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Sin in the Providence of God

Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
Conference Retreat

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

No one, if they have a spark of faith can fail to be moved by the logical approach which Fr. Hardon gives in this meditation. Just one of the many jewels to be found throughout this talk is the fact that heaven is beyond our grasp without grace. The necessity of prayer to obtain that grace, and the fact that prayer helps to control our sinful inclinations and recognize temptation and seduction by the devil. If heaven is our goal, a question to which only a fool would say no this, and the next ten meditations should be an absolute must. Why? The Spiritual Exercises will lead one to regular, frequent and fervent raising the mind and bending the will in devout prayer. So there you have it, the answer to our fondest hope. Now, Fr. John A. Hardon.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Mary, Queen of the Apostles, pray for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t believe we could be holding this conference on a better day than today, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Surely a great sinner, who in the providence of God became a great apostle. I am speaking from the mother house of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Cresson, Pennsylvania. They are a community from Krakow in Poland. In our last conference we reflected on the Principle and Foundation. Remember that is the basis of the Spiritual Exercises. In our present meditation, we shall reflect on sin in the providence of God. The logic is most appropriate. Remember in our last conference we said, nothing in the world ever happens by chance, everything, everything is part of the mysterious providence of God. But we are now faced with what is surely the deepest mystery on earth, of our Catholic faith, namely sin. Does sin also have a purpose in the providence of God? Our answer is it does. The providence of God is a deep mystery, which means, it is a revealed truth of our faith that we believe indeed but cannot fully understand. We believe on God’s word, that nothing in this world ever just happens. That with God there is no such thing as accident or chance. We believe that God never makes a mistake, that He never does anything wrong, that only His works are righteous and all His ways are wise. Then we look at the world around us, the world of injustice and hate, of broken families and broken homes, of the wanton murder of the unborn, by their own natural mothers, of pornography and persecution and infidelity in the priesthood and religious life. So understandably we wonder, does Divine Providence somehow include all this wrongdoing and crime? Or in the title of our conference, does the Providence of God mysteriously draw good even from sin? The answer is, it does.

Our plan here is to meditate with you on four aspects or kinds of sin, to see how each is intended by God to serve a providential purpose in our lives. We shall look at Divine Providence and original sin. Divine Providence and our sinful tendencies. Divine Providence and our own personal sins as offenses against a loving God. And finally Divine Providence and the sins of other people who enter our lives and can cause us as we know great anguish and even agony. So we begin.

Divine Providence and Original Sin.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of original sin in the spiritual life. The fall of our first parents occasioned (that’s the verb we use occasioned) the coming of God in human form to suffer and die for the redemption of a sinful world. We speculate, merely speculate, whether God would have become man had man not sinned. But we know, we know with the certitude of faith, that man having sinned, God did become man in order to redeem us from sin and the eternal consequences. We are redeemed by Christ, because in His great love for us He merited the graces we need to reach our heavenly destiny. Except for Calvary, none of us, none of us, would have any hope of heaven. During the ceremonies of the Easter vigil, the Church sings a most unusual hymn, several verses pertain to what we are reflecting on. We pray:

Father how wonderful Your care for us. How boundless Your merciful love. To ransom a slave, You gave away Your Son. Oh happy fault, oh necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer. Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead.

What are we saying? We are professing from the depths of our faith that the sin of our first parents, talk about mystery, the sin of our first parents was the providential foundation for the Incarnation. God became man because man had sinned. Surely, surely on this primordial level, sin must have a most important place in the providence of God. We go on.

Our Sinful Tendencies and the Providence of God.

As Christians, we believe that when our first parents disobeyed God, they not only lost God’s friendship, but also what we call the gift of integrity. And they passed on both losses to all their posterity. When we come into the world we are deprived of sanctifying grace or friendship with God and we are deprived of the precious gift of the perfect control of our desires. Baptism does indeed restore sanctifying grace but it does not restore the gift of integrity. Our desires both in the body and in the soul are not, underline that negative, are not naturally under control. What does this mean? It very simply, but pathetically means that as fallen human beings, we are naturally proud, naturally lustful, naturally impatient, naturally greedy, naturally envious, naturally gluttonous and how I like to say this, naturally lazy. These tendencies are called sinful, not because of themselves, they are sins, but because they come from sin. Whose sin? The sin of our first parents and they lead to sin. Whose sin? Yours and mine. And these sinful tendencies are always asserting themselves and demanding satisfaction. So we ask, are these sinful tendencies that are so embarrassingly part of our fallen human nature part of God’s providence?

