Unhealthy Images of God: When Truth becomes a toxin in the sacrament of Reconciliation

Reverend Scott P. Detisch, Ph.D.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

Volume 27 Number One Spring 2006, PAGES 39-45

“Some falsehood mingles with all truth.”

— Longfellow, The Golden Legend

When dealing with people’s distorted notions of who God is and who God calls them to be, most pastoral ministers find that these distortions are based on some element of truth. Within every extreme claim about God or what God asks of us, there is some fragment of a rightful notion of God. This is nothing new; truth and distortion seem to be partnered in the broken human con­dition going all the way back to the Fall when the Tempter cleverly seduced Adam and Eve by twisting elements of truth to create entic­ing lies. For instance, it was true that if Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge their eyes would be opened and they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). What the Tempter does not tell our primeval parents is that their choice to eat the fruit will open their eyes to alienation and shame and that their knowledge would not come in the form of serene omniscience but in the painful recognition of what their sinful choice had done.

The primal distortion of truth into falsehood has been the lega­cy of the broken human condition through the ages. Sometimes we deceive others with our distortions of truth; and sometimes we deceive or mislead ourselves. This article will show how the latter is particularly evidenced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especial­ly with penitents who come to the celebration with unhealthy images of God.

DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM

There is something genuinely divine and genuine­ly human in each sacramental encounter. What is divine is the total and gratuitous outpouring of all that God is for us in Christ: new life, empowerment, inti­mate presence, the capacity for servant-leadership, covenantal love, healing, and forgiveness. What is human is the readiness to receive from God the sacra­mental grace that makes our living more free and ful­filling and the world more noble. While the divine ele­ment is always complete, the human receptivity is always imperfect. Every believer is limited in his or her ability to open up to the full significance of the tremen­dous gift being received in a sacrament. There are times, however, when this human receptivity is so askew that the sacramental gift never becomes an effective experience. Such is the case with penitents who come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with unhealthy notions of God that have become toxic.

These toxic notions can lie beneath the surface of what some confessors are trained or tempted to dismiss as simple faith or devout piety. Yet, to dismiss them this way is to fuel them and allow them to hold people’s inner spirit captive. Confessors need to begin to probe slowly and pastorally what lies within the disposition a penitent brings to the sacrament. They need to help penitents discern over time whether their manner of approaching the sacrament is truly helping to bring about what the sacrament is meant to do. It is not enough for the sacrament to help a penitent feel better or freer; the penitent must actually become more liber­ated and transformed.

In the one-to-one encounter in Rite I and Rite II of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessors need to listen for what is behind penitents’ patterns of expres­sion. These patterns will reveal dispositions that may harbor unhealthy and un-freeing images of God. For instance, some penitents may come to the sacrament in order to feel that they have been brought back into God’s good grace (a state of grace) and, thereby, have averted whatever punishment God may have meted out; that they have won back God’s love. Others may come to retrieve a sense of righteousness that comes from dutifully confessing their sins, receiving absolu­tion, and doing their penance. This somehow returns their inner lives to a safe feeling of homeostasis, if only for a little while. Then there are those penitents who come because they discover, as all people must, that they cannot by themselves become free of sinful or destructive habits nor the shame and guilt that accom­pany them. Unable at the time to cooperate in the deeper, interior work to get to the source of these habits, “confession” becomes the easier choice because it offers a quick fix of feeling some relief, at least until the next occasion of sin.

In all of the dispositions described above there is an operative image of God that has become unhealthy and perhaps even toxic. It is important for confessors and all pastoral ministers who deal with people’s inner lives to identify what people’s operative images of God are and what influence these images unconsciously exert on them.

Our images of God lie deeply ingrained within us. They are often learned early in life and are shaped by our most vivid experiences of family, self-definition, and religious mentoring as well as by the rituals and stories that have appealed to our religious imagination. From this cluster of influences emerges a patterned sense of who God is. This becomes a believer’s opera­tive image of God, i.e., one that often operates unexam­ined within that individual’s inner life.

