Martin Luther is credited with the phrase “pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius” which translates as “sin strongly, but believe more strongly“. Rightly understood, there is great spiritual wisdom in this sentence. It does not invite us to sin cheerfully, as a superficial reading might interpret it. On the contrary, it is a recipe full of light.
It invites us to always be where God can help us after sinning, namely in a state where we honestly admit our sin. A British mystic named Ruth Burrows, in one of her books, sheds light on what Luther meant. She tells the story of two nuns with whom she once lived. Both of them, as contemplative nuns, were really mediocre: having left the world to seek God in prayer, they did not really pray much in the monastery either. However, their personal attitudes, as Burrows tells us, were very different.
The former, after some time, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The foreboding of impending death inspired her to make a special effort to get better. But, as it is very difficult to overcome old habits, she died before she had put her prayer life in order. Nevertheless, Burrows says, she died a happy death: the death of a sinner asking God’s forgiveness for her life of sin.
The other nun also died, but her death was not so happy. As Burrows explains it, until the last moment she tried to pretend that she was not what she really was: a weak and vulnerable human being.
After telling us this story, Burrows makes the following comment about honesty and contrition in our lives: Only a saint, he says, can afford to die the death of a saint. The rest of us must leave this world, in our own eyes and in the eyes of those who accompany us, as what we really are: sinners begging God for mercy. Moreover, Burrows comments, what is spiritually most disturbing is not our weakness and sin, but our lack of deep repentance. In Luther’s terms, the problem is not that we sin, but that we do not sin with that boldness that leads us to believe in God’s mercy.
What Luther and Burrows point to is something very much underlined in the Gospels: that what is problematic in our relationship with God is not our weakness but justification, denial, lying and hardening of the heart in the face of truth. In the teachings of Jesus there is only one sin that God can do nothing about: the sin against the Holy Spirit, which is basically lying to oneself and not accepting one’s own truth.
This is assumed, without any misgivings, by many therapies. Programmes such as those used by Alcoholics Anonymous, Proyecto Hombre, Hogares Claret and others like them confirm that in the healing process there is always a key and very critical step: it is when the person must confess, facing another human being, and accept the truth about his or her weaknesses, without lying. The programme is quite clear: without this kind of honesty he cannot be helped. Luther did not defend ambiguity, but the validity of the human act of faith.
Juan Carlos cmf
(PHOTO: Nick Fewings)