Forgiveness

Herbert McCabe OP
(1926 – 2001)

(Continuum, London, 2007, pp. 155–159)

It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve.

It is not, I suppose, really odd that other people should; I suppose it is the commonest way of thinking of God, for God tends to be just a great projection into the sky of our moral feelings, especially our guilt feelings. But I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Take the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this, the younger son goes to a distant country far from his father and squanders all his father’s gifts in debauchery and generally having a high old time. After a bit he sees himself for what he is, so as to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

What his sin has done is to alter his whole relationship with his father; instead of being a son he now should be treated as one who gets his wages, gets exactly what he deserves. But there are two things here; there is the fact that this is what his sin has done, and there is the fact that he recognises this. To make sure you see that this is the crucial point of the story, Luke has it repeated twice. The vital thing is that the son has recognised his sin for what it is: something that changes God into a paymaster, or a judge.

Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

It is very odd that so much casual Christian thinking should be a worship of Satan that we should think of the punitive satanic God as the only God available to the sinner. It is very odd that the view of God as seen from the Church should ever be simply the view of God as seen from hell. For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin.


It is the great characteristic of sinners that they do not know that they are sinners, that they refuse to accept and believe that they are sinners. On the contrary, they have found all the ways of justifying and excusing themselves. The whole conversation in hell consists of the damned telling each other how it is all a terrible mistake and they should not be there at all because they are righteous and virtuous. The desperate boredom of this must be the pain of hell, but the thing that constitutes hell is that God can’t be seen. All that can be seen is this vengeful punitive God who is Satan.

The younger son in the story has escaped hell because he has seen his sin for what it is. He has recognised what this does to his vision of God: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Luke 15:19). And, of course, as soon as he really accepts that he is a sinner, he ceases to be one; knowing that you have sinned is contrition or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it. The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating, welcoming his son with joy and feasting. This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.

His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simple love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God.

Contrition or forgiveness (remember that it is we who forgive ourselves) is almost the exact opposite of excusing ourselves. It is a matter of accusing ourselves – for now the sons of man (people, human beings) have power on earth to forgive sins, power to recognise sin for what it is and so abolish it. Contrition, or forgiveness, is self-knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are.

The younger son recognises a truth: that his sin had made him into a wage earner, one who gets his deserts. And in the simple recognition of that, his sin is no more. Contrast him with the elder son: “I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29). Even though he is law-abiding and not debauched like his brother, he has not seen God for what he is. He thinks of himself as a wage earner. He thinks that he should collect his pay packet from God and demand what he deserves.

Jesus presents us here with the frightening possibility of the virtuous and carefully law-abiding man who, because he is concerned with himself, with his own merits and virtues, and what he thinks he deserves, cannot see God any more than the profligate (who at least had a good time).

The younger son was in some ways in a happier condition, for it was fairly easy for him to see himself as depraved, ungrateful and selfish. His sins were fairly easily recognisable as sins. The older brother is in a more subtle danger, and a greater one. God and his love were hidden from the younger one by the almost childlike pleasures of the flesh. God is hidden from the older one by pride, the speciality of Satan.

But of course it isn’t really easy for either of them; in fact it is impossible for both of them. Once you have deluded yourself with sin, once you have shut yourself off from God (rather than letting yourself be destroyed by his love, destroyed and remade, crucified and raised from the dead), once you have hidden his love from you behind your protective barrier, your blindfold of self-flattery, there is nothing at all you can do about it.

It is by the power of God, by the love of God coming to him even while he was in sin, that the younger brother became able to see himself for what he is; and this is contrition, this is forgiveness.

Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you – that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what your forgiveness is. You are not forgiven because you confess your sin. You confess your sin, recognise yourself for what you are, because you are forgiven.

When you come to confession, to make a ritual proclamation of your sin, to symbolise that you know what you are, you are not coming in order to have your sins forgiven. You don’t come to confession in order to have your sins forgiven. You come to celebrate that your sins are forgiven. You come to put on the best robe and the ring on your finger and the sandals on your feet, and to get drunk out of your mind, because your blindfold and your blindness have gone, and you can see the love God has for you.

Being contrite, self-aware, about your sin is the same as believing in the love of God, smashing the punitive satanic God and having faith in the real God who is sheer unconditional love for you. You could say that it is your faith in God’s undeviating love for you that lets you risk looking at your sins for what they are. It’s OK, you can admit the truth about yourself. It doesn’t matter: God loves you anyway.

To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. Telling your sins to the Church in the sacrament of confession is just a form of the Creed; you are saying: “I am really like this and all the same God loves me, God doesn’t care about my sins, he cares about me.” God is just infinite, unconditional, unalterable, eternal love – and his love is for me and for all sinful people. That is the single statement that we make in the Creed.

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