Continuing our review of the Spiritual Works of Mercy in this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, we come to “counsel the doubtful” and “admonish sinners.”
Well, first of all, I don’t think that doubts are necessarily bad. They can lead us to do the hard work of delving deeper into our faith, to come to a more mature, more complete, more open and complex appreciation of our faith. Doubts do require work, and that can be uncomfortable and even scary but not necessarily bad. So the first thing to do if you plan to counsel the doubtful is NOT to blame the doubting person.
Counseling is more often accomplished with our ears than with our mouths. People struggling with doubts don’t need platitudes, but they do need to be listened to and taken seriously. For every minute of talking and giving advice, try to spend at least five minutes listening. It often helps to admit your own doubts. For very few of us is our faith so strong that it is unassailable. We see so much suffering and waste and horror in the world, we experience such bitter disappointments and failures, that doubts about a good and just God are bound to arise. If not, then you are not paying attention. Did not Jesus cry from the cross “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (MT 27:46)
Maybe a better way of expressing this spiritual work of mercy is not “counseling the doubtful” as if we had all the answers, but rather “accompanying the doubtful.” We walk with them on the journey of faith, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest. We are fellow travelers, not know-it-alls.
The other spiritual work we look at today is “admonish sinners.” Hmmm. Have any of you ever done this? I would bet the success rate has been pretty low. Sinners don’t normally take kindly to admonishment. Even though it seldom does any good, some people love to continue practicing this spiritual work and are forever admonishing sinners left, right and center.
It seems to me that the most effective admonishment is by example, not by words. This approach is much harder, more time consuming, and infinitely less satisfying. There is nothing quite so satisfying than a strong rebuke and admonishment of those sinners. It makes us feel righteous and important and holy. That is why we do it so often. It just doesn’t do any good.
If you really want to admonish sinners then you first of all need to stop sinning yourself. This is the first and indispensable step. So many of us try to skip to step two, but that won’t work. First and foremost we need to stop sinning ourselves. Then and only then can we have any hope of admonishing sinners. Jesus tells us to take the log out of our own eye first, and then we can help our brother take the splinter out of his (MT 7:3-5). This is not easy, but it is certainly worthwhile. St. James, ever pragmatic, in his Epistle tells us: “My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.