In 24 years I’ve seen a lot of clients, mostly Catholic and Christian. And because I am a specifically Catholic therapist (i.e. I integrate the faith into the process and follow the teachings of the Church), many of the clients I see will discuss their troubles not only from a psychological point of view but from a spiritual perspective as well. Many seek therapy because they are troubled by past sins and in some cases, present sins from which they cannot seem to break free.
I think the overall consensus among my clients (and other Catholics that I know) when it comes to the idea of sin is that sins of a sexual nature are the worst, and most sinful, type of sin. I think to some extent it’s connected to upbringing, with parents or teachers often communicating their own fears, misinformation and discomfort in this area.
Why do sexual sins seem to occupy the spotlight when it comes to any discussion of sin? Is it because they are truly the worst sins you can commit, or is it because they’re so common and something with which a very large percentage of individuals struggle?
For those struggling with past sexual sins, let me state this very clearly. Sin is sin. Period. Sexual or of another nature, sin is sin. God doesn’t grade the other sins on a curve and reserve His worst punishments for the sexual sins. It just doesn’t make sense and it certainly does not square with scripture.
Think of the many encounters that Jesus had in the gospels. The woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well who had had five husbands jumps to mind. Then there’s Mary Magdalene, traditionally believed to have been a prostitute, and the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Now, if sexual sins were truly the worst and most unforgivable of all sins, you would think He would have been rather harsh with them. He wasn’t. As a matter of fact, the very first person to whom He appeared after His resurrection was Mary Magdalene. This to me speaks volumes about how Jesus feels about those who once were caught up in sexual sin.
The truth is that the only people Jesus seemed to be harsh with were the Pharisees. Their pride seemed to be the greater obstacle to holiness. In fact, Jesus told them that prostitutes and tax collectors would get into heaven before them.
So why such emphasis among educators and parents on these sexual sins? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, I think the nature of sexual sin cuts deeply against the grain of who we are. We are created in the image of God- male and female He created us. Our sexuality is an integral part of who we are, unlike our hair or eye color or what we happen to do for a living. Our femininity and masculinity are part of the very fabric of who we are.
That being said, when we commit serious sexual sins (mortal ones) they impact us at a deep level of our being. Also, the effects of such sins can be far-reaching. A new life can be created and if or when that happens, it has eternal consequences for all parties involved. A woman becomes a mother, a man a father and a new life begins that will live for all eternity, even if not allowed to see the light of day. Clearly a high stakes game.
Another reason there is so much emphasis on sexual sins, it seems to me, is that for most people, due to a combination of hormones and original sin, they are harder to avoid than other sins. Our sexual energy is a powerful force, designed that way by God. But like a powerful horse, it needs to be tamed and guided. Not always an easy endeavor. Sadly, fear too often has been used in a misguided attempt to help young people to live chaste lives. And fear never frees us, but instead can lead us to repress this important energy, making it harder to train and guide a feeling that we’re not aware of feeling.
I think it’s crucial to keep this in mind. When you’ve committed sexual sins, or any other mortal sins for that matter, once you repent, confess them and receive absolution, they are completely forgiven. Period. No exceptions. No qualifications. No loopholes. Too many people live in torment and regret over their sexual past and even though they’ve confessed and turned away from those sins, seem to believe that somehow, because they were so bad, or that they committed “the big sins”, that God is still holding it against them…and therefore they should too. No. Sin is sin. Absolution is absolution.
Now, I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking, “Yes, God can forgive sexual sins, but I committed them knowing they were wrong. I did it anyway.”. Well, this may come as news to you, but that is exactly what sin is! If we don’t know something is wrong, it may remain a moral evil, but we cannot be held accountable for sin. The very fact that we do what we know to be wrong is what makes it a sin. And sin is precisely that which Jesus took upon Himself on the cross and set us free from. He didn’t die for those who don’t know better. He died for sinners. His forgiveness is not reserved only for those who are ignorant and hence fall into sin. His forgiveness is for those of us who do wrong things…even horrifically wrong things, and then repent and confess them.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not attempting to make light of the sins of the flesh. We need to ask for grace and do our best to avoid them. But we should do our best to avoid all sin. And once forgiven, we should focus our thoughts and attention on the Savior who already paid for those sins. Ask every day for the grace to grow in holiness. When tempted to despair because of a sordid past, recognize it for the temptation that it is and state boldly that Jesus already paid and in Him you are free.
If you find that you’re still struggling with regrets from past sins, it could indicate that there are unhealed wounds attached to them that need some attention in therapy. Talk to a Catholic therapist to help you sort it all out.
Know that God wants you to be happy and that even if your sins are as scarlet He will make them as white as snow. Don’t stand in His way by holding onto wrong ideas.
Art: A Young Couple Sit on a Couch While She Coyly Holds a Fan, Rud. Rössler, December 1894, Wellcome Images Iconographic Collections, CC, Wikimedia Commmons.
About Allison Ricciardi
Allison Ricciardi is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York. In 2001 she founded www.catholictherapists.com in response to a growing demand for counseling that is faithful to the Magisterium and includes prayer and spirituality. She is also Founder and Director of The Raphael Remedy, which offers counseling and life coaching from a Catholic perspective. Allison’s core belief is that God has a great plan for each of His children…and that by combining sound psychology with solid faith, clients can find real healing and lasting happiness. Visit Allison’s blog at www.theraphaelremedy.com/blog.