say a decade of the rosary for children in Africa.” That’s a good place to start but not enough.
So yes, the first response is prayer. Restore your relationship with the Father. Ask God for mercy for the ways in which you’ve failed Him and praise Him for the ways in which you’ve served.
Secondly, you must take action. If you stop at prayer, you’ll be back asking for forgiveness tomorrow. The action must not be passive. That seems obvious, but I’ll explain. I’ve heard some guys tell me that they are aware of their lust, so they avoid walking past Victoria’s Secret in the mall. Okay, good intentions, but it isn’t going to solve anything. Instead, every time you pass a billboard with a scantily-clad woman on it, stop and thank God for her beauty and pray for her. This way you will start to see her as a real person, a sister in Christ, not an object to be desired.
Girls, you look in the mirror and see all the things you hate about yourself. The devil loves to abuse us this way. “You’re not pretty enough. Your hips are too wide. Your breasts are too small. Your eyelashes are too short,” he tells us. Do not listen, and do not back away from the mirror. Thank God for creating you. He does not make mistakes. Turn the sin around. Your breasts are small? They will one day feed your children. Your legs are too thick? They allow you to dance! It sounds silly, but if you are active about telling the devil to go to hell where he belongs, he will leave you alone.
As we read Acts, do not forget that Paul, the foundation of the Church, was the definition of a sinner. He persecuted the early Christians and approved of their murders! How beautiful for God to build His kingdom on the broken heart of Paul! Can He not use ours just as beautifully?
The people in Damascus recognized Saul/Paul as their persecutor.
“Is not this the man who caused such devastation in Jerusalem for those who called on this Name?” they declared (Acts 9:21).
Of course, they were right. But was that really the same man standing before them, preaching in their own synagogues the Name of Jesus? God even gave Saul a new name to recognize the transformation!
How often do you look at yourself as the persecutor or the destroyer you used to be and let it discourage you from praising His Name? I can’t imagine the shame Paul must have felt when the apostles first resisted accepting him in their numbers. But he persisted, choosing the strength of God’s mercy over the weakness of human judgement. Allow yourself the same grace, and God will bless you kindly for it.