“How (Christians) fail every day is noted by God,” said the radio preacher, “and may result in personal shame at the (Bema) judgment seat of Christ.”
Her guest concurred, but he was quick to add this “assurance”: it has nothing to do with our salvation. The personal shame each of us will experience, he noted, is just “one of those things that sparks us on to live better lives…”
Sparks us on to live better lives?
Well, ah, yes, of course, a sense of personal shame over wrong-doing does shape our choices…we hope, ah…everyone, not just believers, experiences shame over bad behavior and then makes the appropriate apologies/recompense for harm done….but…ah…
A mix of emotions tightens my chest. Nausea rises.
I am back in the second grade classroom, St. Joseph’s Elementary…
“FORGIVE ME, FATHER, FOR I HAVE SINNED…”
The smell of chalk dust permeates the air. Sister Gloria is at the black board scratching out the list of sins we might confess to Father at our First Confession, coming up soon.
The thirty-odd second-graders attending to her instructions print the list on their tablets. Some of my classmates appear bored, others, afraid. Many, including me, are anxious. There is a lot of information to write down, a lot to remember.
There are many different kinds of sins, and a certain way you are to report them to Father in the confessional.
First and foremost, you must make sure that you have specified the exact number of each sin so that you don’t make a “bad confession”. If that happens, Sister says, it cancels your forgiveness. In addition, you will have committed yet another sin and all of the original Purgatory time will increase. She does not, nor does anyone, ever, indicate how much Purgatory time a given sin will “earn,” but we know that Purgatory means we burn alive for days, weeks, months, years, or centuries.
We do not want to burn alive.
In order to make sure we do not make a bad confession, Sister explains the advantage of doing a nightly “examination of conscience” in order to keep track. Before we go to sleep, we should try to remember each sin we committed that day and how many times we committed it. Many people wait until just before they go to confession to do this, she explained, but it works better on a daily basis.
We write down each of the sins for reference. For example, “I disobeyed my mother and father (insert number of times, here); “I told a lie (#) times;” “I said an unkind word to ____ (#) times; “I was mean to____ (#) times;” or “I cheated in school, (#) times” and so on.
Later on there would be more kinds of sins to confess, such as, “I made out with my boyfriend/girlfriend (insert amount of seconds as well as times, here, as there was a point at which “making out” instantly changed from being a venial [Purgatory-worthy] sin to being a mortal sin [Hell-worthy]. In the ninth grade, Fr. S., the high school principal, would clarify the amount of time and other specifics in his ‘talk’ with the freshman classes).”
Sister Gloria went down the list of the Seven Deadly Sins with us (at least most of them) so that we wouldn’t negate our very first opportunity to come clean before the priest and get his/God’s forgiveness for our sins and thus secure, hopefully, our place in heaven one day.
Of course, we could cancel this hope the next time we committed a sin (if it was one of the mortal sin variety), or at least accrue some time on the burn pile of Purgatory (if it was venial). But Father would be present every Saturday afternoon to “hear” our confession, so at least once a week for a few minutes, anyway, we had the hope of salvation without fire.
Next, we had to memorize the exact words we were to use when entering the dark, tiny confessional booth.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” (Ever after, I am to say, “It has been—insert amount of time, here—since my last confession.)” And then on to the list, and a prayer at the end and then to our “penance,” usually a few more prayers or perhaps we were to “say the Rosary”.
I wasn’t always the best little kid and I knew I had certainly committed my share of sins, but to tell them to a stranger? What if I forgot some? We’d been inside the confessional; it was dark. If I had to bring a list, I couldn’t read it. What if he could see who I was through that little window that separated sinner from priest? How embarrassing! And then, if I spent too long in the confessional, what would my classmates and friends and family think?
As I pondered all of this, and especially my list of sins, anxiety increased, shame intensified. And I hadn’t even been to confession yet…
Back to the radio program.
Shame as sparking us on to good behavior?
Why, yes. Of course. Hopefully.
But there’s a fine line, I believe, between appropriate shame that deters evil and inspires one to change ways, and the kind used to instill fear, tension, anxiety, dread, and humiliation. The kind that is used as a control mechanism, keeping some people at the “mercy” of other people.
And, sadly, for many ex-Catholics and other people reared in a shame-as-motivation-to-behave religious system, this brand of shame often leads to the desire to leave “religion” entirely. The shame, though it may be deserved, is only half the story of our redemption, but a potent half, I believe, for those who know how to use it for their own devices.
After all, who wants to be the “star” of a peeping-sin show in front of the entire universe? To have the dirty laundry of one’s transgressions aired for, literally, all to see? Worse, at least for Catholics, for whom shame is inextricably tied with sin and penance, who wants the absolute certainty of burning alive that results from all that unless there is some way to avoid it? [See footnote 1 re: “indulgences”]. However, even the stay of execution from Purgatory and/or Hell is but a short stay of execution for a Catholic.
