Admonish the Sinner: An Unpopular Mercy

Some spiritual works of mercy are more popular than others. “Comfort the Sorrowful” and “Counsel the Doubtful,” for example, have their own line of greeting cards with flowers and small, fuzzy animals on them. People buy them by the millions. But then there’s “Admonish the Sinner.” Has anybody bothered testing the market for this one?

You live in sin

Like Ann Boleyn 

I’ve heard you’re drinking 

Bathtub gin

The problem with this work of mercy is that nobody wants it. Feed me, give me a drink, lend me that extra coat. But who are you to go and tell me I’m wrong?

Why does God make us weaklings do this job? Doesn’t He know the trouble He’s causing? On the receiving end, you have people like Herod. They totally need the message but are likely to serve your head on a platter if you dare. On the giving end, you have people like the Pharisees, who don’t want to fix you so much as destroy you.

Why trust us to admonish the sinner? Wouldn’t it be safer to just rain fire and brimstone?

Luckily, He did leave us with a rule that helps us know the right way and the wrong way to issue fraternal correction. It is called The Golden Rule. We treat the person as we would wish to be treated. Note: Most of us do not wish to be treated as we rightfully deserve. By anyone. Be he a fellow sinner or God Himself. God knows that. There are prayers in the Mass to that effect: “Do not consider what we truly deserve BUT…” How much more should we sinners show mercy when we are guilty ourselves?

Besides, it’s the only way that really works. I know. I’ve experienced both.

Many years ago I met a lady with eleven kids. Since I had five at the time I thought it perfectly safe to joke, “You’re done right?” Joke! I had no intention of prying or denying the sovereignty of what God intended. When she got all flustered trying to think of a response, I knew something had gone wrong.

The letter came about two weeks later. From the looks of it she had spent those two weeks kneeling in church, praying for discernment and asking God to let this cup pass away from her.

Three pages of perfect humility.

An entire page was dedicated to my family’s loveliness. There was a brief mention of an enclosure about healthy eating which seemed random but was actually the set up for it: “We all need to stay healthy because we never know how many children God will send us.” The smiley face at the end clinched it. Translation: “I’ve just told you something I am afraid will hurt your feelings. Please don’t be mad! I think you’re really nice!” Yup. I had just gotten corrected.

Then there was the other memorable time for which I am still considering the option of electro-shock therapy. I had written an article called Mass Cops about being confronted by an unknown woman at Mass about my noisy 2-year-old son’s behavior.

The letter came about two weeks later. From the looks of it she spent those two weeks arranging dry twigs around a wooden stake until it was just so.

Three pages of utter vitriol.

An entire page was dedicated to the concepts of “airhead” (me) and “brat” (my child). The clincher was a sincere prayer that I’d see the light. Translation: “May you not go to hell as you deserve, just to the torments of purgatory until the end of time.” Yup. I had just gotten corrected… or perhaps trampled to death.

What is the difference between the two letters? The first came from a person who dreaded the job. The second got clear satisfaction from it. The first person recognized that Admonish the Sinner is difficult but is a work of mercy. The second acted as if it is not a work of mercy but a work of justice, andthat the sender is the judge.

Even under the best conditions, Admonish the Sinner doesn’t stand much of a chance.

It’s a bitter pill that even St. Therese had a hard time swallowing. If ego overides charity and respect it is guaranteed not to work. The message will be lost. I know. I’ve blown it too. Sometimes I lie awake at night reliving the various ways and wondering if God is really omnipotent enough to bring good out of it.

Even when you admonish with charity and respect and smiley faces, most people are just not going to clasp your hands and tearfully thank you for saving them from the abyss. No. It’s more likely that they’ll put their hands around your neck and attempt to choke you. That’s where another unpopular spiritual work of mercy comes in: Bear wrongs patiently. (Again, don’t look at me. Picture instead St. Therese. Or your dog.)

At least if your words fail, your humility might succeed. Not that day. Not that month. Not that year. Long, long after the sting of correction is gone, it might bear fruit.

Even Herod regretted that platter incident.

This article originally appeared in Faith and Family, Summer 2011. Now read: Mass Cops.

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