Conscience and God’s mercy
John writes to us powerful words “… even if our own feelings condemn us, that God is greater than our feelings and knows all things. My dear friends, if our own feelings do not condemn us, we can be fearless before God, and whatever we ask we shall receive from Him, …” (1John 3, 20-22).
Through these words, John seems to say that our feelings, or consciences as translated in other version, may prevent us from God because he says we can tremble before God and cannot receive whatever we ask, unless our consciences do not condemn us. So how do our consciences keep us away from God? How can they bring fear and trembling to us so that we cannot receive what we ask from Him?
a very well-known literature work written by Victor Hugo, a famous writer from France. It was acted into a movie which gained three Oscar Awards in 2013. Jean Valjean, the major character, was caught stealing a loaf of bread and put into jail for 18 years. 18 years for a loaf of bread. But it did not end with that much. When he was released, the prison chief commanded a policeman named Javert to follow him wherever he might go. Jean decided to make a new life and he became a very good chief of a big town in Paris, helping and saving the vulnerable. However, anytime he saw Javert, the policeman, he felt very bad and his conscience started condemning him so much. Finally, he gave up everything, even his only beloved daughter, to hide himself in a monastery so that he could live in peace. Unluckily, in silent place his feelings were disturbing him even more. It was too much for him, wasn’t it? He paid for a loaf of bread by being in prison 18 years, then, almost every day he felt very bad seeing the policeman, and then, he was suffering in his hiding place.
It is believed that Victor Hugo isn’t really telling us about one particular Jean Valjean but about people in nineteenth century and even today. 18 years in jail is not a sentence made by any court, rather is the very time when wrong doers imprison their hearts, feeling guilty and chewing their pain. The court and the cell are their very consciences. The policeman is not a human being but somebody’s feeling. It chases us unceasingly along the life and keeps disturbing us.
But we can wonder what happens to human consciences such that many are suffering that much.
We can say that is the too strict and deeply lawful education in society and especially in the Church which puts too much emphasis on punishment.
Do not forget that European atmosphere has been charged with christian education in centuries. In that atmosphere, another literature work was written and became bestseller in many years. “Mister God, this is Anna” is the title of the story in which Anna decided not to go to catechism class with the reason that catechists made God become very small and even put Him into a tiny box while He is extremely huge.
We can see it is true if we look at what we have been taught in catechism classes. They have been teaching us to imagine God as a very strict court or a hardworking spy who always looks at the wrongs we have been doing and writes down every fault or mistake that we have made. And at the end of the day, he will open that notebook and judge us according to what is written there. Of course, God will judge us according to what we have done but He will judge us according to his merciful heart as well. Moreover, God is more merciful, more compassionate, more forgiving than what we have been taught and what we have been thinking about Him.
That is why St. John tells us that “God is greater than our feelings or consciences”. So we should not use our hearts, our feelings to measure God’s heart as we can read in the Book of Isaiah chapter 40,12 “Who was it measured the water of the sea in the hollow if his hand and calculated the heavens to the nearest inch, …?”. Can we use our palm to measure the water in the sea? Can we use the span to work out the heavens?
We can not but we are doing that sometimes when we think that God is also narrow-minded and intolerant like us. In fact, God is out of any comparison and beyond every measure. He can not be compared or measured.
So what are we going to do? And what is the message for us?
Doubt what we have learned and what we have been taught. Maybe they are not correct or just half true. And indeed, half-truth is not the truth. I am learning English and sometimes I have to doubt what I have learned. A month ago, one singer was saying something about the risen Lord on TV. He said “Jesus Christ died for you and … I”. Is it correct English? By saying that he meant Jesus Christ died for you and He also died ‘for I'. Can we say ‘Jesus died for I’? not ‘for I’ but ‘for me’. What I want to say is that even catechists or we ourselves (priests and seminarians) sometimes teach something too strict or even wrong, especially about God, and many are suffering with the gods we have created. Be aware of that and adjust if necessary.
Think beyond common events and phenomena. In your culture and mine also, we easily notice that where there is a big man, there will be volunteer servants who are willingly to serve him everything. We can consider it as our hospitality, but if we are hospitable towards only big men, it will be different. Because whenever hierarchical classification exists, there is something against Gospel’s spirit. In our religious life, we have the vow of poverty, and some try to let go material things but one important thing that we really need to let go is the self. It is believed that poverty of being is more important than poverty of possessing, and poverty of the self is more essential than poverty of property. It means it would be better for us to be the poor than to be poor.
Change the image of our brothers and sisters in our minds. I think Jacob can be a typical example for us. In the Book of Genesis chapter 32 verses 22-23, Jacob wrestles with God all night before seeing his brother Essau whom he hurt so much and was apart for a long time. In fact, he is also wrestling with himself because he feels guilty and fearful and thinks that his brother will revenge. On the contract, Essau welcomes him warmly with kisses and hug. Both of them were crying for the joy of reunion. Like Jacob, we may be struggling too much, thinking that our brothers and sisters whom we have hurt, hate us and try to revenge, meanwhile they have forgiven us for a long time. So if we have any problem with our brethren, stop bothering ourselves with negative feelings and run to them for reconciliation and for the joy of forgiveness.
Change our minds about God. Let us look at what Jesus’ disciples were doing after his passion. They closed all doors and hid themselves in a room. Some even ran away. Did they fear the Jews or themselves? Were they afraid of being judged by the priests? Yes! They fear the Jews and the priests but they were trembling before their consciences even more, for they felt guilty and shameful about what they had done to their Master. However, the Risen Lord came to them and said “peace be with you”. He did not say anything about their ‘sins’, on the contrary, he wiped away their negative feelings and brought back to them the confidence of fellowship. The disciples thought that they would have been condemned by their Master but he really forgave them all and brought them the peace of new life in Him. The life of reconciliation, forgiveness, joyfulness, and resurrection has started. Remember that forgiveness is God’s ability.
In short, if our feelings condemns us too much, try to discover the true God for ourselves, the God of love, the God of compassion and forgiveness. Run to Him and learn how to forgive ourselves. Once we forgive ourselves, we can be fearless before God, we can come to Him, abide, stay and remain in Him and our lives will bear fruits that will last. Amen.