“Do not receive the grace of God in vain.” This is a hard but necessary saying from Saint Paul. On the one hand, grace is given to us in abundance – there is no limit to God’s forgiveness, His mercy and His love. We will never get to the point where God gives up on us. Human beings might give up on us – family, friends, society, etc. – but God will never give up on us. On the other hand, God gives us grace for a specific purpose: to elicit our free and loving response. God does not give us a clean slate just so that we can feel better about ourselves.
You know that feeling, the one where you know you need to go to confession or get right with God because there’s this thing you did, or said, or thought. You feel awkward going to Mass, or being near a priest, or saying your daily prayers because you know there’s this thing. People call that feeling Catholic guilt and nobody likes it. More and more people have a really stupid solution to try to free themselves of guilty feelings: start believing that the Catholic Church is irrelevant, or that it tries to manipulate you by making you feel bad, or that the defects of certain pathetic leaders (popes, cardinals, bishops, priests) mean that the whole thing is a sham or a joke. That’s stupid because ignoring or dismissing something just because it makes you feel bad is not really freedom. Justifying your sins so you don’t feel guilty doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty or that you didn’t sin – it just ruins your conscience. Justifying or rationalizing away your sins is not the path to true freedom. Remember how hard it was for the children of Israel to become free from Pharaoh and the Egyptians? They regularly didn’t feel good about what Moses was having them do – “Did you bring us out of Egypt just to have us die in this desert?!” The path to true freedom is challenging and demands courage.
The path to true freedom begins with humility – the humility to confess and admit to what you’ve done wrong – the humility to do it over and over again – the humility to not make yourself seem better or worse than you really are. That humility brings the flood of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing upon us. It is only the beginning of freedom however. Jesus wants us to become truly free – to “not receive the grace of God in vain.” It means that His grace not only gives us a clean slate but will also help us (if we are willing) to grow in the virtues that will keep us free from sin. That’s what it means to be continuously converting your whole life – conversion to Christ is liberation from sin and death. You can look at Christians who are bad examples – we find them everywhere from Denver, Colorado to the Vatican – but you can also look at the Saints and how they responded willingly to God’s grace. The Saints experience true freedom – they want us to experience that freedom too.