02 June 2009

In the Case of Besetting Sins

Brothers, in providing pastoral care in cases of besetting sin, especially in dealing with those who struggle with chronic addictions (are there other kinds of besetting sins?), how may we discern between the recurring frailty and weakness of the flesh and persistent unrepentance?

Along the same lines, in such cases of besetting sin, can the pastoral care of souls be assisted and exercised by any sort of corporal discipline or by the assigning of penance? I am not asking whether a pastor should execute some kind of corporal punishment per se, but whether a pastor may request or require any particular bodily discipline or fruits of repentance.


William Weedon said...

"For all this I am sorry. I want to do better."

To want to do better is the key. And that means a willingness to do what it takes to DO better. Frankly, I find that many besetting sins fall into the category our Lord described in noting this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting. I have frequently asked a person to join me in prayer and fasting for the breaking of a particular sin's power in their life.

What we want to stress is that our God is a great Lover of Mankind, patient beyond our imagining, and yet also holy beyond anything we can even begin to fear. He wills to set His people free from sin. Prayer and fasting, combined with the frequent reception of the Sacrament and time in the Word of God are His essential tools for accomplishing His freeing work.

Penance is probably the wrong image; but therapy might be helpful. There are things one can teach. An example: the fellow with a problem with porn (which is almost invariably a problem with masturbation instead) needs to be willing to keep the door OPEN, to fast and pray and ask God's deliverance, and to stop fighting God's will for sexual release only in marital intercourse or nocturnal emission period.

The person who embraces this soon discovers that this is absolutely freeing and joy-filled and the exact opposite of legalism. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." "And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty!"

Christopher Gillespie said...

I agree with Fr. Weedon. From my lay experience, chronic addictions cannot be broken alone. Repentance needs confession. Exposing these often private sins before others (granted the confessor will keep it) enlists others both practically and spiritually.

To reiterate his minor point: Besetting sins are challenging if not dangerous to deal with privately. His example of masturbation is notable. Fasting may help. Following St. Paul, It is personal yet it is best dealt with in the marriage bed. Confess to your spouse and express your sexual desire for and with the one whom God has given you.

To answer Fr. Stuckwisch, I would agree that besetting sins are not unrepentant sins if they are confessed with a changed heart and mind toward what is right. Obviously, this determination requires pastoral discretion.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I am grateful for these initial responses, which are helpful. I agree that confession & absolution is fundamental, and that fasting and prayer are appropriate and beneficial to the resisting of sin.

A couple of further questions, then, in following up on these suggestions:

Pastor Weedon, perhaps my question to begin with is simply asking how we discern, as pastors, whether the penitent is willing to DO better; understanding that the willing and the actual doing may never be unified in this fragile life of sinful flesh. Is the willing identified or "measured," if one may even speak this way, by the prayer and fasting?

I am uncomfortable with proceeding as though absolution were ever given conditionally. But I am also wary of allowing absolution to be used to aid and abet the continuation of sin that is harmful to the penitent (and others) in both body and soul.

More practically speaking, how does one exemplify and encourage prayer and fasting? I mean that very concretely, specifically. How does one proceed in this way deliberately and with the purpose of addressing a particular addiction? What can I do, as a pastor, to demonstrate and assist my members in such a discipline?

Help me understand, brother, how "therapy" is a more helpful term or image than "penance." Are you thinking that "penance" has too much baggage attached to it? I'm not opposed to recommending "therapy" where it can address the physiological needs and weaknesses of the mind and the body, but it seems to me there is a place for "penance," properly understood, in the Christian faith and life; not as meritorious, but as a discipline. Or am I off base in thinking so?

While I do not wish to be any more specific than I have been about any particular situations, it may be that addressing the addictions of pornography and masturbation take the discussion in a different direction than I am most concerned with at this time. I know those besetting sins are particularly painful and difficult for people, but they also invite different means of addressing the temptation than other chronic addictions do.

Thank you again for this assistance.

Petersen said...

Great post. I struggle with this, and write with some trepidation. I am not expert. But since there are no experts, I will attempt an answer, with the sincere hope that it will be tempered with the wisdom of others.

The conscious needs forgiveness. The sinner is declared a saint and is not accountable for His sins. For the Lord Himself has answered for them.

Yet, at the same time, the body needs discipline. It needs the Law, rules, demands, goals, accountability, etc. This is not a matter of justification. The Law has nothing to do with justification. We are righteous on account of Christ, apart from the Law, despite our sins. But the old man, our fallen flesh, cannot be forgiven. He rejects the Gospel. He must be crushed with the Law.

