Trust and Sin

In confessions penitents can say something like “I haven’t trusted God”, or “I failed to have enough faith.” I often find myself wondering where the sin lies in this, and often it is necessary to clarify exactly what they mean and the context of the situation in which they “failed”. There are clearly situations where individuals decide to trust themselves or something or someone else rather than God. This is clearly an assertion of self-will over and against God’s. That is sinful.

At the other extreme individuals may not know what the faithful course of action might be: this can be paralysing and dispiriting. Even at the time of the confession they may not know if they were faithful or not. Confusion is not a sin.

Penitents who are passing through a period of bereavement (and this can take many forms) may also accuse themselves of not trusting God. When individuals are in such a vulnerable and confused condition, a confession of “a lack of faith” may signal something entirely different. This is where confession becomes the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the means for healing grace.

The confession of “faithlessness” and the accompanying breakdown of simple spiritual disciplines can be a dangerous and wrong self-diagnosis of someone’s spiritual condition.

When a person experiences grief (and this often persists much longer than the bereaved realise) they are pared down to the spiritual quick. To refer to John 15 and Jesus’s description of the Father as the gardener, they are being pruned – even the fruitful aspects of their life are taken suddenly away. This is a time of profound spiritual poverty when a desperate, almost physical hunger for God is felt. Individuals describe themselves as “clinging on”, or that their life of faith is “a desperate act of will”. I am sure some readers will have an understanding and experience of this.

If this is the main cause of the penitents’ confession of “a lack of trust”, then they are mistaken. They may indeed be experiencing a profound weakness, on their part, in their relationship with God; but as in the process of pruning it can prefigure a time of growth and new life. Many individuals can be living out the First Beatitude without realising it: “Blessed are those who know their need of God: the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (cf Matt 5.3) At the same time as they experience this need they may also discover they have experienced more compassion, have become more forgiving, and indeed more aware of their own weakness and sinfulness. God is powerfully at work in their lives because they are living in profound need. This need is not the same as a “lack of faith.”

This is where Ghostly Counsel – which, as the Prayer Book describes it, is the “ministering of God’s word” – comes into its own. Without the
security of the confessional, such
profound and complex spiritual needs might never see the light of day. Once brought to the Light, who is Christ, the darkness may suddenly not seem darkness at all – but part of the work of grace that “God works for good in all things for those who love Him.”