This image of God is almost always linked to some truth about God that the believer was exposed to and particularly receptive to, e.g., God will judge the world in the end, God is perfect, God loves those who turn away from sin, God has a plan for us, etc. One’s opera­tive image becomes toxic when this element of truth about God becomes distorted, misapplied, or isolated from the fuller portrait of God provided by scripture, Church teaching, mature and maturing theological insight, and a healthy and balanced reflection on life experiences. When a truth about God becomes a toxic image, that image can deeply poison a person’s inner life and prevent the healing and liberation that God seeks to bring, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In addition, because there is an ele­ment of truth within the image, pastoral ministers and confessors are often very reluctant to challenge it. However, the image’s toxicity increases when it goes unchallenged. Furthermore, its hold on a person’s inner life grows when it goes unnoticed and appears to be nothing more than an expression of simple faith or devout piety. Let us now examine how some operative images of God, rooted in some element of truth, become toxic obstructions to the deep grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

TOXIC IMAGES OF GOD IN PENITENTS

It is important to note that not all penitents who exhibit rigidity or nervousness or who express help­lessness in the face of sinful elements in their lives nec­essarily operate out of a toxic image of God. These characteristics can be attributed to other factors in a person’s psyche or the circumstances in a person’s life, even healthy ones. In discerning toxic images of God, the confessor or pastoral minister is looking for a firm­ly held religious notion that is obstructing God’s recon­ciling grace from bringing joyful gratitude, a deep sense of being loved by God, openness to genuine transformation, the unfolding of that transformation, and a true sense of liberation within a person’s spirit. Several images create such an obstruction.

God Who Punishes

Scripture is filled with stories and images of God punishing wrongdoers. While most of the portrayals of a vengeful God arise out of the Old Testament, even the New Testament offers portraits of divine punish­ment. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking of eternal punishment for the “goats on the left” who fail to offer compassion toward the least ones (Matthew 25:41-46). In the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias and his wife Sapphira are struck dead for their deceit in withholding from the apostles a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property (Acts 5:1-11). Thus, it would be very difficult for any religious imag­ination exposed to scripture to resist connecting God with punishment for wrongdoing.

THE TRUTH: God desires that all people choose what is good, noble, and just. This places them within the reign of God and furthers its growth on earth. To choose the opposite – to choose what is wrong, base, and unjust – is to move away from the reign of God. Since the ultimate harmony and intimacy of life are connected to God, then to make choices against what God is about moves one into experiences of disorder and alienation. These experiences may occur concrete­ly in what unfolds in a person’s life, or they may occur within a person as shame, guilt, unresolved anger, jeal­ousy, cripplingself-doubt, obtuseness, etc. These feel­ings may surface at a later time when an individual is more vulnerable to the forces of life. Hence, the truth is that there are negative consequences for our sins and they are connected to God, but God is not the adminis­trator of them. Instead, by our sinful choices we place ourselves at odds with the dynamics of the reign of God.

THE TOXIN: When the negative consequences of our sinful choices are seen as God’s vengeful response to what we have done, rather than as the natural result of our sinful responses to what God desires, then God is made into a deity whose wrath must be stilled and whose mercy must be won. God becomes the punish­ing menace who seeks out sinners to give them what they deserve for their wrongdoing. This is a very com­mon toxic image of God with which confessors and other pastoral ministers have to contend. Such an image does not admit God’s love and, therefore, does not open up to the transforming power of God’s love within a person’s spirit. The goal of “confession” for such a person is to keep a vengeful power at bay instead of to be drawn into the incredible embrace of a loving God. There is no healing that is truly transfor­mative, and there is no advance in spiritual maturity because even goodness becomes a matter of immature self-focus (“God will reward me for the good thing I have done”) and not a selfless offering to another.

Likewise, efforts at becoming a better person focus only on the surface of life (words, actions, thoughts) that would keep one in God’s good grace. Here we see a person responding out of a fear of a harsh God, which closes off the human spirit—the precise place where the true effects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation take place. It is in the depths of the human spirit that the intimate experience of God’s love can captivate indi­viduals in such a way that their hearts, minds, and wills are brought to a more self-emptying (and, therefore, a more Christian) level of motivation, insight, and desire. Only in the depths of the human spirit can love respond to Love.