Bringing the body under discipline is not a return to the Law. The Law never left. Because the old man never believed the Gospel. The absolution should be pronounced without strings or qualification. Sins, even besetting sins, cannot harm us. Christ has died for us. The devil is a liar. He has no true accusations. We have never sinned. At the same time, our fallen flesh is under judgment and needs to be restrained by the Law for the good of ourselves and our neighbors. Again, this is not a return to the Law, but rather applying the Law to what belongs to the Law, the fallen flesh, and applying the Gospel to what belongs to the Gospel, faith, the conscience, the New Man.

Sorting this out is easy with words. It is nearly impossible in application. Yet this is what we are called to do. My advice, in the end, is that confessors apply the Gospel with great liberality, that they mainly speak to faith, and trust that the Law will mostly do its work on its own. But again: this is almost impossible for us fallible and sinful men who have been called to this Holy Office.

Mike Keith said...

This is a GREAT topic of discussion and most helpful. I thank God for the internet and for the opportunity to be able to take part in such discussions which only a few years ago I would not have had the opportunity (we Canadians are rather spread out from each other in our parishes in many circumstances).

I would like to hear more about how fasting may aid in the breaking of a particular sin's power in one's life. This intrigues me and I must confess has not been part of my pastoral practice nor personal practice. I would like to hear more...

I have often wondered if we should be more direct in directing our people (and ourselves for that matter) in matters of piety. Not demanding but suggesting and encouraging. Many acts of piety are helpful to living one's faith but it seems to me that in modern North American Lutheranism we have left behind many of the "outward acts" of piety. I suspect if we began training ourselves and our people in these outward acts they would "eat it up." I find the acts of piety help me live my life conscious of the Faith to which I have been called. Of course, we must also guard against "pietism" and elitism in this but I believe this can be done with good instruction and guidance.

Great discussion and I look forward to more!

WM Cwirla said...

Good topic. Some further thoughts that hopefully advance the discussion:

1. Confession and Absolution is, of itself, a fine remedy to besetting sins, especially as the same sin is confessed over and over again. One of the great gifts of specific confession is that it brings to light sins that have become habitual (and potentially addictive) and breaks the cycle and downward spiral. It further creates its own tension of accountability, as the same sin is repeatedly confessed. In practice, most people do not take advantage of this because of shame.

2. Prayer and fasting are certainly to be commended. Fasting can be a helpful discipline of the appetites, though one must be very careful here, as the compulsive personality can easily replace one compulsion with another. The Scriptures give no specific promise to fasting; they only couple it with prayer with reference to the demonic realm.

3. Such disciplines should not be imposed in the context of confession and absolution, but should be discussed separately as a matter of pastoral counsel.

4. A pastor needs to be very careful when commending certain disciplines that do not have specific mandates and promises of God that these not be heard as prescriptive. Since his words in Absolution are heard as the very voice of God, the person might conclude wrongly that God is telling him to fast whereas this is the pastor's opinion and advice. Paul was careful to say "I, not the Lord."

5. The person captive to besetting sins (and we all are, each within his own weakness), needs to be encouraged to the Sacrament. As St. Ambrose said, "I go to the Supper because I am a sinner." Too often, people excommunicate themselves because of besetting (usually sexual) sin, thereby cutting themselves off of the very remedy in Christ. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

6. At the risk of going to Stuckwichian lengths, I would addd the caution that the pastor needs to be especially careful around the tenderhearted, those with tender consciences who feel deeply the weight of their sins. Habitual, besetting sins can crowd into the center of one's life and being. The center belongs solely to Christ. The person must be constantly reminded to fix his eyes upon Jesus and not upon his sin.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for the further comments.

Pastor Cwirla writes, in part: "The pastor needs to be especially careful around the tenderhearted, those with tender consciences who feel deeply the weight of their sins. Habitual, besetting sins can crowd into the center of one's life and being. The center belongs solely to Christ. The person must be constantly reminded to fix his eyes upon Jesus and not upon his sin."

This is part of my concern, and part of the complication involved in my question. I do try and very much want to be careful about the tender conscience that is wearied and burdened by sin, and threatened by despair. But at the same time, I am wondering how to call such a one to repentance.

There may be an assumption that I am considering a case of someone who is coming to confession with such and such a problem. That is, at least in some respects, easier to deal with. But what of the person who is ensnared by a besetting sin, who is remorseful for the sin, but evidences resignation to its grasp; who is not coming for confession and absolution, but only expressing a kind of "regret" without any indication of desire or intent to wrestle and strive against the sin.

On the surface of it, that sounds like a case of manifest unrepentance, and then it seems obvious that one must exercise the binding key. But what if that very case is the despair of a tender conscience, which is only further burdened and overwhelmed to the point of self-destruction.

In other words, how does one avoid driving Judas to suicied, instead of calling Peter to repentance and the forgiveness of sins?

