Q: You’ve spoken about God’s love before, and how it is important to know that God will never stop loving us. But my issue is that I teach young people who seem to think that, since God loves them, it doesn’t matter how they live.
A: This is a real issue. And I don’t think that the problem is limited to young people. I have met plenty of adults in my time who seem to exhibit the same disposition. What we are talking about are the “twin sins” of despair and presumption. I call them “twin sins” because both the temptation to deny God’s love and the temptation to presume upon God’s love are two sides of the same coin. They have a common root…but they also have a common remedy.
The problem with both of these sins is not that one of them takes sin too seriously and the other one doesn’t take sin seriously enough. Although that would appear to make sense, it isn’t true. That might even seem to make sense to you. Imagine that you were counseling a person who was tempted to despair of any hope because of their sins. Imagine someone who felt so awful for their sins that they just couldn’t dream that God could ever love them and raise them out of their brokenness. In that scenario, you might be tempted to advise them to “lighten up” about sin. You might be tempted to assure them that there sins “aren’t that bad”. (Note: there is such a thing as scrupulosity. But we need to know what that is. Being scrupulous isn’t being sensitive to sin — that’s merely being holy — scrupulosity is seeing sin where there is no sin.)
You might be tempted to dismiss their awareness of sin, but this is likely not what is needed. For this person, you might have the inclination to invite them to take sin less seriously.
On the other hand, imagine one of the young people you mentioned. This kind of person claims to know something about God’s love. They might say, “I don’t have to be concerned with following God; He loves me no matter what”. If you were counseling a person in this state, you might be tempted to point out all of the ways that sin wounds the soul (and even often wounds the body!). You might point out all of the ways that sin destroys relationships and leads to death. It might be a very compelling thing to try and describe how truly ugly sin is. And that wouldn’t be “wrong”. All of those things are true. It might even be that your words could move this person’s heart and mind to take sin more seriously.
The lasting solution is to take the Cross more seriously.
But I think that, in both cases, we are called neither to merely invite people to take sin less seriously or to take sin more seriously. The lasting solution is to take the Cross more seriously.
A person tempted to despair does not need to take sin less seriously, but to take the Cross more seriously. If a person took the Cross of Jesus seriously, they would know that there is no sin that Jesus didn’t die for. If a person took the Cross seriously, they would know that they were not “beyond saving”. If a person really and truly took the Cross seriously, they would never question whether or not God loved them. Despair would be impossible.
Further, if a person tempted toward presumption took the Cross of Jesus seriously, they could not possibly dismiss the gravity of their sins. The Cross is the price God paid for their sins. If a person took the Cross of Christ seriously, they would have to recognize that it is their sin that moved the God of love to embrace suffering and death in order to forgive them.
Despair is the sin of Judas. It is ultimately rooted in pride. It says, “God’s love poured out on the Cross is enough to save other people, but it cannot save me.” The person in despair sees the world with themselves at the center. If they would only be willing to realize that they are not the center of reality, and that the saving Cross of Jesus stands at the center of reality, they would realize that they are both worse than they thought and that they are more loved than they could have imagined.
Presumption is the sin of our modern age. It is also rooted in pride. It says, “I do not need God’s (or anyone’s) help”. Or it says, “God understands all things…he will always forgive…even without my repentance”. If this person would only acknowledge that the consequence of each of their sins was the death of God Incarnate, they might not be so cavalier about the need to turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Ultimately, the answer to both despair and presumption is to take God seriously. To accept His love. And to accept His call to live a new life relying on His grace.