Good Friday: Sermon from St Alphonsus di Liguori
On the Number of Sins You Commit“Because sentence is not speedily pronounced against the evil, the children of men commit evil without fear.”–Eccl. viii. 11.
by St. Alphonsus Di Liguori
If God instantly chastised the man who insults him, we certainly should not see Him so much outraged as we do at present. But because the Lord does not instantly punish sinners, but waits for them, they are encouraged to offend Him the more. It is necessary to understand that, though God waits and bears, he does not wait and bear forever.
It is the opinion of many holy fathers –of St. Basil, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and others–that as God (according to the words of Scripture, Wis. xi. 21–“Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight”) has fixed for each the number of his days, the degrees of health and talent which He will give to him, so He has also determined the number of sins which he will pardon; and when this number is completed, he will pardon no more. And these fathers have not spoken at random, but resting on the sacred Scriptures. In one place the Lord says that He restrained His vengeance against the Amorrhites, because the number of their sins was not as yet filled up– “For as yet the iniquities of the Amorrhites are not at the full.” –Gen. xv. 16. In another place He says, “I will not add any more to have mercy on the house of Israel.” –Osee i. 6. Again he says, “All the men who have tempted me ten times . . . . shall not see the land.”–Num. xiv. 22, 23. “Thou hast,” says Job, “sealed up my offences as it were in a bag.” –Job xiv. 17. Sinners keep no account of their sins; but God keeps an account of them, that when the harvest is ripe,–that is, when the number of gins is completed,–he may take vengeance on them. “Put ye in the sickles; for the harvest is ripe.”–Joel iii. 13. In another place he says, “Be not without fear about sin forgiven, and add not sin to sin.”–Eccl. v. 5. As if he said, O sinner! you must tremble even on account of the sins which I have forgiven you; for if you add another, it may happen that this new sin, along with those which have been pardoned, may complete the number, and then there shall be no more mercy for you. ”The Lord waiteth patiently, that, when the day of judgment shall come, he may punish them in the fulness of their sins.”–2 Mach. vi. 14. God waits till the measure of iniquities is filled up, and then he chastises the sinner.
Of such chastisements there are many examples in the Scriptures. Saul disobeyed God a second time, and was abandoned. When he entreated Samuel to intercede for him, saying, “Bear, I beseech thee, my sin, and return with me that I may adore the Lord,” (1 Kings xv. 25,) Samuel answered, “I will not return with thee, because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee.”–ver. 26. We have also the example of Balthassar, who, after having profaned the vessels of the temple at table, saw a hand writing on the wall, “Mane, Thecel, Phares.” Daniel came, and in explaining these words, among other things, said, “Thou art weighed in the ballnce, and art found wanting.”–Dan, v. 27. By these words he gave the king to understand that in the balance of divine justice the weight of his sins had made the scale descend. “The same night Balthassar, the Chaldean king, was killed.” O, how many miserable sinners meet with a similar fate! They live many years multiplying sins ; but, when the number is filled up, they are struck dead, and cast into hell. “They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment they go down to hell.”–Job xxi. 13. There are some who spend their time in investigating the number of the stars, the number of the angels, or the number of years which each shall live. But who can discover the number of sins which God will pardon each individual? We should, therefore, tremble. My brother, it may be that God will pardon you no more after the first criminal pleasure which you indulge, after the first thought to which you consent, or after the first sin which you commit.
Affections and Prayers
Ah! my God, I thank thee. How many, for fewer sins than I have committed, are now in hell! For them there is no pardon–no hope. And I am still living; I am not in hell; but, if I wish, I can hope for pardon and for paradise. I am sorry above all things for all my sins, because by them I have offended thee, who art infinite goodness. Eternal Father, look on the face of thy Christ; behold Thy Son dead on the cross for my sake; and through His merits have mercy on me. I wish to die rather than offend Thee any more. When I consider the sins I have committed, and the graces Thou hast bestowed on me, I have just reason to fear that, if I commit another sin, the measure shall be completed, and that I shall be damned. Ah! assist me by Thy grace; from Thee I hope for light and strength to be faithful to Thee. And if Thou seest that I should again offend Thee, take me out of my life, now that I hope to be in a state of grace. My God, I love Thee above all things, and I feel a greater fear of incurring Thy enmity than of death. For thy mercy’s sake do not permit me ever more to become Thy enemy. Mary, my mother, have pity on me; assist me; obtain for me holy perseverance.
