Redeeming the time: Christianity for knaves and fools like me
I don’t know about you, but I frequently flash back to particular times in my life when I behaved foolishly or even sinfully. I’m pretty sure I remember every moment of youthful arrogance in which I treated others badly, and perhaps it goes without saying that I still have skeletons stored away which rattle a little too loudly for my personal comfort. Whether we are self-confident or timid in our moods, most of us are sufficiently self-aware to feel the sting of past transgressions. The personal feelings of stupidity or powerlessness or shame just keep coming back.
The wounds of sin—and particularly of our own sins—cut deep. We should remember to pray for those we have sinned against in the past, but we cannot go back in time to change things and, in too many instances, what we once thought normal we can now recall only with horror. Nonetheless, this too is an important part of our life in Christ. If you think your past behavior haunts you more than it should—or even less than it should—perhaps it is time to learn about redeeming the time.
The temptation to feel worthless
I expect that most people reading this have already confessed the sins that continue to haunt them. If not, this is a vital first step. But even the strongest confidence in the Sacrament of Penance will not necessarily eliminate occasional preoccupation with past sins—the kind of flashbacks that disturb your peace, remind you of situations that cannot be repaired, make you feel worthless, and (frankly) interfere with what God wants you to be and to do right now.
If this is a serious problem, then one-on-one spiritual direction will be very beneficial. In particular cases, your spiritual director may recommend additional professional counseling. But for most of us, this awareness of past sins falls within a normal range which is best addressed through perseverance in our trust in God. It is important to remember that the sacramental confession of past sins assures us only that those sins are forgiven. It does not necessarily free us from the sadness and shame we may quite properly feel in contemplating our past life, nor does it eliminate all of our conscious and subconscious discomforts.
Neither does it automatically protect us against future attacks by the Devil. Satan often wants us to be aware of our sins; he just does not want that awareness to take the form of repentance. When he can, he will aim for arrogance, so that we actually delight in our sins (or at least refuse to admit to ourselves that we do not delight in them). But when grace grows in us to the point where this is not possible, he will fall back on fostering a sense of worthlessness instead. This lies at the heart of the spiritual exhaustion we experience when we relive our sins.
Now the most important thing to know about these feelings is that they are a temptation. Our Lord does not want us to be cavalier about our past sins (and still less, our present sins), but he does want us to trust His forgiveness and His love. To maintain this saving trust, we must remain constantly aware of two realities: First, the sins we have confessed to the priest, and which he has forgiven in personal Christi, are really and truly forgiven for now and eternity:
Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [Jn 20:20-23]
Second, our Father in Heaven loves us with an infinite love. Unless our feelings are badly out of sync with our faith (which could require the specialized attention I mentioned earlier), it is impossible to believe that and to feel worthless at the same time, for God loves only what is good. We can and should feel unworthy of so great a love, certainly, for God’s goodness far exceeds our own. But we should never feel worthless, for that is to deny the goodness of the One who loves us.
In a beloved Eucharistic hymn, we sing “O Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come to me”—and yet come He does, for He made us good as surely as He made us for Himself. Consider these words of Our Lord:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven…. [Mt 10:29-32 cf. Lk 12:6-8]
And now see the implications, so clearly delineated by St. Paul:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. [Gal 4:4-7; cf. Rom 8:14-17]
Renewing our past
In two places, St. Paul also speaks about “redeeming the time” (as it was translated by St. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate) or, more literally, “making the most of the time” (see Eph 5:16 and Col 4:5). He is referring to the importance for us Christians of making the best possible use of the time God has given us, that is, not wasting our time through sin or idleness, but using it to give glory to God in all things. However, there is a deeper sense in which we make the most of time by truly redeeming even those past times when we sinned.
This is paradoxically possible because, though the past is irretrievable for us, the repercussions of our past sins are still with us. If that were not true, then the problem addressed here is not real. Despite temptations to live in either the past or the future, we humans actually live only in the present, which means that the present is for us the point around which time always turns, the point at which we are called continuously to reshape ourselves and our actions, partly as an ongoing response to our past sins. (Note: This is why Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, OCD calls the present “time’s axle” in a beautiful and helpful little book entitled Eternity in the Midst of Time, new from Ignatius Press.)
It is just this that determines the ultimate meaning of our past sins. We cannot go back into the past to change what we did to others, or what they did to us. Nor can we go into the future to fix the ultimate consequences of our sins. But God can heal anything, whenever it may have happened and whatever its future repercussions. Therefore, the right way to redeem our own past, and influence the future not only of ourselves but of all we have harmed, is to use the present well. In fact, this is the only way we can do it—by living what is called the sacrament of the present moment, that is, by striving in the present to discern and cooperate fully with God’s will.
This is always shaped in part by our response to our own past sins as well as the sins of others. Aware of these sins, we now determine to act differently. Therefore, this is not only “making the most of time” in the conventional sense of not wasting time. It is also “making the most of time” because it is the one way we really do have to redeem our own time, by actually transforming the ultimate impact and meaning of our own sins. Or more precisely, it is a genuine participation in the redemption of time wrought by Jesus Christ, who did not lie when He said:
Behold, I make all things new…. Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true…. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. [Rev 21:5-7]
Our Lord declared Himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, exactly three times: In the first chapter of the last book of Scripture; in the second-last chapter of this final book; and again in the final chapter, that is, the last chapter of the entire Bible. On our own, of course, we have very limited powers. It is hard enough for us to manage even our own innumerable beginnings. But everything is caught up in Christ—and what matters to us most is how things end.
Link to Fr. Wilfrid Stinnissen, OCD’s Eternity in the Midst of Time (Ignatius Press 2019)
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