Have I Committed the 'Unforgivable Sin'?

A reader of this Q&A column who wishes anonymity (I will just call him "Mr. Feeling Lost") wrote me a poignant letter recently. He shared his deep feelings of guilt and condemnation by God that just will not go away, even though he has been to confession several times and emptied his heart of all the mortal sins he has ever committed. He is now left wondering:

Could it be, maybe, that I have committed the unforgivable sin that Jesus mentions in the Bible, without even knowing that I did it, and that is why I feel like God has abandoned me, and I can't shake that feeling?

Let me be as clear and direct with you as I can, Mr. Lost, with no monkey business and no big words to confuse the issue. The simple answer to your question is "No: no one can commit the unforgivable sin without any awareness of it. The mere fact that you care about whether you have committed it or not is a sure and certain sign that you haven't! A sin can only be "unforgivable" when the sinner refuses to seek forgiveness. In other words, the sinner is so hard-hearted that he or she no longer cares if they have offended God or even believes they are in need of His forgiveness. When the sinner hates Him so much anyway that he or that wouldn't let go of their pride and stoop to ask Him for anything at all. We're talking about the sinner who remains in that spiritual condition to the bitter end. You are hardly in that spiritual state, Mr. Lost. So for the rest of this column I am changing your name to "Mr. Not-So-Lost"!

Now let's look at this matter in greater depth.

The fact is you cannot commit any mortal sin without knowing that what you are doing is gravely wrong. For any sin to be classified as "mortal" it has to be a grave matter, and you have to commit it with full and free consent, and full knowledge that it is gravely wrong. Oh sure, people rationalize serious sins to themselves to justify themselves, sins like murder, adultery, and apostasy (for example: "I know it was very wrong, but I had to do it to prevent something else bad from happening," or "Well, maybe I had to violate the rights of some innocent people along the way, but so what? After all, to make an omelet you gotta crack a few eggs!" or "She never found out about it, so I guess it wasn't so bad."). But deep down inside, they know what they did was gravely wrong or they would not try to come up with such contorted rationalizations for their behavior!

Let's look more closely at this "unforgivable" sin mentioned by Jesus in the gospels. Let's try to get a handle on it. In Matthew 12:31-32 Jesus says:

Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but He who speaks a word against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this life or in the age to come.

Some people think that this unforgivable sin is just any sin of verbal blasphemy explicitly uttered against the Spirit of God. Does that mean that if I lose my cool and tell God, the Holy Spirit, to "go take a hike" that I am automatically lost forever, even if I am contrite about it afterward? Such a broad interpretation of Jesus' words ignores the context of Jesus' remarks.

In verse 24, Jesus has just heard the Pharisees charge Him with casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. For the Pharisees to call such clear and obvious works of the Holy Spirit works of the Devil manifested a depth of hardness of heart that could very well have been irrevocable. Jesus certainly seemed to think so. The old 19th century Catholic commentary on the New Testament by Fr. Leo Haydock had this to say on the matter:

The sin here spoken of is the sin of blasphemy, by which the Pharisees attributed the miracles of Christ wrought by the Spirit of God to Beelzebub, the prince of devils. Now this kind of sin is usually accompanied by so much obstinacy, and such willful opposing of the Spirit of God, and the known truth, that men who are guilty of it are seldom or ever converted; and therefore are never forgiven because they will not repent. ... St. Augustine, by this blasphemy against the Spirit, understands the sin of final impenitence, by which an obstinate sinner refuses to be converted, and therefore lives and dies hardened in his sins.

Father Haydock, following St. Augustine, has made a very important point here: Jesus did not say that anyone who commits blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven even if he or she repents of that sin. If a certain kind of sin of blasphemy goes so deep that it's truly unforgivable, there's a good reason for this. But the reason is not because our God of Mercy isn't willing to forgive, but because the sinner has rendered himself completely incapable of repentance, hardened beyond recall. Since God will not compel the person's repentance, there is nothing more He can do for him. He cannot forgive a heart that is stubbornly impenitent to the bitter end. As Jesus says in Rev 3:30: "I stand at the door and knock." But He will not kick the door down! We have to freely consent and let Him come in to our hearts, through repentance and faith.