How we need to hear this affirmative, yes, with a resounding yes, they are. God foresaw how much good could result from our struggle with these sometimes maddening urges. And He wants us to see them as blessed opportunities for growing in His love. Now let me repeat with a slight change of vocabulary. God foresaw that our sinful tendencies requiring that we struggle with ourselves the deepest war on earth is being fought right deep, deep inside of our own hearts. And God wants, He really wants, these struggles with God’s grace be overcome as blessed opportunities for growing in His merciful love. So we ask ourselves, how so? And the answer is, in many ways. But in none more clearly than in making us realize how much we need the help of God’s grace. St. Paul wrote for all of us, when he confessed to the first century Romans, and I quote, “I cannot understand my own behavior, I fail to carry out the things I want to do. And I find myself doing the very things I hate. In fact, it seems to be the rule that, every single time I want to do good it is something evil that comes to hand. In my inmost self I dearly love God’s law, but I see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates. This is what makes me prisoner of that law of sin which lives inside my body.” St. Paul concludes, “What a wretched man I am, who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” And then, Paul’s answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”, unquote St. Paul. He knew, he struggled and if St. Paul struggled, we better be sure we must struggle too. So we ask ourselves, what then is the providential purpose of our sinful tendencies? It is mainly to make us recognize that by ourselves we cannot hope with ourselves to achieve anything, take one step on the road to heaven. There is no more important statement of Jesus Christ in the Gospels on the practical level than His statement at the Last Supper, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” The Latin, “Sine me nihil potestis facere”. What are we being told? No heaven without grace, no grace without prayer, either we keep begging for help, and I mean keep begging for help, because our sinful tendencies keep urging, urging, seducing us to offend the will of God.

In other words, of ourselves, hear it and hope somebody tells you this again, without prayer we are slaves to sin. That is why, just to summarize, without prayer, much prayer, constant prayer, we cannot control our sinful impulses. Why not? Because without prayer you will not have the grace. First, grace in the mind to even recognize the temptation when we have one. Remember all temptations are sweet, a bitter temptation is a contradiction in terms. All temptations are seductive, we need grace in the mind first to even recognize that we are being tempted. And then we need grace in the will to resist these imperious desires to self-assertion, which is pride, and to self-satisfaction apart from God’s will, which is lust. In God’s providence therefore, our concupiscence, that’s the Church’s vocabulary for these sinful tendencies. Our concupiscence is God’s way of getting us to pray to obtain the divine help we need in order to rise above passion and to live according, not just reason, but according to our faith in submission to and embracing the loving will of God. We go on.

Divine Providence and Our Own Personal Sins.

If there is one thing that St. Ignatius wants those who make the Spiritual Exercises to be clear about, it is the fact that they are sinners, and the reason is obvious. Unless a person recognizes himself as a sinner, nothing, really nothing in Christianity makes sense. The very Incarnation as we said is meaningless, unless God became man that by His humble submission to an agonizing death on Calvary He might redeem a sinful world. By now we know from experience that we are not only subject to what we call unruly drives in our fallen human nature, and my friends, all of us, (comma), all of us, have a fallen. I sometimes call a falling human nature that cannot be controlled, not to say mastered, without grace. Which means it cannot be mastered without prayer. We also know, how well we know, how the record of our past lives has in many ways been a record of sin. I sincerely believe that for most of us, when we reach the age of reason, or the Church prefers, the age of discretion, we’ve reached the age of sin. We’ve sinned from the dawn of reason. So we ask ourselves, do our sins, our own personal sins also come under the scope of God’s providence? Does God have a providential purpose in allowing us to sin?

