This Sunday, many of us will hear Jesus' words to the woman caught in adultery: "Is there no one left to condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you." But a lot of us will gloss over how the conversation ends: "Go, and sin no more."
Sometimes, in moments of clarity, I realize just how good God has been to me and in ways I could never earn or deserve. He has given me so much: everything I've needed even when it didn't seem possible, and so much of what I've wanted, at times even extravagantly. He has seen me through so many difficulties and challenges, including those I've caused or created. He has protected me, guided me, sustained me, and remained with me. That's what love does. And because God is love, I'm pretty sure he has done these things for you, too.
Of course, the flipside realization comes along with that: I haven't been nearly so good to him. I've shortchanged time with God in prayer, but still managed to throw him long lists of what I want and how (and when!) I want it. I've bemoaned almost every season of struggle or loss and resented the times of testing he has allowed. I've even held him responsible for the consequences of my choices and accused him of abandoning me when I was the one who went my own way on my own power. That's what selfishness does. And because I am fallen and less than faithful, I have given both God and other people far less than what they deserve. Maybe you have too.
There are 100,000 excuses we make for ourselves. (I'm a pretty creative person, so my list is pretty long.) Suffice it to say that when I look back, some of the things I was most proud of at the time make me cringe. The drive to excel? Probably more about ego than excellence. The productivity? Definitely more about earning love than giving it. Self-sufficiency? Certainly self-protection and a way of exercising control. That's not to say that nothing good came of these. But any good was God's grace despite my efforts, not because of them. Again, that's what love does.
This Sunday, many of us will hear Jesus' words to the woman caught in adultery: "Is there no one left to condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you." But a lot of us will gloss over how the conversation ends: "Go, and sin no more." That's less a prediction than it is a prescription. In that moment, Jesus isn't giving the woman an impossible command. He's telling her where to go from here, how to live in union with God. And he's telling us how, as well.
We hear a lot these days about how wonderfully light and relieved we will feel when we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have to admit that I have experienced that very rarely. When I leave the confessional, I am assured of God's mercy and forgiveness. But I am also even more deeply aware of how much I rely on God's mercy -- of how much I need it, even though I don't deserve it. For me, the sacrament makes my sorrow for sin more tangible. It makes my firm resolution to amend my life just a little firmer.
I think that the secret to sinning no more is to make penance a lifestyle. That doesn't mean constantly beating ourselves up. But it might mean putting our lists of self-serving excuses and explanations away and asking God to help us see the truth of what motivates and drives us more clearly. It might mean seeking out the Sacrament of Penance more often. It does mean building some penitential practices into our lives for more than just the 40 days of Lent. So, let's stop counting the days until we can give ourselves a break and drop the penitential practices again. Let's listen to Jesus tell us to "Go and sin no more," and embrace the penitential life that can open us to the grace to do just that.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.