In the first reading today at daily Mass, Paul reminds us of that pesky thing we call concupiscence. While baptism both forgives original sin and personal sins and removes the eternal consequences for those sins, we are left with certain temporal consequences of sin. These include suffering and death, along with “frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin” (CCC 1264).
This is why Paul says to the Romans, “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7).
This inclination to sin is traditionally called “concupiscence.” The Catechism reminds us that we must wrestle with it in life, but it cannot harm us unless we give into it. The temptations are not sins – the sin comes once we consent to those inclinations.
Paul laments, “For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?”
This is the beauty of the sacrament of confession. We all have to wrestle with that inclination to sin, and let’s be honest with ourselves – we fail in that battle every single day. My emotions are often not ruled by my intellect, and as much as I strive to grow in virtue, it is too often that bad habits and vice win the day.
Whenever we’re tempted to give into despair – Miserable one that I am! – we should run to the sacrament of confession. In this beautiful, too often under-utilized sacrament, not only are our sins forgiven, but we are given “an increase of spiritual strength” to continue to fight the daily battle against concupiscence (CCC 1496).
We need the sacrament when we’re burdened with guilt. I remember one particular confession where I was acutely feeling the weight of my sins. I wasn’t despairing of forgiveness, but I was definitely feeling that my sins were great and I was very, very weak. I was dreading the sacrament and dreading saying my sins out loud in the presence of another person. The sacrament seemed scary and daunting. But I knew I had to go and face it.
The penance I received seemed light compared to what I thought I deserved – and frankly, light compared to what I had already suffered in the anticipation of the ordeal! Leaving the confessional, I wanted to say out loud, “That’s it?” It seemed too good to be true. The peace that greeted me as I knelt down to do my penance reminded me of the bountiful mercy of God. The confessional is not a torture chamber, as Pope Francis often quips. Christ is waiting to give us the peace, mercy, and strength we need to continue on.
We also need the sacrament when we are desensitized to sin. How often do we easily slip into venial sins, telling ourselves that they’re not that big of a deal? As those venial sins build up, we begin to become desensitized to temptation, near occasions of sin, and sin itself. Eventually, it becomes much easier to fall into grave sin. We need the sacrament of confession to remind us that each and every sin is a big deal. Jesus didn’t just die for the mortal sins. It isn’t just the mortal sins that keep us from friendship with him. Our venial sins are rejections of God, too. We need to examine our consciences frequently and run to the sacrament of his mercy and grace.
Whether we find ourselves wracked with guilt or numb to our faults, the sacrament of confession is the answer for our spiritual growth. Every time I go, I’m reminded of what Brian Regan, a comedian, said about going to the eye doctor. He joked about how he had put off getting new glasses for six years. After he put on his new glasses, he wondered why he had waited so long. “Man, I could have been seeing things!”
It’s the same way with confession. We may put it off because it’s not convenient, because we don’t feel we need it, or because we are scared. But as we put it off, we begin to grow accustomed to the feeling of discontentment or to the sludge of sin that builds up and makes it harder to resist concupiscence, just as we become accustomed to a bad prescription. When we put off going, we are putting off God’s peace and mercy. When you take the time to make a good examination of conscience and make a good confession of your sins, you walk out of the confessional and wonder why you put it off for so long. You could have been feeling the peace and love of the Father. You could have been seeing things.