I’ve been a priest for forty-seven years, by now, because of God’s mysterious will in my life, I’ve dealt with some thousands of souls. I’ve struggled with some saintly people, but I have surely struggled with sinners. One thing I’ve learned as a priest, whatever else sinners need, you name it and they need it, but whatever else they need, it is trust, trust in God. Why, why did I make such a fool of myself, maybe for years? We better, all of us, had better be able to answer, and answer affirmatively, whether God has a providential purpose in allowing us to sin. We better say, yes indeed He does. But notice, in dealing with matters of the faith it is not merely a question of yes or no, as we’ve been saying, we have a duty to understand what we believe. Here a correct, and as far as we can with God’s help, a deeper grasp of how our own sins have been, and are, and will be, part of the mysterious providence of God. I dare say, on our properly understanding this mystery depends in large measure our profiting, hear the verb, our profiting if God wants us to, from the sad fact that we have so often disobeyed God because we want to do our will in preference to His divine will. I sure hope I’m clear, God wants us to benefit, that’s the word, God wants us to benefit from the mysterious providential purpose He has in having allowed us to sin. Faith allows us to say that God has permitted us to offend Him so that we might be more generous in the future than, humanly speaking, we might have been had we not sinned. Did you catch the word, more, more generous? When everything is said and done, who are the people who are generous with God? Are they not the persons who have an extraordinary awareness of God’s goodness and God’s goodness to them? To recognize how good God is, is to want to love Him. And to have a deep awareness of His goodness is to have a deep desire to love Him, and love Him and grow in loving Him in return. Very well, in His ordinary providence God lets us fall into sin, you name it, selfishness, and obstinacy, self-will and self-indulgence of all kinds. Then we come to our senses and suddenly it dawns on us how ungrateful we are in resisting God’s will to have our own. How mad, how mad for a creature that would not even exist except for the love of God. How mad for that creature to say, ‘no’ to God. And we are sorry, “my God”, we pray, “what an ingrate I am. You have been so good to me and I have been so disobedient to you. Have mercy, have mercy on me a sinner.” In His mercy God forgives us, and like the son in the parable of the prodigal, God embraces us and takes us back into His friendship. What follows? Or better, what does God want to follow? He expects us to be, watch the words again, to be more responsive to His grace, not only more than we had been but more than we would have been had we not realized the merciful goodness of God to us ungrateful but repentant sinners.

There are by now a dozen interpretations given to the story of the sinful woman at Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. But for our purpose Christ used that occasion to teach us how gratitude for God’s mercy to a sinner is a normal providential way that He inspires us to follow Him with abnormal generosity, born of gratitude for forgiven sin. Remember the self-righteous Simon, the Pharisee, he was one of those who considered himself quite sinless because he kept the external regulations of the law. Whereas the sinful woman had no illusions about her state of soul, she knew she had gravely sinned. Let us listen to Jesus, “Simon”, our Lord said, “you see this woman? I came to your house and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. For this reason I tell you that her sins, her many sins, have been forgiven her or she would not have shown such great love. It is a person who is forgiven little who shows little love”, unquote Jesus. St. Luke, the evangelist of God’s mercy, could not have been more plain. Forgiven sin inspires extravagant love, let me repeat, forgiven sin inspires extravagant love. It goes to extremes in proving its love. It pours out its tears over the feet of Christ, Who is Divine Mercy become man. It acts this way because it realizes that God has been so good to me, a sinner, so it asks, “what can I give my merciful God in return?” and never asks, have I given enough?”

Remember our Lord after the resurrection, on the shore of the lake one morning, where the disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. When Jesus told them to cast their net, they caught and the evangelist even counted 153 fishes. After they had eaten, Jesus took Peter aside, three times He asked Peter, in reparation for Peter’s triple denial of his master. Listen, Christ began by asking, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Hear the word, more. Simon Peter couldn’t possibly know how much the other disciples loved the Lord, but he knew, how well he knew, how much he, the repentant sinner, should love Jesus. This was Christ bestowing the papal primacy on the first vicar of Christ, a repentant sinner. Christ entrusted to Peter the visible headship of the Church which Christ founded on Calvary. But notice, Peter had first to acknowledge, first his having sinned and then protesting yes, yes Lord, I love you, and knowing how deeply I have sinned I will love you more, more than I would ever have loved you had I not sinned.

Finally, God’s Providence and Other Peoples Sins in Our Lives.