God Who Expects Perfection

It is hard not to wince within ourselves when we hear Jesus say in the gospel, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfection is an ever-elusive goal, an unattainable ambition. Yet all Christian believers recognize that at the core of our religious principles is a call to become better persons— to be more than who we are right now.

THE TRUTH: The message and ministry of Christ never allow us to sink into complacency about how we are living our lives. There is always some further dimension of the gospel that we need to embrace and live out. Our lives are always in the process of becom­ing more and more like Christ. This is the process of perfection as holiness. Since it is a process, perfection is never an acquired state at any point in a person’s life. Furthermore, as a process it will go through periods of growth and regress since it is dependent on our flawed human dispositions. Human beings, while saved by Christ and constantly graced by God, remain flawed until the moment of eternal union with God. Yet God continues to embrace us throughout the process; oth­erwise the process of becoming holy could never con­tinue since it is never solely the result of human effort. It is always the graced means by which God draws us into the wholeness of life in the reign of God—a life of being undivided in our devotion to God and in our commitment to God’s people. This is what Jesus intends in his command to be perfect.

THE TOXIN: When Jesus’ command of perfection is translated by Christians into an admonition to be flawless and completely sinless, then another toxic image of God is created—God the Perfectionist. In this operative religious image, God is approachable in the Sacrament of Reconciliation only by way of perfect contrition for one’s sins, a precise and complete accounting of one’s life, and a firm resolve never to sin again. Many penitents with such an operative image of God give the impression that they are going to achieve some form of religious perfection by the sheer force of their human will and determination. Since, of course, this will never happen, one result is an increased rigid­ity in how they try to live their lives until they get it right and in going to confession and doing penance, which achieve at least a momentary feeling of perfec­tion. Another result is an emotional or spiritual col­lapse because they cannot sustain the energy of a will determined to achieve perfection. Furthermore, seeing God as the Perfectionist never allows penitents to rec­ognize how loved and loveable they are to God (and others) in their imperfection. This keeps a penitent’s spirit unfree and unable to explore the underlying fac­tors of sin, since, to the penitent, examining imperfec­tion has no point. Finally, such an image can result in a spiritual ennui because penitents do not allow them­selves to experience God’s companionship in their imperfect state; for them connection with God is achieved only in the state of perfection. This makes God a deity who beckons us to something more (some­thing unattainable without God) but who is not a help along the way – a rather cruel conception of God, if you think about it.

God Who Dispenses Love

To be loved by God is a cherished dimension of religious experience. “God is love, “ St. John tells us, “and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16). Somehow, therefore, our experience of God’s love is connected to how we love and how we choose to live our lives.

THE TRUTH: Simply put, God’s love is unearned, undeserved, and unconditional. This is the very nature of God’s grace, which is always a pure gift from the heart of God. This does not mean that we human beings, who are the recipients of this gift, can choose to live our lives any way we want simply because the gift will always be offered. A loving gift offered still needs to be well received. Our own choices for love, our own desire to do what is right and good, and our own efforts to live the message of Christ open our spirits more fully and effectively to receive the love that God always offers.

THE TOXIN: When people equate the dynamics of God’s love with how human love often operates (it is conditional and must be reciprocated in order to con­tinue), then a toxic image of God develops—God whose love must be earned and can be lost. This image can often be very subtle since it appeals to the human sense of justice (as does the toxic notion of God’s pun­ishment), in that people should get what they deserve. Therefore, persons who sin and live selfish lives are not deserving of God’s love. Penitents who operate out of this belief render the Sacrament of Reconciliation the means by which God’s love is earned again. Like the penitents who see God as punishing wrongdoers, per­sons with this operative notion of God see themselves as repeatedly moving in and out of God’s grace because they lose God’s love when they sin, only to regain it by contrition, confession, absolution, and penance. The sacrament is easily reduced to a transaction in which they pay the price for their sins, earn God’s love again, and begin to live in a state of grace for at least a little while—until their next sin. This mentality becomes increasingly toxic because it prevents penitents from asking the more difficult but healing questions about what lies behind their sinful patterns. There is little motivation for deep conversion and transformation because all that matters is regaining the state of grace they desire. These penitents do not experience them­selves as always being held in God’s love—the only true starting point for deep conversion and transformation.

