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Now Reading: Repentance and the Fatherhood of God

Repentance and the Fatherhood of God

One of the most common mistakes we make is thinking of sin as merely a legal matter. That is, that it sin is only about breaking a code of laws and rules and righteousness about conforming to them. But to think of sin and righteousness in strictly legal terms is to miss the point. Sin is not fundamentally legal; it is rather fundamentally relational.

Put another way, sin is a breaking of communion. It is a movement away from love into that which is not love. It is a turning away from the face of God into the darkness of the void. That is not to deny that God gives us commandments. Yet, these commandments do not form an arbitrary legal code. They rather signify the boundaries of  a relationship. They are guardrails around the covenant of love which God makes with us.

Fear and Legal Thinking

One problem with a strictly legal framework is that we begin to think of God as a judge, distant and severe, waiting to mete out punishment for our every infraction of his law. We believe in an abstract sense that he is good and that he loves us, and yet we can’t escape the fact that he is ready to pounce upon us the moment we break the least commandment of the law. Fear begins to dominate our relationship with God. Sinners that we are, we can’t help but see him as an adversary to be avoided rather than as a father to be loved.

Scrupulosity is the inevitable outcome of legal thinking. We no longer trust God’s goodness but instead fear his wrath. When we sin, we repent because we don’t want to go to hell. We repent to appease God’s anger, and more importantly, to earn his love and favor.

The Father and the Prodigal

What is the alternative to legal thinking? It is to realize that we are no longer slaves, but sons. Whether or not we live like it, our entire identity is that of sons of the Most high God. To you God utters the words, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” To you, God says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This is a stupendous reality—one we hardly meditate on enough.

There is no better illustration of the Father’s love for us than the tale of the prodigal son. The selfish prodigal took advantage of his father’s goodness. He couldn’t wait for his father to die and so demanded his inheritance immediately. Such greed, such craven disrespect. Moreover, when he finally received his inheritance, he wasted it in the worst possible way: on gambling and drunkenness and prostitutes. A larger insult could not possibly be imagined.

When the prodigal son finally came to his senses, he realized that he was better off in his father’s house. Even at this moment, however, it could hardly be said that his motives for repentance were pure. They were very much like our motives too often: Simply seeking to avoid misery and to stay out of hell. He wanted to grovel a bit and then be a slave in his Father’s house. Surely this would be better than eating from a pig’s trough. So he trudged home expecting wrath and a good shaming from his father. For how could anyone forgive such wrongs?

But then he did return home, and he received a shock. His father did not wait for him, arms crossed in righteous anger, to humiliate him and remind him of his wrongs. No, he ran to him and embraced him. He clothed him in his rich garments and prepared for him a feast.

The Heart of Repentance

Do you not understand? God loves you. He is not a policeman waiting to pounce like the ruthless Javert in Les Misérables. He is not a cold and calculating judge dedicated to a blind and impartial justice. He is a Father who has never stopped loving you and who runs to meet you the moment you turn toward him.

I believe it was only when the prodigal son received the father’s mercy that he experienced true repentance. Up until that moment, he was still thinking like a slave. He did not trust his father’s goodness and only expected the justice he truly deserved. But when he experienced his father’s radical forgiveness, when he realized he was and always would be a beloved son, everything changed.

Likewise with us. When we stop thinking like groveling slaves that have to earn God’s love, a paradigm shift occurs. We no longer fear God in the sense of expecting fierce retribution, but walk in the freedom and confidence of love. “Perfect love casts out fear,” as the Apostle says. We don’t repent because we want God to love us again, we repent because God has never stopped loving us. And that makes all the difference.

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Sam Guzman

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18 People Replies to “Repentance and the Fatherhood of God”

  1. Michael Iwaskewycz

    The older envious brother made this accusation to his father upon learning of his brother’s return home, Can anyone clarify this because we automatically tend to go along with this statement without question. The real sin was the breaking of communion between father and son and we seem to accept older son’s explanation with the salacious details, as if these were the reasons for the transgression. Don’t we somehow enjoy listening to this kind of gossip while saying we are not like that.?

  2. Michael Iwaskewycz

    Where exactly in the gospel is it mentioned that the prodigal son wasted his inheritance on “gambling, drunkenness and prostitutes?” I am an avid follower of Bishop Sheen’s writings and he presents the very same question in one of his books.

  3. Jeremiah J Harrison

    Sam, enough could not be said about this idea of thinking like a slave vs. thinking like a son. I have been afflicted with slavish thinking most all of my life, this is a beautiful exposition of living as a son. Good piece, neighbor!

