Am I a hypocrite if…

I was just chatting to someone who asked: “Am I a hypocrite if I keep on confessing the same sins?”

My response (after reflecting on my own record in this regard): “No, I don’t think so. In fact, it’s probably good that you don’t have to confess any new ones.”

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14 responses to “Am I a hypocrite if…

  1. Peregrinus

    My wild guess would be that most people keep on confessing the same sins. The sins I don’t commit are the ones I’m not tempted to, so I’m unlikely to commit them in the future. The sins I do commit are the one’s I am tempted to, and why should I expect that temptation to stop?

  2. Felix

    A good practical answer!

    But, ideally, the old-timers should drop away, and be replaced by the smaller, less obvious sins that we have just taken for granted up to now.

  3. I have to admit…it is a common place to be confessing the same sins. When I was a child I had the big 3…I lied, I disobeyed and I talked back to my parents. As an adult I have different sins but they are still recurring.

    What I am concerned about are the “unknown” sins I am failing to recognize. We Orthodox frequently pray for forgiveness for our sins, known and unknown. I don’t know if the Catholics do the same? I recall being taught in Catholic grade school that there were 3 components necessary for a sin to be a sin. 1) it has to be wrong, 2) you have to know it’s wrong and 3) you do it anyway. Maybe that was specific to mortal sin?

    Anyway…those yet undiscovered unknown ones. Those are the ones I want to have sufficient love in Christ to be able to see. I think if I could see some of those, some of my “same old, same old” sins could become history…

  4. An American Dominican I know asked the same question in confession, and got the same straightforward answer from his confessor!

    Perry is right on the money: I am not tempted (so far) to commit devil worship or toe-sucking (a curious paraphilia beloved of certain duchesses), but fall all the time into immoderate anger, that sin against which James in his epistle thunders so terribly.

    As to unknown sins – I assume these may refer to sins whose wickedness we are blind to, having a complicit complacent conscience: we pray that God reveal them to us, that, knowing our these faults, we may beg for His help to overcome them.

    A sure sign of spiritual growth (that is, growth in the Spirit, the Sanctifier and Lifegiver) is becoming aware of previously unknown, unrecognized sins – while not falling into scrupulosity, of course.

  5. Peregrinus

    I recall being taught in Catholic grade school that there were 3 components necessary for a sin to be a sin. 1) it has to be wrong, 2) you have to know it’s wrong and 3) you do it anyway. Maybe that was specific to mortal sin?

    Grave matter, full knowledge, free choice – yup, that’s mortal sin.

    I must say I like the Orthodox practice you describe of explicitly seeking forgiveness for “sins known and unknown”. It may not be possible to commit a mortal sin unknowingly, but we can certainly sin without knowing it – through indifference, negligence, ignorance, etc. In fact we probably do this quite a bit.

    In my youth there was probably an excessive focus on the classification of sins into mortal and venial. Since the distinction depends to a large extent on psychological factors (knowledge, understanding, freedom) which are essentially subjective, in practice the classification has to be pretty tentative. And it distracts attention from what I think should be the real focus of our moral journey, which should be the cultivation of habits of virtue. Ultimately the important thing about a sin is not that it’s mortal or venial, but that it’s a sin. Acknowledging sins “known and unknown” is at the same time an acceptance of the importance of discernment, and an acceptance that discernment sometimes fails us, which is why it is important to develop virtuous habits and instincts.

  6. From the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    304. Which sins must be confessed?

    All grave sins not yet confessed, which a careful examination of conscience brings to mind, must be brought to the sacrament of Penance. The confession of serious sins is the only ordinary way to obtain forgiveness.

    305. When is a person obliged to confess mortal sins?

    Each of the faithful who has reached the age of discretion is bound to confess his or her mortal sins at least once a year and always before receiving Holy Communion.