Some sinners say, “But God is merciful.” “Who,” I ask, “denies it?” The mercy of God is infinite; but though His mercy is infinite, how many are cast into hell every day! “The Lord hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart.”–Is. Ixi. 1. God heals those who have a good will. He pardons sins, but He cannot pardon the determination to commit sin. These sinners will also say, “I am young.” You are young; but God counts not years, but sins. The number of sins which God pardons is not the same for all; some he pardons a hundred; others a thousand sins; others he sends to hell after the second sin. How many has the Lord condemned to eternal misery after the first sin! St. Gregory relates that a child of five years, for uttering a blasphemy, was condemned to hell. The most holy Virgin revealed to that great servant of God, Benedicta of Florence, that a girl twelve years old was damned after her first sin. A boy of eight years died after his first sin, and was lost. In the Gospel of St. Matthew we find that the Lord instantly cursed the fig-tree the first time he saw it without fruit. “May no fruit grow on thee forever. And immediately the fig-tree withered away.”–Matt, xxi. 19. Another time God said, “For three crimes of Damascus, and for four, I will not convert it.”–Amos i. 3. Perhaps some daring sinner may have the temerity to demand an account of God why He pardons some three sins, but not four. In this we must adore the judgments of God, and say with the apostle, “O depth of the riches, of the wisdom, and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments, and unsearchable His ways!”–Rom. xi. 33. The Lord, says St. Augustine, knows whom He spares, and whom He does not spare. To those who receive mercy He gives it gratuitously; from those who do not receive mercy, it is justly withheld.
The obstinate sinner may say, But I have so often offended God, and He has pardoned me; I also hope He will pardon me the sin which I intend to commit. But, I ask, must God spare you forever, because He has not hitherto chastised you? The measure shall be filled up, and vengeance shall come. Samson continued to allow himself to be deluded by Dalila, hoping that, as on former occasions, he would escape from the Philistines. “I will go out, as I did before, and shake myself”–Judges xvi. 20. But at last he was taken, and lost his life. “Say not, I have sinned, and what harm hath befallen me? “–Eccl. v. 4. Say not, says the Lord, I have committed so many sins, and God has not chastised me; “for the Most High is a patient rewarder; ” (Ibid.–that is, He will one day come and punish all; and the greater the mercy which He will have shown, the more severe shall be the chastisement which He will inflict. St. Chrysostom says, that God should be dreaded more when He bears with the obstinate sinner, than when He punishes him suddenly. Because, according to St Gregory, if they remain ungrateful, God punishes with the greatest rigor those whom He waits for with the greatest patience. And it often happens, adds the saint, that they whom God has borne with for a long time, die unexpectedly, and without time for repentance. And the greater the light which God will have given, the greater shall be your blindness and obstinacy in sin. “For it had been better for them not to have known the way of justice, than, after they have known it, to turn back.”–2 Pet. ii. 21. And St. Paul says, that it is morally impossible for a soul that sins after being enlightened, to be again converted. “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gifts, . . . . and are fallen away, to be renewed to penance.”–Heb. vi. 4, 6.
The threats of the Lord against those who are deaf to His calls, are truly alarming. “Because I have called, and you have refused, . . . . I also will laugh in your destruction, and will mock when that shall come to you which you feared.”–Prov. i. 24. Mark the words–I also: they mean that, as the sinner has mocked God by his confessions, by promising fidelity, and afterwards betraying him, so the Lord will mock him at the hour of death. The wise man says, “As a dog that returned to the vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly.”–Prov. xxvi. 11. In explaining this text, Denis the Carthusian says, that as a dog that eats what he has just vomited, is an object of disgust and abomination, so the sinner who relapses into sins which he has detested in the tribunal of penance, renders himself hateful in the sight of God.
Affections and Prayers
Behold me, O my God, at Thy feet. I am that disgusting dog that has so often eaten the forbidden apples, which I before detested. I do not deserve mercy; but, O my Redeemer, the blood which Thou hast shed for me encourages and obliges me to hope for it. How often have I offended Thee, and Thou hast pardoned me! I promised never more to offend Thee, and I have afterwards returned to the vomit; and Thou hast again pardoned me! What do I wait for? Is it that Thou mayst send me to hell, or that Thou mayst abandon me into the hand of my sins, which would be a greater punishment than hell? No, my God, I wish to amend; and in order to be faithful to Thee, I will put all my confidence in Thee. I will, whenever I shall be tempted, always and instantly have recourse to Thee. Hitherto, I have trusted in my promises and resolutions, and have neglected to recommend myself to Thee in my temptations; this has been the cause of my ruin. Henceforth Thou shalt be my hope and my strength, and thus I shall be able to do all things. “I can do all things in Him that strengtheneth me.”–Philip, iv. 13. Give me grace, then, O my Jesus, through Thy merits, to recommend myself to Thee, and to ask Thy aid in my wants. I love thee, O Sovereign Good, amiable above every good ; I wish to love Thee alone; but it is from Thee I must receive aid to love Thee. O Mary, my mother, do Thou also assist me by Thy intercession; keep me under Thy protection, and make me always invoke Thee when I shall be tempted. Thy name shall be my defence.
