Everyone likes when people tell them they might be going to hell, right? Saying that out loud doesn’t ever turn people off to your message, does it? Oh good.
When you do something bad, typically you feel badly for doing it. That’s called guilt. The old “Catholic guilt” joke is usually used as a dig at the Church, saying that She thinks too many things are wrong or that feeling bad about doing them is unnatural. Of course, this isn’t the case; watch a two-year-old after they get reprimanded. Children get guilt. They get it because it’s natural.
So guilt is a good thing. It tells us when we’ve done something wrong and makes us not want to do it again. That should have positive effects. Where it goes horribly wrong, however, is when the guilt paralyzes rather than motivates. When you get stuck on your sin, you’re left with a choice: admit you’re wrong, or embrace your sin. The world tells you that that guilt you feel is a lie and your sin should be embraced. Okay, sweet. We’ll come back to that. But if you admit you’re wrong, then you have to figure out what to do next. You either wallow in the shame, or you get up and get moving. I tend to be a wallower; I identify myself by my sin.
And really, admitting you’re wrong and then getting wrapped up in the shame of your actions is no better than embracing the sin completely. I mean, think about it: the part of society that tells you to embrace your sin is essentially saying it’s a part of who you are, an essential part of your self, and it should be celebrated as such. Are you a woman who has pre-marital sex? Great! You are now Independent Woman Who Has Empowered Herself. Here is your low-cut dress, Friday night martini, and handful of memes with vague quotes regarding strength and perseverance. Are you a man who has had gay sex? Oh good! Now you are A Brave Gay Man: here are your prerequisite interests, personality, and group of affirming female friends. Do you drink too much? No worries; you can be Young Guy Who Can Harm Himself And Others Because He’s Young And That’s What You Do When You’re Young. Here’s your favorite bar and drink of choice, and don’t worry, we won’t judge you after your first DUI. I’m sorry, but it’s such a crime to do that to these people. They are far more complex than that. They are far more human than those pre-determined identities. This type of identification and celebration of brokenness is the antithesis of love (see my last post for more thoughts on that); it’s allowing people to do things that are objectively, scientifically bad for them so that you don’t come off as judgmental or close-minded. As bad as this is, I am guilty of something just as bad. I identify with my sins, with the guilt and shame that come with them, and it often keeps me from living with joy. It keeps me from living in the Light.
What I should be doing is moving towards the Light. (Warning: Imperfect but hopefully effective extended metaphor coming up next…)
A friend once talked to me about this. He compared our sins and sinful disposition (or concupiscence, if you wanna get catechetical with it) with a shadow. It’s always with us. We can’t shake it. Not in this life, at least. But it’s not who we are. It’s there, and it’s real, and we need to be aware of that lest our shadow be a hindrance or bother to someone else (photographers and golfers should be nodding right now…damn shadows), but it’s not who we really are. We are more than that. We are heavier than that. We are thicker than that. We are more complex than that. And it is our real self that determines what the shadow gets to do, not the other way around.
So when we sin, or even when we realize that we have sinful or disordered desires, we have to make a choice. Are we going to stare at the shadow, embarrassed that it’s there and wondering if someone’s going to notice? Well, that’s what I usually do, but that’s silly for a couple reasons. First, everyone’s got a shadow. It might be a different size or shape, might be bigger or smaller or more or less noticeable than mine, but they still have one. So what’s there to be ashamed of? And second, the only way to make it go away is by living in darkness. That’s it. And that’s the scary part. So many people are so wrapped up in their shadow and in the memories of things they’ve done that they hide from the Light, run to the corners of the basements of their lives, close their eyes tight, and hope that the Light won’t find them there. Because it is only when the Light is present that we can see our shadows.
So what should I be doing? Face the light. Walk towards it. Because even if my shadow grows long at times, even if those around me want to laugh at how my shadow has grown wider or how the top of it is all scraggly, I won’t hear them. And even if I do, what could it possibly matter? If I’m walking with the warmth of the sun on my face, the beauty of the pinks and oranges and purples that the sun sprays across the sky in front of me, why would I care what is behind? It is this Beauty I was made for; it is to this Beauty I’ve always wanted to go.
I’m sure most of us have thought at some point or another, “If God is good and really loves me, how could He possibly damn me to Hell?” Perhaps you doubt even the existence of Hell. But of course, it does, and must, exist. Love is not love unless there’s a choice; we are given this life as a chance to choose God or not. So if we honestly have a choice, then there must be two options: God, or Not God (a.k.a. Hell). It’s not love if we are forced to end up in Heaven whether we like it or not; that’s like asking out a girl, and, if she says no, forcing her into the car and taking her out anyway. That’s assault, brother. Even if you take her out for a delicious steak on the most beautiful beach in the world, if she is forced to be there, it’s not love. And so, if God is truly a God of love, you must be able to choose the Darkness.
But why would anyone choose Hell? Well, let’s go back to the shadows. If you choose to live in darkness, whether because you are hiding your shadow or because you have embraced it as who you really are, how could you possibly accept the Light? Even the most beautiful day doesn’t seem so beautiful when you are coming out of a dark movie theatre: the light is painful. So if you live this shadowy life, if you ignore the light and continue to choose, again and again, to live and identify with your sin, the Light will not be welcome. At the end of your life, you will be faced with God Himself, the Light Which Darkness Has Not Overcome, and it will be Him unveiled. If your eyes are not accustomed to the light, how can you look upon His face. How can you choose Him in that vital moment? So perhaps God doesn’t damn us; perhaps He doesn’t need to. Perhaps our lives and choices really do have real consequences, consequences that actually impact where you spend your eternity. Perhaps it’s possible that we are choosing Hell right now.
Or perhaps you are living a life in the Light, a life unafraid of the shadow, a life walking towards the dancing Light on the horizon. Perhaps you are weathering the dark nights with the knowledge that the light will come again, and soon. Perhaps you remember that all things are passing, and God only is changeless. Perhaps you live your life authentically, recognizing that which is truly you and refusing to be reduced to the thin darkness that follows you.
Perhaps you will be ready to look upon the Light and rejoice in the rising of the Son.