Besetting sins, it seems to me, are especially difficult, because they can blur together and combine both weakness and hardness of heart; both "pride" and despair; both grief and sorrow over sin with willfull persistence in sin. Or so it seems to me.

I am inclined to agree with Pastor Petersen, that we pastors can never "diagnose" such things perfectly (and I similarly recall Pastor Cwirla somewhere saying that we should leave perfection to Plato in any case). I'm not going to look for perfection, but I do want to be pastorally faithful in caring for the flock.

If a person is remorseful, but seems resigned to continue in sin, how does a pastor call him to repentance, and help to bring him to repentance? I know that we preach the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel. But what I am asking is, what does that look like in such a case? Does it mean the binding key and excommunication? Does it mean assigning "penance," even apart from the person coming to confession? Or does it mean that we continue to absolve the sinner, apart from any fruits of repentance?

I don't ask any of this rhetorically, but quite sincerely. On paper, it can often seem relatively "easy." In dealing with actual sinners caught in the grip of a besetting sin, it seems far more difficult to me.

Pastor Petersen, your distinctions between the old man and the new man, and between the work of the Law and of the Gospel, are quite helpful. Yet, as you also say, we land back in the seemingly impossible realm of caring for people who are both old and new. That is the persistent challenge.

Susan said...

Rick, I have no understanding of the depth of what y'all are talking about. My brain catches it a little, but since I'm a layman, I am incapable of grappling with all the things you're talking about. If it helps any, these are some things my pastor has said about these matters:

1) There are times the pastor must give advice to the Christian about what to do. Maybe not often, but yes, sometimes it's necessary.

2) "If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away; behold; all things have become new." In our besetting sins, we see ourselves as stuck in those sins. The absolution proclaims us to be faithful parents, godly spouses, perfect and holy men and women. God declares it to be so, and we are called to believe it.

3) He says one of the hardest things for a pastor is to believe that the absolution actually has the power to amend lives. Pastors want to see evidence that the Word is working. When the gospel is handed over, and the same sins keep rearing their ugly heads again and again, pastors may begin to think is not powerful enough, and the law is more powerful, so let's try that plan for a while to see if law might work where the gospel failed. (Now, this does not contradict #1, and if I understand you right, that's where your dilemma is.)

WM Cwirla said...

"He says one of the hardest things for a pastor is to believe that the absolution actually has the power to amend lives. Pastors want to see evidence that the Word is working."

This is most certainly true! We can't resist the urge to coax the fruits of repentance rather than simply wait for the season and delight in them when they show up. The surest way to prevent fruit from forming on a fruit tree is to keep messing around with the tree.

This is the seductive lure of the "3rd misuse" of the Law, to call on the Law when the Gospel isn't working quickly enough.

So then, which "besetting sins" are we in such a hurry to fix, and which are we willing to patiently wait on the Lord?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Susan, and for sharing the wisdom of your own good pastor. I concur with all of what you have relayed here; yet it leaves me with my question and dilemma, as it were.

If a person comes to me for confession and absolution, I have no qualms about forgiving his sins in Jesus' name, as often as he comes confessing his sins and seeking absolution. I don't even cut a person off after 490 times.

My concern is in providing pastoral care to someone who is (a.) caught in the struggle and temptation and persistence of besetting sin, such that (b.) he appears to be resigned to continue in that sin, and on the verge of despair. He may express shame and remorse, but no indication of any desire or effort to "do better."

In most cases, such stubborn persistence in sin would clearly call for the binding key, and for excommunication, in the case of someone who refuses to repent.

The sort of situation I have in mind is more complicated, and seems to be more difficult, because (a.) persistence in a besetting sin, by the nature of the case, has less to do with willful rebellion than with frailty and weakness; and (b.) the person's resignation to continue in sin strikes me, not as prideful but despairing, and not as a refusal to acknowledge sin as sin, but as a despondency and a passive captivity to sin.

In such a case, the loosing key seems ill-advised, because there is not the indication of one "who repents of his sin and wants to do better." But the binding key also seems inappropriate, because, as a fierce preaching of the Law, it may drive the poor sinner even further into the depths of despair. Yet, something is called for; and only the Gospel can grant the freedom of forgiveness. Should the Gospel then be preached, and absolution given, to someone who is resigned to his sin rather than resisting it?

I am constantly reminded of the case of Judas, especially in contrast to that of Peter. When Judas recognizes his sin and goes to confess his sin to the chief priest and elders of the people, and attempts to return his ill-gotten silver pieces, his pastors turn him back upon himself, and he hangs himself in despairing unbelief. As a pastor, I never want to be guilty of that grievous error: failing to absolve one who repents of his sin and desires release. But what if "Judas" is my member, but is despairing apart from repentance and without any fruits of repentance? How do I call such a one to repentance, unto the free and full forgiveness of sins? Law and Gospel, yes, I know. But, again, what does that look like in such a case as I have in mind?