God Who Controls Our Lives

As the Creator of the universe and each of our lives, God is the all-powerful One who has a providential

plan for us. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always believed that the Creator is involved in the unfolding of that plan within human history and in the personal histories of each human being.

THE TRUTH: God does have a plan for all of us; it is the desire that all of creation be drawn into the reign of God. This is why Jesus Christ was sent into the world: “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Christ is the complete and definitive moment of God engaging in human history. Yet God does not manipulate events in order to accomplish God’s plan. This would violate the very design of the One who endowed creation and human will with freedom. God, however, is not an idle spectator either. On the contrary, the Spirit of God is always present and active in creation drawing every moment of human history and every human life into redemptive contact with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Nevertheless, the efforts of the Spirit can always be resisted or rejected by free human beings.

THE TOXIN: When people interpret God’s providence and involvement in human life as controlling the

events of their personal histories, then they abdicate accountability for their own lives and make God a cunning manipulator who does things to them for their own good. Penitents with such a toxic image of God will say things like: “God must have a reason for this happening in my life;” “God must want me to feel this way for a reason;” “God must not think I am ready yet for things to change; there must be something I still have to learn.” This kind of thinking can lead to the perpetuation of abusive relationships, self-destructive patterns, depression or misery, estranged relationships, and the lack of true insight into what leads a person into painful or sinful experiences. Furthermore, it is almost always impossible to fall in love with a God who controls your life. Instead of love, what develops is an

experience of spiritual slavery in which penitents seek to be more submissive to God’s hidden plan and thereby become less responsible for their lives. The Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes the ritual

expression of this submission. It also provides penitents       with an opportunity to discover from the confessor more of what God’s plan is so that the penitents are in accord with it. But the penitents do not allow for interior reflection that could bring enlightenment about their union with Christ in the difficult and painful moments of their lives; there is no gaining of inner wisdom and strength that comes from the Spirit stirring within their life experiences; and, ultimately, there is no healing and freedom that the grace of the sacrament offers. Their lives become only a matter of changing what they are doing, feeling, or thinking in order to meet what they think God is demanding.

HEALING TOXIC IMAGES OF GOD

Although our images of God lie deeply ingrained within us, they are not beyond the reach of God’s healing grace offered in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, reshaping people’s images of God is not an easy or quick process. It will not happen in one sacramental encounter, one homily, a few adult education classes or faith-sharing sessions, nor one spiritual direction appointment. Slowly, over time, through all of the means just mentioned and more, people need to be coaxed into examining their concepts of God in light of the God revealed in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, his incredible stories of forgiveness, and his outpouring of love on the cross. Reshaping a person’s image of God is not the sole responsibility of confessors. Catechists, chaplains, pastoral ministers, and spiritual directors all need to participate and contribute to it. What are some things they can do? The following are some suggestions.

1. All who pastorally minister to people need to examine their own operative notions of God and the manner in which they speak about God. They need to discern if even inadvertently they contribute to mistaken notions of God by what they preach, teach, or share from their own spiritual journey or theological convictions. Do they unintentionally reinforce any of the concepts of God mentioned above?

2. All who are in pastoral ministry need to imbue their faith communities with vivid “presentations” of God as Unconditional Love. These presentations can take many forms: the imagery used in prayers offered in liturgy and at parish meetings; spiritual reading made available to parishioners; personal testimonies of powerful experiences of God’s love, even in the midst of one’s sinfulness (this is especially important in the RCIA); frank discussions about how toxic images of God do not resonate with the God of Jesus Christ; and, finally, the promotion of genuine hospitality and authentic reconciliation within the faith community as a whole. Also, pastoral leaders need to be careful about whom they invite to offer parish missions or give parish retreats, especially when they include an evening for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sometimes these speakers, in their zeal to draw people to the sacrament, are not careful in examining the “fallout” of their presentations, which could actually fuel the toxicity of people’s approach to the sacrament.