    306. Why can venial sins also be the object of sacramental confession?

    The confession of venial sins is strongly recommended by the Church, even if this is not strictly necessary, because it helps us to form a correct conscience and to fight against evil tendencies. It allows us to be healed by Christ and to progress in the life of the Spirit.

    Note that there is nothing in this which would require the confession of “unknown sins” – but that stands to reason: How can we confess something of which we are unaware? I am sure that we can and do transgress “unknowingly”, its just that we cannot specify what these are if they are not made known to us even by the most vigorous of personal examinations. Yet, it is usually my practice to end my confession with the words “For this and all my other sins I ask forgiveness”.

    In doing so, I mean to include any venial sins that I may not have mentioned. Not deliberately withheld, mind you, just that a) I go to reconciliation to receive forgiveness for my mortal sins, b) it would take an eternity to confess all the venial sins of which I could probably accuse myself and I need to be considerate for those still waiting in line, and c) I probably do not spend quite the amount of time in personal examination and moral book-keeping that I could or should.

  7. Peregrinus

    The “am I a hypocrite” question I think betrays a fundamental confusion.

    The view that I should not be regularly confessing the same sins implies that, having confessed my sin, I shouldn’t commit it again.

    As a moral statement, that’s somewhat misleading. The reason I shouldn’t commit my sin again is not because I have confessed it, but because it’s a sin. Pretty much by definition, if it’s a sin, I shouldn’t commit it. This is true whether or not I confess it. I don’t think it becomes more true when I confess it. If I commit adultery that’s gravely wrong, but it doesn’t become more gravely wrong because I committed adultery last year with someone else, repented of it and confessed.

    And we can see this very clearly if we look at the converse. Suppose I commit adultery (all this is hypothetical, darling, if you’re reading!) and, knowing myself to be (a) very weak, and (b) in the grip of a grand and compulsive passion, I reckon it’s likely that I’ll do it again, so I don’t confess it. As predicted, I have a second adulterous encounter. Is it any less wrong because I never confessed the first? Clearly not.

    And yet confession is associated with repentance – metanoia, a change of heart. If I carry on committing the same sins, doesn’t that mean that I haven’t really changed my heart – that my confession is in a sense dishonest? On this view, the hypocrisy lies not in repeatedly committing the same sin, but in repeatedly confessing it, while knowing that I am quite likely to commit it again and therefore haven’t really repented of it. On this view, I wouldn’t confess my adultery until the adulterous relationship is over, and I have reconciled with my spouse and am, in fact, no longer tempted to adultery.

    I think this is to misunderstand repentance. Repentance is turning towards God but, to continue the spatial metaphor, you can turn towards God while still standing in the same place. You are living the same life, in the same circumstances; you are the same person, with the same formative experiences, psychological characteristics, etc. You may recognise your behaviour as sinful and make a strong act of will to avoid it, but will still be tempted, as you always were.

    Now, it may be that, having repented, you can take steps to change your life, or tackle issues in yourself or your circumstances or your relationships that will help matters – or it may not. But, even where this is possible – and often it isn’t – you do that because you have repented, not as a precursor to repentance.

    So, if you’ve a history of adultery, you are called to repentance. And, if you do repent, you may be able to take steps – including confession, which can confer both spiritual graces and psychological assistance to help you take these steps – which will help you to address the problems that lead to this sinful and harmful behaviour. This will help, and it’s not inevitable that you will continue to commit adultery. But don’t expect miracles. The truth is that, if you do sin again, it is still far more likely to be adultery than something wholly novel.

    • And yet, Perry, and yet…

      I can’t go to confession and expect an effective absolution if I have an appointment with my mistress in my diary that I still intend to keep.

      This is, I expect, where the Church’s distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition comes in. Perfect contrition leads to full forgiveness – even (yes, EVEN) without the Sacrament. BUT (and here is the tricky part), PERFECT contrition – full and total repentance that results in a new life, not only a turning toward God but an actual and consistent movement in a Godward direction that results from a total repudiation of past sin – is blessedly difficult. It cannot be effected by one’s own efforts, and really (in my experience) can only be regarded as an extraordinary grace from the Holy Spirit brought about by a life-changing infusion of charity towards God and neighbour. It is, in fact, one of the Spirit’s greatest miracles. We marvel when we hear of it – that is why conversion testimonies are so powerful.