“My son, hast thou sinned? do so no more; but, for thy former sins, pray that they may be forgiven thee.”–Eccl. xxi. 1. Behold, dear Christian, the advice which your good Lord gives you because He desires your salvation. Son, offend me no more; but from this day forward be careful to ask pardon for your past transgressions. My brother, the more you have offended God, the more you should tremble at the thought of offending Him again; for the next sin which you commit shall make the balance of divine justice descend, and you shall be lost. I do not say absolutely that after another sin there shall be no more forgiveness for you; for this I do not know; but I say that it may happen. Hence, when you shall be tempted, say within yourself, “Perhaps God will pardon me no more, and I shall be lost!” Tell me; were it probable that certain food contained poison, would you eat it? If you had reason to think that on a certain road your enemies lay in wait to take away your life, would you pass that way as long as you could find another more free from danger? And what security, or even what probability, have you that, if you relapse into sin, you shall afterwards repent sincerely of it, and that you will not return again to the vomit? What just reason have you to believe that God will not strike you dead in the very act of sin, or that, after your sin, He will not abandon you?
O God! If you purchase a house, you spare no pains to get all the securities necessary to guard against the loss of your money; if you take medicine, you are careful to assure yourself that it cannot injure you; if you pass over a torrent, you cautiously avoid all danger of falling into it; and for a miserable gratification, for a beastly pleasure, you will risk your eternal salvation, saying, “I expect to go to confession after this sin.” But when, I ask, will you go to confession? “Perhaps on Sunday.” And who has promised that you will live till Sunday? Perhaps you intend to go to confession to-morrow. But who promises you to-morrow. How can you promise yourself that you shall go to confession to-morrow, when you know not whether you shall be among the living in another hour? “He,” continues the saint (St. Augustine), “who has promised pardon to penitents, has not promised to-morrow to sinners; perhaps He will give it, and perhaps He will not.” If you now commit sin, God, perhaps, will give you time for repentance, and perhaps He will not; and should He not give it, what shall become of you for all eternity? In the mean time, by consenting to sin, you lose your soul for the sake of a miserable pleasure, and expose yourself to the risk of being lost forever. Would you, for that vile gratification, risk a sum of one thousand ducats? Would you, for that momentary pleasure, expose to danger your all–your money, your houses, your possessions, your liberty and life? Surely you would not. Will you, then, for that wretched delight, lose all–your soul, heaven, and God? Do you believe that heaven, hell, and eternity, are truths of faith, or that they are fables? Do you believe that, if death overtake you in sin, you shall be lost forever? O, what temerity! what folly! to condemn yourself, by your own free act, to an eternity of torments, with the hope of afterwards reversing the sentence of your condemnation. No one is as foolish as to take poison with the hope of being preserved from death; and will you condemn yourself to eternal death, saying, I will, perhaps, be hereafter delivered from it? O folly which has brought, and brings, so many souls to hell! “Thou hast,” says the Lord, “trusted in thy wickedness . . . Evil shall come upon thee, and thou shalt not know the rising thereof.”–Isa. xlvii. 10, 11. You have sinned through a rash confidence in the divine mercy; vengeance shall unexpectedly fall upon you, and you shall not know whence it comes.
Affections and Prayers
Behold, O Lord, one of those fools who have so often lost their souls and Thy grace with the hope of afterwards recovering them. And hadst Thou struck me dead in those nights in which I was in sin, what would have become of me? I thank Thee for Thy mercy, which has waited for me, and which now makes me sensible of my folly. I see that Thou desirest my salvation; and I too wish to save my soul. I am sorry, O infinite Goodness, for having so often turned my back upon Thee. I love Thee with my whole heart. And I hope in the merits of Thy passion, O my Jesus, that I will never again be one of those fools. Pardon me at this moment, and give me the gift of Thy grace. I will never leave Thee again. “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped; let me never be confounded.” Ah no; I hope, O my Redeemer, never more to suffer the misfor tune and confusion of seeing myself deprived of Thy grace and love. Grant me holy perseverance, and give me the grace always to ask it of Thee by invoking Thy holy name and the name of Thy mother, and by saying, “Jesus, assist me; most holy Mary, pray for me.” Yes, my queen, if I have recourse to thee, I shall never be conquered. And when the temptation continues, obtain for me the grace not to cease to invoke thy aid.