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How does a person accept God’s mercy?

Q: Dear Father John, I am helping a woman in her spiritual growth (mainly through helping her come up with a program of life), Savoldo,_santi_antonio_abate_e_paolo Wikimedia Commonsand something came up that I wanted to ask you about. She has shared with me some of what she regrets, and some of what she is having a hard time forgiving herself for. Intellectually she knows that God forgives, but she hasn’t accepted His mercy into her heart. I am guessing that this resistance is a manifestation of spiritual pride. Is that correct? And what virtues would help her overcome this? Abandonment? Humility? Mercy?

A: God bless you for helping a fellow-pilgrim along the way of holiness!

I can’t really give a specific answer to this question. So many factors are at play. It would really depend on how central a force her resistance to mercy plays in her life, and on the roots of why she resists mercy. There could be some family-of-origin issues that may be exacerbated by either pride or vanity.

Root Sins in Perspective

That said, I think it is important to remember that when we identify our root sin (sensuality, vanity, or pride), we are not saying that we have ONLY that sin – all of us actually have all three tendencies: tendencies to base our life’s meaning on comfort, or other people’s opinions, or our own achievements. It’s just that, because of personality characteristics and formation experiences, one of the three is almost always more influential in our day-to-day lives.

Also, it’s always good to remember that a program of life is useful above all for finding ways to direct our intentional exercise of and growth in virtue. It helps us answer the question: “What is God asking me to work on in my spiritual life right now?” Especially in the early stages of spiritual growth, this approach will require us to identify specific and common manifestations of selfishness in our daily lives. In overcoming or changing those, we will have to intentionally develop counteracting virtues. But those specific manifestations of selfishness can be symptoms of more than one sinful tendency. So by overemphasizing our root sin, we can sometimes confuse ourselves. The real value of knowing one’s root sin comes in being able to recognize where the devil will more likely try to trip us up; if he knows where there is a structural weakness in the wall around our interior castle, he will try to exploit it.

Overcoming Resistance to Mercy

The particular virtue needed by anyone struggling with resistance to mercy is confidence in God, trust in God. That is the intersection of faith, hope, and love, and it flows especially out of meditating on God’s goodness (this would be a good theme of her daily mental prayer and her spiritual reading). Making conscious acts of obedience to God’s will (i.e., consciously doing even the most mundane activities because we recognize God’s will in them – as expressed in the Commandments and the responsibilities of our state in life, for example) is always an effective way to exercise that trust. When it’s time to wash the dishes, I can do it just because I have to, which is fine, or I can do it with an interior act of trustful surrender to God’s will as expressed in my normal duties, which is better, and which exercises our confidence in God.

The real growth will also happen as she comes to understand her particular reasons for having difficulty in trusting God – usually the reasons go much deeper than we realize. God will reveal them little by little, when he sees fit. We just have to keep asking for light, and following where he leads.

God bless you!

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • patricia

    Fr John and person who ask the question

    It is so deep and profound to not believe that God’s forgive it is usually results from a child hood trauma where maybe there was no forgiveness. She needs to learn just how much God had forgiven her and learn with her heart and not just with her mind. Great forgiveness comes great Love. We all are ashamed of things we have done. I know I have the same feelings. Fr. John correct me if I am wrong is not pride a lie told my self and sometimes others. When I am struggling with forgiveness even forgiveness of myself. I confess it and let God do the rest and resolve to accept forgiveness and to forgive.

    • LizEst

      It’s true what you say, “We all are ashamed of things we have done.” Scripture puts it very well, “Do not remember the sins of my youth. In your love remember me” (Psalm 25:7).

      And, this fits so nicely with the optional concluding prayer of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, “Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself” (Diary of St. Faustina, 950).”

      When we submit ourselves to the Lord’s will, we submit ourselves to His love AND his mercy. They are part and parcel of how the God loves us into the happiness of eternal life with him. God bless you, Patricia. Happy Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, today!

      • Marg

        Thank you Liz for posting this scripture Ps 25:7. and the prayer of the Divine Mercy. I need to write this prayer out and pray it often. Its so easy to get discouraged in difficult times and we need to trust in God’s Love and Mercy! thanks Liz for your words of encouragement today!

  • Lynn

    There is something that does not sit right with me on this. The answer presumes the reason why the woman can’t accept God’s mercy is “spiritual pride” as the spiritual director surmised. What if it is overscrupulousness, or a feeling of a lack of self worth, or the fact that she might see the effects of her sins and she can’t eradicate them so that she feels that her sins are so great that God should not condone them by showing her mercy. I think that perhaps she should just be told to hold that worry in abeyance, that God will judge her at the end of her life, and then she will know and she can accept His Will at that time too. But in the meantime, spend the rest of her life doing God’s will to the best of her ability and growing in her spiritual life. Just have her put the whole thing in God’s hands and move on instead of saying that she has spiritual pride.

    • patricia

      I rescently attended a retreat hearts afire by divine mercy and Fr. Mike said we as humans have difficulty accepting Jesus MercyGodsMercy and we comprehend it in our minds but often do not live it in our hearts. I know I am guilty of this. Gods mercy is different from the mercy of the world. We have a hard time accepting Gods mercy. Adoration and indeed spiritual direction helps and confessing I have a hard time of living Gods mercy in my heart and to renounce this and to will to trust in Gods mercy. We may not feel it emotionally but if we will it. God will take care of the rest. Most Sacred Heart Merciful Heart of Jesus Have Mercy on us and on the whole world.

    • LizEst

      Lynn – No, the answer does not presume spiritual pride. Father Bartunek says, “So many factors are at play. It would really depend on how central a force her resistance to mercy plays in her life, and on the roots of why she resists mercy. There could be some family-of-origin issues that may be exacerbated by either pride or vanity.” This is far different than “[presuming] the reason why the woman can’t accept God’s mercy is ‘spiritual pride’ as the spiritual director surmised.” What he says is that “so many factors are at play.”

      That said, apart from the example above, which could have its origin in different things, there is such a thing as spiritual pride. And, it can reveal itself, among other ways, as a refusal to accept God’s mercy. The classic example is that of Judas, who handed Jesus over but refused to accept God’s mercy because what he did was so evil (“I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” Matthew 27:4). Afterwards, Judas went off and hanged himself. Spiritual pride can also be seen in false humility, and other subtle manifestations. The devil uses many deceits to tempt us to this sin. Sometimes we are not at all aware that we harbor this and thereby show great resistance to, and denial of, any revelation of such.

      God bless you, Lynn…and, Happy Lord’s Day!

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  • LizEst

    You’re welcome, Marg. All the glory to the Lord. God bless you…good to see you posting again!

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    Where do I find information on the 3 Root Sins listed here. I have been struggling so much spiritually that I have been to the point of despair…and in a very scared and I feel dangerous place. I have not been able to “get ahold of mercy either”. My priest, Bless his heart…has no clue as to any help or direction and just says day by day keep on seeking! But I am becoming Spiritually and emotionally exhausted…any answers?