      That’s what the Sacrament is there for. The Sacrament of Penance is the ORDINARY means of forgiveness and “works” even where the contrition is less than “perfect”, ie. where you love your wife, and really want to be faithful to her, but the appointment with your mistress is still in your diary, even though you intend to cancel it just as soon as you have been to confession…

      And that might just be what someone might just call “hypocritical”. Well. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to add “hypocrisy” to the list of sins to be confessed when you go to confession.

      • Peregrinus

        I can’t go to confession and expect an effective absolution if I have an appointment with my mistress in my diary that I still intend to keep.

        Sure. There’s a big difference between “I’m not ready to change my behaviour yet, though I do intend to someday” and “I want to change my behaviour and am ready to try (even though my past experience suggests that this will not be easy, and I may not immediately succeed)”.

        This is, I expect, where the Church’s distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition comes in. Perfect contrition leads to full forgiveness – even (yes, EVEN) without the Sacrament. BUT (and here is the tricky part), PERFECT contrition – full and total repentance that results in a new life, not only a turning toward God but an actual and consistent movement in a Godward direction that results from a total repudiation of past sin – is blessedly difficult. It cannot be effected by one’s own efforts, and really (in my experience) can only be regarded as an extraordinary grace from the Holy Spirit brought about by a life-changing infusion of charity towards God and neighbour. It is, in fact, one of the Spirit’s greatest miracles. We marvel when we hear of it – that is why conversion testimonies are so powerful.

        Hmmm. I recall being taught that perfect contrition is repentance arising from the love of God, whereas imperfect contrition is repentance arising from more selfish (though not necessarily completely unworthy) motives, such as the fear of damnation, or the desire to attain heaven, or to save my marriage, or to be in control of my life, or whatever. What distinguishes them is motive, not intensity. So I could experience perfect contrition, and yet fall back into sin, and be aware of this from the outset as a real possibility. Conversely, my imperfect contrition may be enough to keep me from sinning again – or, at any rate, to keep me from that particular sin again. Certainly, true and effective repentance requires grace, but I don’t think perfect contrition is a “test” we have to pass before we can hope for grace.

  8. Good analysis, Perry!

    Regarding “unknown sins”, perhaps the relevant line is from Psalm 18(19):13 – Delicta quis intellegit? ab occultis meis munda me (“Who can understand sins? from my secret ones cleanse me”).

    We can all be so very blind to our faults…

    Perhaps married persons could bring their spouse into the confessional with them, to prompt them about certain concerns they otherwise could overlook? 😉

  9. Perhaps married persons could bring their spouse into the confessional with them, to prompt them about certain concerns they otherwise could overlook?

    😀 Before I leave for confession I frequently ask my husband if he thinks there is anything specifically I should be confessing. Wisely…he can’t think of a thing!

  10. Matthias

    My wife -not a Christian- always reminds me of my shortcomings-usually every thing i say and everything I do. However I would not ask her if there is any thing I need to be confessing as my sins “are ever before me” ,but I am glad Dixie that from your comments your have a good spiritual relationship with your husband.
    When i was a wee bairn,we had a pastor-Jabez Wiltshire by name- who when someone made a comment about the churches being full of hypocrites ,would say “well why don;t you come and join us,and make one more”

  11. I’ve been told by my spiritual director that it can sometimes take years before the same old habitual sin is kicked out of your system. Not that there is no danger of re-acquiring the habit if we do not take care.

    But while in the thick of things, I’m reminded of a verse saying that “we see no end to problems, but never despair”.

  12. Here is another question: Is it possible for God not to will to remove an imperfection (not a sin) in you?