3. At some point, people’s toxic images need to be exposed for what they are, but in a pastorally sensitive and effective manner, usually in a series of one-to-one encounters. Keep in mind, however, that people with such images of God will not be “converted” simply by rational, theological argument. Their images come from some deeply affective dimension of the inner life for which they will need help in peeling away the layers. Therefore, a faith community needs to promote and make available different pportunities for spiritual direction, both long and short term. In addition, there should be supportive referrals to counselors and therapists when the affective dimension of people’s toxic images is particularly powerful, severe, and unyielding.

4. While the affective dimension of the inner life needs to be attended to, so too does the rational dimension. For this reason, faith communities need to offer quality educational opportunities on important topics that connect with people’s operative images of God. These topics could include Jesus’ teachings and parables on forgiveness, the history and theology of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the writings of spiritual mystics who wrote of deep experiences of God’s love, and the psychology of faith formation and moral development. It would be important that discussion and not merely presentation happen during these educational opportunities.

5. Any transforming process needs communal support. This is why it is important for pastoral leaders to provide opportunities for faith-sharing groups. In faith sharing, individuals are exposed to others’ images of God, which, in turn, can provide gentle but effective challenge and corrective to their own notions. However, for this to happen, the facilitators of the groups would have to have some training in group dynamics (otherwise the groups will fail) as well as in spotting toxic images of God and making referrals. Moreover, the leaders themselves ought to exhibit healthier, more theologically accurate ideas of who God is, what God calls us to, and how God can be approached in prayer and sacrament.

6. In the actual celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessors and homilists (for communal celebrations) must make it clear that God’s forgiveness is the starting point and not merely a result. They need to convey that God’s forgiveness, since it is pure gift, is assured and already poured out to the penitents. It is from this assurance that the healing and transformation that penitents seek can begin to unfold since, no matter what needs to be explored in their lives, it will always be done in the context of God already and always loving the penitents. This is why the goal of the sacrament is not the forgiveness of God, which has already been offered, but the healing, conversion, and reconciliation that God’s forgiveness can bring about in us.

7. We need to hold in the embrace of our prayers those who cannot experience being embraced by God’s love because of their toxic notions of God and themselves. All pastoral ministers need to recognize that their own prayer lives might be the only conduit by which God’s abundant mercy and compassion will reach those who are unable to open up effectively to such gifts in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or other

ministerial means. If we truly believe in the efficacy of prayer, then this final recommendation needs to be both the first step and the final resort in all attempts to help heal people of their toxic images of God. The inner life is a powerful arena of God’s grace, where mercy, forgiveness, and love are lavishly given. But it can also be a cauldron of resistance to what God offers, especially in those who harbor toxic images of who God is and how God acts in their lives. St. Paul admonishes the faithful “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). Therein lies the task of all who minister to the inner life of others, especially within and around the Sacrament of Reconciliation: to help people receive well what God offers in grace. Often this ministry needs to assist individuals in discerning whether their own operative image of God is based on a theological truth that has become a toxin. By exposing the toxin and leading believers into a more balanced experience of the truth of who God is, confessors, spiritual directors, and other pastoral ministers can do much in readying a person for the healing and transformation that the grace of Reconciliation offers.

RECOMMENDED READINGS

Aschenbrenner, G. “The Inner Journey of Forgiveness,” in Human Development 10 (Fall, 1989): 15-23.

Barry, W. A. “Changing the ‘Default’ Image of God,” Human Development 26 (Spring, 2005), 28-33.

Cavanagh, M. “The Perception of God in Pastoral Counseling,” in Pastoral Psychology 41 (1992): 75-80.

Kennedy, R., ed. Reconciling Embrace: Foundations for the Future of Sacramental Reconciliation. Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998.

Upton, J. A Time for Embracing: Reclaiming Reconciliation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999.

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