Looking back, I am now glad that I had not learned that Jesus is my friend in that system. I knew Him only as the one who hung on the cross for my sins. Had I thought of Him as a friend, that little introduction into the full on meaning of “confession” and “penance” and shame and Purgatory in the Catholic Church would have been a shocking awakening. I would have felt grossly betrayed.
What friend makes you burn alive? What friend shames you in front of God and everybody?
(Sadly, as a result of shame-focused religious systems such as Roman Catholicism, many abandon God and anything to do with Him before they ever hear the Good News. And a sort of “spiritual, post traumatic stress disorder” sets in, obscuring [especially for the young] any of the true Gospel that might have been imparted in the mix of teachings on sin and punishment and Purgatory, for Catholics, and Hell.)
The shame-based religion of Roman Catholicism motivated me right out the door of what I thought was Christianity…
It was only the unmerited grace of God that years later, saved me—and healed me of that experience. Still heals me.
THE GOOD NEWS
After I became a Christian it took me several years to shed many of the false and extra-biblical teachings of Roman Catholicism. And many years to learn the truth, perhaps most importantly, that Jesus is, indeed, my friend. Perhaps the words of this old hymn say it best:
all our sins and griefs to bear!
O what peace we often forfeit,
o what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.
(Text: Joseph M. Scriven; music: Charles C. Converse)
And these truths continue to heal me:
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6, NIV).
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear (cowardice, timidity-Strong’s); but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).
WARNING: INSIDE THE CATHOLIC MIND
No one really knows yet the exact nature of what will go on at the so-called Bema seat, although Scripture notes both reward and judgment and, truth be told, sometimes in spite of our best efforts we simply are a shameful, despicable, worthless bunch, aren’t we? We deserve to be ashamed of ourselves! In addition, even if we appear to be doing the right thing (pastoring, ministering, helping the poor, etc.) our motives could stink.
But it’s even worse than that, if you really think about it. There are probably a lot more than just seven, Deadly Sins. Look around! Look inside!
Why, given any REAL thought on the subject, we might as well, like some Roman Catholics, even engage in “corporal punishment,” i.e., “mortification of the flesh”  as a way to subdue our horrific sin nature because nobody can ever really know how much shame and punishment will, if such efforts can, purge our evil ways and appease God…
I LEFT THAT BELIEF SYSTEM YEARS AGO!
BACK TO THE CROSS
Jesus, Himself, though knowing my nature, the long list of my faults and failures, my inability to behave the way I should/could/would (will, no doubt, again), still chose to die for me, to present Himself as the one and only perfect Lamb of God Who became the reparation for my sins.
Once and for all time as prophesied, as realized (see Bible, Old Testament; Bible, New Testament).
And not only mine, but whosoever else chooses to accept this gift, so that, relieved of the burden of even thinking we can somehow earn our own salvation, we can now move on from cross to resurrection to new life in Christ and to the desperately needed work on this dark plain: encouraging, teaching, exhorting, and comforting each other and any and all who will listen to the Good News as the time grows short.
THE BEST NEWS
I am no longer motivated by shame, though I deserve it. It failed me anyway. (Is it any wonder?) It is the love of God, now, that “sparks me on to live a better life,” keeps me motivated to learn and grow as a Christian, and, most importantly, inspires me to stay close to Jesus.
Sometimes, still, though, the old Catholic Shame Specter comes into the periphery of my vision trying to draw me right back into the continual introspection, the constant “looking in” at my failures, the number and nature of them, the shame. But the specter no longer has any power.
Because of Jesus, a much greater power, I can finally move beyond sin and shame and penance and lists of venial, mortal, commission, omission, thought/word/deed sins and constant attention to them, and get on with maturing as a Christian.
And, most importantly, I can rejoice!
Shame at the Bema seat? I deserve every shred, but I know I’ll have a Friend there, too, a Friend of whom it has been said: “Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate (me) from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39, KJV).
A Friend Who said, as He was dying on the cross, “It is finished.”
A Friend, indeed.
On ways to earn a “plenary indulgence” in the Roman Catholic Church: http://www.ourladyswarriors.org/indulge/plenary.htm
Definition of Roman Catholic indulgences, both “partial,” and “plenary”: http://www.fisheaters.com/indulgences.html
Another definition: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm
 A scholarly treatise on the philosophy of “corporal punishment” and its acceptance within Roman Catholicism: http://cssronline.org/CSSR/Archival/2005/Geisler_149-172.pdf
And Opus Dei priest defends “self punishment”: http://www.rickross.com/reference/opus/opus56.html
On the Roman Catholic belief about its power to forgive sins through confession: http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/sacrament.php?id=4
Images from the public domain