  4. Bill

    My son just finished going to Catholic school and was just baptized and confirmed. He has a mental illness and no friends, but loves his mass and church. Your article will help me understand and forgive him if i ever need to forgive him. I now know God always will.

  5. Nicole

    Thanks for this! Another example I’ve used with my kids is that adultery is a mortal sin, but that’s not the reason I don’t do it. The reason I don’t commit adultery is because I love my husband and would never want to hurt him. We are converts and just celebrated our 3rd anniversary as Catholics this Easter. We will never tire of learning more about our faith and we appreciate everything your share on this website.

  6. doubletrouble

    Wonderful piece, Sam!
    The PS story has been my favorite since I returned to the Church after a 40 year absence.
    This article is truly an epiphany for me, as I have been a ‘legal’ thinker- thank you!

  7. Ron

    To be honest, at first this post confused and unsettled me, but on a re-read of it the words “… that sin is only about breaking a code of laws and rules …” [with focus on “only”] enabled the penny to drop. The misunderstanding arose because I sincerely believe we need a healthy fear of breaking laws/rules (aka guidelines), not for fear of punishment, but for the fear of the detrimental impact it will have in our relationship with God (and others as other commenters have stated above).

    After further reflection, it appears that my understanding firmly stems from the Act of Contrition that we pray at after receiving penance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation which does not focus “only” on the breaking of laws …

    O my God, I am heartily sorry for having
    offended Thee, and I detest all my sins
    because I dread the loss of Heaven and
    the pains of hell. But most of all,
    because they offend Thee, my God,
    Who art all good and deserving of all of
    my love. I firmly resolve, with the help
    of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do
    penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

    1. Yes, there is a balance involved. God does give us commandments are we are expected to keep them. Yet, too often we lose focus on what’s really important–our sonship. This post was intended to serve as a corrective to a tendency I see among some Catholics, including myself, to over-focus on rule keeping while forgetting the summary of the law, which is always love.

      1. Ron

        Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are:
        1. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind.
        2. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

        God asks us to ‘love’ unconditionally, so how is an over-focus on His commandments a bad thing, and how can we be forgetting ‘the summary of law’ if we do?

        Does God love us unconditionally? Absolutely.
        Is He OK with us not keeping the rules that He has told us to keep through the Old Testament, Jesus and the apostles? Sure, but let’s not think He’s ‘happy’ about it.

        I understand we can’t just be focused on rules and need to also focus on having a loving relationship with God and others, but the basis for those relationships is respect, trust, and hope, and relies on us living our lives in a way that God intended … in line with the rules.

        My real fear is the prevalent disregard for God’s commandments and the liberal redirection/distraction of promoting God ONLY as a forgiving, merciful and loving God that doesn’t care too much for His commandments … with most then taking the leap that because of His forgiveness, mercy and love, we all go to heaven!

        I’m sorry for not understanding the post as it was intended, and hopefully I will gain the wisdom one day to do so.

  8. Rich

    This is a great article and the theology is clear. I take the point of view that you could take this application and apply it to any human being, but obviously those we most interact with. Does anyone agree or disagree with this point of view. I mean to take nothing away from the distinction between God, and the rest of us. But, if you take the article, and replace “God” and “sons” with, for example, my wife/spouse it seems particularly valuable and insightful. If this makes sense, it goes on to say, that you could replace God with any human we meet. Of course, with any human, we will not experience the Mercy that is anticipated in the story, but it is meant to reflect on the article with only the viewpoint of myself to others.

  9. Glenn Davis

    Thanks Sam, appreciate your insight… I’ve been distracted, I truly appreciate your blog.

  10. Daniel DeLaGrange

    This is a great article. It has taken all the theology of Penance and reduced it to the core. I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to use this article with my 8th Grade religion class at our Catholic School here when we get to the section of sins and Confession.

  11. David Garza de Sanchez

    Amazing insight. Thank you.

  12. Andrew A

    God as Father. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized in a world where Muslims live in terror of Allah, Buddhists struggle through life as abandoned orphans, secularists fight each other for social control, and even many Catholics and other Christians become distracted and forget the nature of our intimate relationship with God. The demands (and the rewards) of a father are fundamentally different from those of an employer, policeman, or judge. It is less about performance on specific tasks, and more about becoming a worthy heir.

  13. Great reflection, Mr. Guzman — in particular. pointing out and illustrating the problems with thinking of sin only legalistically. God is love, and His love is mercy…


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