Friday, February 4, 2011

The Heaven and Hell Question

Back in my protestant days, I remember a pastor talk about a question whose answer would be a good predictor of whether that person is going to heaven or hell. Not a question about faith or any subjective, internal matter - a question about externals. He didn't believe in works-righteousness but saw works as purely evidence of saving grace. Still one should be able to examine evidence.

So what question would best show the existence of saving grace? His suggestion was a question about financial giving. It was partly based on his pastoral experience. When you look at the giving you see who are the true believers and who are just playing games. It was partly based on theory. Giving is something done in private and it is something easy to cut corners with.Only someone with true faith would give generously in a materialistic culture.

As a Catholic I still liked that question but more recently I was thinking there may be a better one. That question? How often do you go to confession? Again it is a private matter. Nobody goes to show off. But it more directly shows if you are serious about fighting sin in your life. Do you examine your conscience? Do you find yourself guilty of sin. Are you concerned enough about that to actually go to the sacrament? If that is happening then you are on the road to heaven. If it is not then you should be very concerned.

So what about protestants? This new question seems to leave them out. Not really. They do examine their conscience. They do find themselves guilty of sin. What they do at that moment is often a lot like confession. They talk to their pastor or a friend about the sin. They might answer an altar call at their next service. They might book a retreat. They might spend time prayerfully reading a book on the subject. They know they need to do something. They just don't know what. They are often looking for closure. There is nobody with the authority to give them absolution yet they intuitively know this process of dealing with this sin must end at an appropriate time. So often you will hear them talk about a feeling they have during worship that God is telling them to move on.

The Catholic sacrament is a beautiful way of doing that whole process. You must say the actual sin. As a protestant it is tempting to just say. "Pray for me because I am struggling with something." Catholics have no chance of avoiding actually telling another person what the sin is. That is a good thing. Like Jesus with the blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10. He asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” He makes Bartimaeus specifically ask for sight. Why? Isn't it obvious he wants to see? Because something happens when we take an unspoken desire and we say it out loud to another person. The matter becomes more clear. We swallow our pride. We declare our faith in Jesus' ability to help us. He is God and we are begging for His forgiveness.

Then there is the matter of penance. I wish priests would take this more seriously. It has a lot of potential do a lot of spiritual good but it isn't realized because priests give such wimpy penances. When I go to confession I try and mention that I say the rosary often or that I do adoration regularly. Not to brag about how holy I am but to try and tip them off that they can give me a harder penance and it would be OK -even beneficial. It does not work. They give me a penance like 3 Hail Mary's or one Our Father. I believe in the idea of penance but I think it has to require a little more effort than that to be effective.

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