Here is another good commentary on the subject, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, volume II, edited by Canon George D. Smith:

Both our Lord and St. John speak of a sin that shall not be forgiven. Our Lord calls it blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and St. John writes of the sin unto death [Jn 5:16]. The explanation of these statements removes all difficulty. This sin has been identified by some as final impenitence, which manifestly is not forgiven. A fuller explanation is that this sin is the hardening of the heart against grace, which makes a man refuse to seek pardon. Such a sinner certainly is not forgiven, for he will not ask. This is the age-long explanation of the Church's writers, and is consistent with the scriptural statements. St. John says the sin cannot be forgiven, not that it will not be forgiven [in other words, the blockage is not in God, but in the stubborn impenitence and hardness of heart of the sinner, right to end]. (p. 962).

This is also the teaching of the Catechism (entry 1864):

"Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept His mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins, and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence, and eternal loss.

So, Mr. Not-So-Lost, let me ask you a question: Are you sorry for all the grave sins that you have committed in your life, and have you been sorry enough and at least trusting enough in God's mercy to confess them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

I know the answer to this because you told me yourself in your letter: You have indeed repented and confessed them all. If so, then you could not have committed any unforgivable sin, no matter how you might feel at the moment. Our feelings are not always an accurate barometer of the truth. Maybe you cannot feel His forgiveness at the moment because of physical illness or exhaustion that is wreaking havoc with your brain chemistry. It's certainly possible. It happens to a lot of people, and the answer is rest and proper medical care. Or, maybe you cannot feel His forgiveness at the moment because you are carrying around some feelings of guilt deep inside you for something you didn't do yourself, but something evil that was done to you by someone else, for example, being sexually abused as a child or rejected or abandoned by a parent who ought to have loved you and helped you. Look deep within your heart, with the help of good counselors, and see if the hurt that won't go away might really reside in your emotions, and in your past.

What I do know for sure is that Jesus has forgiven you by the Blood of His Cross, the price that He paid for you because He loved you so much that He wanted to pardon and renew your heart and bring you to heaven to live with Him forever. Could a love like that ever be unwilling to forgive the penitent? And even if you had committed a grave sin that you had not yet confessed - even a terrible sin of uttering blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, one not so deep that it has hardened your heart irrevocably (if you had committed such a deep blasphemy, you would hardly be writing to me with concerns about having committed such a sin!) - then you only need to go to confession at once. Christ Jesus will heal and save you from it! Jesus never, ever said He is unwilling to forgive a contrite sinner! A sin is only unforgivable to those who refuse to seek forgiveness.

The Navarre Bible Commentary on these same verses from St. Matthew's gospel reminds us of all this:

God wants all men to be saved (I Tim 2:4) and he calls everyone to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). The redemption won by Christ is superabundant: it atones for all sins and extends to every man and woman (Rom 5:12-21). Christ gave His Church the power to forgive sins by means of the sacraments of Baptism and Penance. This power is unlimited, that is to say, the Church can pardon all sins of all the baptized as often as they confess their sins with the right disposition. This teaching is a dogma of the Faith (cf. Council of Trent, De Paenitentia, can 1).

Moreover, notice what our Savior says to St. Faustina. He puts no limit on His mercy and forgiveness at all for any contrite heart, no matter what they have done:

I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to my compassion, but on the contrary, I justify him in my unfathomable mercy. (Diary, entry 1146)

I never reject a contrite heart. (entry 1485)

Whoever places his trust in My mercy will be filled with divine peace at the hour of death. (entry 1520)

It suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative [that is, to a priest in sacramental confession] and to reveal to him one's misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint, there would be no [hope of] restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. (entry 1448)

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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