Godtalk: A Change of Life


Rebrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

Angels rejoice over one repentant sinner.'  We can hear certain words or phrases so often they can lose their effect.  Earlier generations may have been happy with that kind of expression - like 'Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me a miserable sinner.'  But today people even question the reality of sin;  they wonder if the psychologists and sociologists haven't put sin out of business.  

It may be that a scientific age has to go through a phase of rejecting anything that cannot be quantified or measured - to find eventually that there are other values of supreme importance that lie beyond the reach of science: and learn that science and technology are to serve those values, they cannot replace them - values such as love, joy, peace, kindness and so on, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Gal 5.22   

If we search for new words we may find the idea of sin more real for ourselves.  For example, if we were to take that prayer 'have mercy on me a miserable sinner' and say instead 'Lord, be patient  with me, I know I'm a sham, but I want to be real',  then we would be saying the same thing but in words that make the reality of sin only too painfully clear.  Because when I really look into myself I know I'm a sham.  I profess to be a Christian, loving God and my neighbour, yet still find myself acting selfishly;  and not doing the good I might have done if I wasn't so self-centred. 

Sin hasn't disappeared just because people think of it as a relic of mediaeval times.  It will always be a fact to be reckoned with.  Sin means thinking only of oneself, putting myself first regardless of the hurt this might do to someone else, regardless of the hurt it will do to my inner self which, deep down, wants to do good, longs to be in harmony with others. 

Repentance means a desire to move in this direction.  We were born self-centred.  That's appropriate for a baby, but we do have to grow up, to grow out of this selfishness.  I'm not the centre of the world, God is.  I'm not perfect, he is and I don't want God nearly as much as he wants me.            

Sin brings darkness to the world; but darkness is dispelled by light.  A world darkened by selfishness is brightened by the light of Christ, the perfect example of what it means to be truly human.  In his light we see light.  Once we have admitted our weakness and asked for God's help, we can begin to grow into the kind of person we were always meant to be, the person we want to be deep down.  

We learn to do this through the ordinary events of everyday life, following the Church's teaching, allowing Christ to walk with us, guided by the Holy Spirit through values like patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control.  Jesus speaks of losing our life to find it;  another way of saying 'let go of your self-centredness, let your false self die away - in order to find your real self  at a deeper, richer, more realistic level.'   

It won't happen quickly.  Conversion is not so much an event as an attitude; not so much a harbour as a voyage.  It's a lifetime journey.  The first step is to realise that I have a false self, which makes me a sham, which makes me ashamed of myself at times. 

I can talk to God about myself.  I can ask him to look at my selfishness;  his glance is healing.  Then slowly, gradually, I begin to appreciate more why there is rejoicing among the angels over one repentant sinner - especially when that person is myself. 

Peter Knott SJ