So we ask, how do other people’s sins, which in some way touch our own lives serve a divinely ordained purpose? First, do they? Indeed, they do. Let us first say something about how other people’s sins can touch our lives. They can touch our lives by affecting our lives. What they have done wrong, past tense, we now somehow experience in its affects. We are, if you wish, somehow the victims of other people’s wrong doing. A current tragic example is the millions of children stranded by the divorce courts who are the innocent victims of their parents, I have to say this, selfishness. People’s sins can touch our lives very painfully. Every time someone says something or does something or fails to say or do something and in the process offends us, how we can be deeply, very deeply affected. A bitter word, a sarcastic remark, a crude joke at our expense, all these and a thousand other ways as we know. All of these are ways in which other people’s sins, do we say, touch, they can scar, they can damage and I know whereof I speak, they can ruin people’s lives. The way that other people’s sins enter our lives are beyond counting. They are legion. And in my judgment these are the most difficult manifestations of divine providence that faith urges us, not only to suffer, but hear it, to use according to God’s infinitely wise plan. I’m speaking from over forty years of priestly experience, God’s been so good to me in allowing so many people to enter my life. Some causing me great joy, others causing me great pain. Suppose we look at both the two main ways that other people’s lives effect our lives, where their lives are their sinful conduct, other people’s sins in the past have left a painful mark on us. What does God want from us? He wants from us what we mainly want from Him, in one word, mercy. In His providence, He allowed people to sin and thus hurt us, what a mild verb, hurt us, so that we might forgive them and in this way merit God’s mercy for ourselves. What is a blind act of faith to believe that no one, no one has ever done me an injury, no one has ever done me any wrong without God’s mysterious, providential will. God does not want people to sin but He does want me to be merciful whenever people sin against me. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his masterful encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, Rich in Mercy, defines mercy as love coping with evil. Memorize that, mercy is love coping with evil. Mercy is love, paid the price of love. Mercy is costly love. It is love that loves although it has not been loved. Mercy is love giving to those who have stolen love from us. All of this we believe.

On the first level of our consideration is how God wants us to cooperate with His providence whenever we are the unwilling and innocent victims of other people’s sins. But people may still be causing us pain, maybe for years, they not only were but they are now offending God and at least because we hear or read about their sinful conduct they offend us. What does God expect of us? He expects us to pray and sacrifice for these people so they might stop offending Him and depending on the gravity of their sin, might be converted and be reconciled with their God. It is impossible to exaggerate the practical importance of this reading of divine providence. God wants every sinner to repent and return to His friendship. He wants every priest who has rejected his priesthood and turned his back on Christ to be reconciled with his Master. He wants every religious who has been unfaithful to his or her vowed commitment to make their peace with God. He wants every husband who has sinned against his wife and children to repent and be saved. He wants every woman who has killed her unborn offspring to be converted. Every prostitute to reach heaven. Every thief and murderer to one day see the face of God. He wants the Church’s persecutors, wherever, and in our own country to love the God they are now opposing among the faithful. In a word, God wants sinners to return to the One they offended and finally to save their souls. But all of this means that we must do our part, we must pray and sacrifice in order to obtain from God’s mercy the grace that sinners need, desperately need, to stop sinning and start serving God. They will, they will stop offending God, but I repeat, we must do our part. The more patient we are in bearing the wrongs of others, the more forgiving we are, the more ready we are to pay the price of being maybe deeply agonizingly hurt by a sinner, the more grace God has in store for that sinner. My generosity, my patience in bearing wrong is the divinely ordained condition for obtaining God’s merciful forgiveness even for the worst crimes that people will commit. It is up to us to never count the cost in order to obtain the mercy of God for those who have sinned. And the more deeply we have been hurt, the more agonizingly we have suffered injustice, hear it and don’t forget, the more we hold that sinner’s salvation in our hands. Our patient endurance of suffering is the price that Jesus wants us to pay to bring sinners to that heavenly kingdom reserved only for those who have tasted the mercy of God.


I have a closing prayer.

Almighty God, in Your loving providence, You have allowed sin to enter our lives. Help us to learn the reason why. Help us to see how desperately we need Your help by reminding us of our weakness and tendency to sin. Help us to love You more than we should normally have loved because now we realize how good You have been to us in forgiving us our sins. Above all, dear Savior, let us see it is by forgiving others that we are promised Your forgiveness to us. Let us see how the salvation of sinners, is also, dear Jesus, is up to us. Teach us to pray earnestly, frequently, pleadingly for the conversion of sinners. Teach us to love the cross in our lives because it is by Your cross that You have saved mankind and it is by the patient endurance of our cross that in Your mysterious providence we are cooperating with You in the redemption of the world. Amen.

Thank you for listening.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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