Eons ago, when I used to teach high school religion to sophomores and juniors, invariably the subject of purgatory would come up since it was a Catholic classroom. I let my students go back and forth, arguing for a while about almost every post death experience… Almost always, every post life possibility was vehemently argued for, except for purgatory. We’d have the reincarnation group making their arguments, and of course we’d have both Catholics and non-Catholics passionately arguing for only heaven or hell as afterlife possibilities. Of course we’d always find or hear one or two novel perspectives that were unique to the persons themselves, etc. After about 15 minutes of discussion and arguing, the students would pause and ask about my perspectives – especially whether I believed in purgatory or not.
I always answered the question in the following manner: first, I compared myself to all those who’ve taught and tried to live the faith in the past, sharing that I did not believe that I was in a league with most of them – especially the St. Paul’s and Mother Teresa’s of the world, and if these were examples of people who went straight to heaven – I can honestly say, “I’m not there (walking in holiness as they did) yet!!!” However, I quickly added, that by faith and by grace I believe and truly hope that I wouldn’t go to hell either!!!!! As is the case with theological arguments, despite making good sense, it was unconvincing and didn’t move the hearts of many students. After briefly stating that argument, I then hit them with a second gut punch, which caught many of them off guard…
I asked my students to take three or four minutes to envision both the worst people they believed who ever lived in history and their own personal worst enemies. If you know anything about teenagers, this was easy for most… After giving them three or four minutes to silently picture and identify those in both categories, I often saw in the eyes and on the faces of some of my best students, a gleefully hate that could virtually wish death with just a glance!!! After all my students silently identified their enemies, I had them imagine suddenly dying and finding themselves at the pearly gates. And then I instructed them to imagine the Archangel Gabriel welcoming them into heaven, opening the gates, only to see their most hated enemies standing right there before them!!!
The sheer look of utter confusion and disbelief on most of my students faces was no surprise to me! Exactly at this moment, I asked them, “What’s wrong? What are you feeling?” Few were able to articulate the confusion that they felt amidst their passionate feelings of hate. I immediately questioned the class, asking “What do you think the Archangel Gabriel will say to you, precisely at this moment?” Not a single student would answer the question… Then I’d say, “He would point his finger away from the pearly gates and say, ‘Go… …you are not ready yet, because you have not yet learned to love your enemies…” Then we would read the Poem of Gerontius together…
As a high school teacher, I used that story to explain the Catholic teaching about purgatory – how we, in fact, can be saved by God’s grace but still not yet ready to enter into eternal life. Now, as a hospital chaplain and Christian writer, I share it with you my readers to highlight that which few Christians want to contemplate: our personal list of unforgivable sins that each one of us must learn how to forgive, if we are going to make it into heaven.
Taking this example to its very realistic conclusion, who will stun you when the pearly gates are opened? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial rapist? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a murderer or a mass murderer? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a sexual abuser? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a lifetime abuser of drugs and/or alcohol? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial adulterer or perhaps a child molester standing inside of them? I believe that the answer to each of these questions regarding whether those who have committed our specific unforgivable sin will be able to somehow get into heaven, is yes!!!
You/me/we will probably see some of our worst enemies – people who have committed our specific brand of unforgivable sin(s) but who have then repented – in heaven!!! Given the story and message of the Good Thief who died on Calvary with Jesus and the Great Love of God that Jesus modeled and shared in His Gospel life, death and resurrection, the Christian – who is really Christian – must say yes… …at least to the hope and possibility of forgiveness being given to those we hate the most!
This brings me back to the central question of this essay: what is on your list of unforgivable sins? …And how can we learn and grow from having them?
Can you and have you even identified what’s on your list? Have you identified the sinner you are least ready or willing to love by forgiving? Or do you think you can die in and with your hatred of your enemies and STILL get into heaven?
Acknowledging and identifying your personal list of unforgivable sins is one possible starting point for learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out that Gospel call to love our enemies.
It also can be an important starting point to begin learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out the Gospel call to forgive others – as God forgives us.
Loving our Enemies and Learning to Truly Forgive – is truly, the very hard, heart work which can, by grace and prayer, lead to the very real healing in and of our hearts. It is that graced work which can unlock our minds, hearts and will, freeing us to love again and to love in new and greater ways than before.
The Gospel call and spiritual work of loving our enemies and learning to truly forgive, starts with acknowledging our specific challenges regarding these Gospel invitations in our daily prayer lives. Doing so can lead to both the restoration of important relationships and the loosening of those past shackles that still seek to binds us in our lives…
I invite you to first, sit down… And to write out your list…
And then – each day – to begin praying over it and, more importantly, to begin praying – by name – for those who have sinned in these unforgivable ways against you and against those whom you love.
Despite realizing that you are not a murderer, serial rapist or adulterer, etc., you too may come to the day when you begin to acknowledge and pray about the probable fact, that, perhaps you too, have done the unforgivable in someone else’s life and are on somebody else’s list… …And that you too, may need to be forgiven for what another deems as, unforgivable.