Is the binding key still what is called for in response to a person who persists in his sin, when the sin itself is a besetting sin of weakness, and when the persistence is borne of despair rather than stubborn pride?

That is the gist of my question.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Although the case I have described begins with, and deals with, the challenge of besetting sins, the heart of the matter has less to do with the particular sin than with the heart and mind of the sinner.

And the challenge, as I see it, is not one of wanting to use the Law in place of the Gospel, but of preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Although the Gospel is the only solution and salvation, the preaching of the Law serves and supports that work of the Gospel. Hence, the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel is the particularly bright light by which all of Holy Scripture is understood. Hence, there is both the binding key and the loosing key. Hence, there is John the Baptist as the Forerunner of the Christ (not to say that John was all Law and Jesus all Gospel, but that the preaching of repentance involves both the Law and the Gospel).

I have no illusions of "fixing" anyone, far less any desire to attempt such a "fix" with the Law. I am seeking after the way of pastoral care for someone whose sins appear to be harming not only his body but also his soul, because they are fighting against repentant faith in the Gospel.

We all go to our graves with our sins and weaknesses, faults and errors, frailities and what not, but none of these things condemn us or damn us; because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; because He has atoned for all our sins, reconciled us to God, and granted us His righteousness, His holiness, His life and love, the adoption of sons and the gift of the Holy Spirit Himself. But the heart that is turned away from all these good gifts is called to repentance; not to "fix" itself, but to receive and abide in Christ. That is all I desire to do for those entrusted to my care. It is challenging in every case, but there are some cases, such as I have attempted to describe, which seem particularly complicated and difficult. That is why I am asking the question.

Pr. Thomas E. Fast said...

I don't know who "Susan" is, but she is the best argument for the ordination of women I have ever witnessed. :-)

Rick, I certainly cannot give much of an answer to your question and hesitate to jump in here at all, but it seems to me that this question is very much related to the concerns you expressed, in an earlier post, about the general absolution.

Now I'm just throwing this out for consideration. Maybe it's kooky, I don't know. Anywho....I think it is incumbent upon us to assume that anyone who confesses sin and desires absolution is not living in impenitence. We are not the Grand Inquisitor. The best we can do, it seems to me, is to listen to what someone says. Then we assume that it is as our Lord has taught us: what is in the heart is made manifest in what is spoken and confessed. The same thing goes for the general absolution. I do not absolve my congregants based on my knowledge about how they live their lives, but the absolution is based on the confession of sin and the plea for forgiveness which is in the rite. Confession, whether public or private, serves the purpose that I might know exactly who to absolve and who not to absolve. There's really no other way to determine what is in a person's heart, it seems to me.

So far as prayer, fasting, and other disciplines go, my only plea is that we are careful to avoid leaving anyone in a fog about their sin coram Deo, besetting or no. Either absolve them and work from the absolution, or don't absolve them and make it crystal clear they are not forgiven. We do not want to leave people dangling between hope and fear, even if such a state might lead to improved behavior. That is, of course, the temptation here, imo.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you also for your comments, Pastor Fast. Your points are well-taken, and for the most part I agree with what you say. When someone comes to me for confession and absolution, I take that very act as a mark and indication of repentance, and, unless they were to demonstrate otherwise in what they say, I absolve them without hesitation. There are no contingencies.

The problem with the corporate general confession is that it can be done with relative anonymity. Absolving those "who repent of their sins and want to do better" is not a matter of reading anyone's heart, but of dealing with people pastorally on the basis of their outward confession (both of words and actions). That is one way in which, I believe, the office of the keys differs from the mutual forgiveness that Christians pray and confess in the Our Father and owe to one another for Jesus' sake. The confession does not "earn" the absolution, of course; but it does belong to the context of pastoral care, in my opinion.

Anyway, pastoral care also involves the preaching of the Law; not for the sake of righteouness by works, but as that which is the good and acceptable will of God. This serves the proper work of the Gospel, by exposing sins, by assisting the preaching of repentance, and by guiding the Christian in that way of life which is his by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. There is a war raging in our members, which is not harmless or insignificant. The Law assists us in resisting the rampant lawlessness which is not in accord with faith and life in Christ. I don't know if what I am writing is making sense, but I basically agree with what Pastor Petersen has said more succinctly above.

Now, to the point at hand: Many of those who have responded have assumed, or seem to have assumed, that I am thinking of a penitent who has come to me for confession. That is not the case; leastwise, not at the forefront of the sort of situation I have in mind. I am asking how to approach my pastoral care of someone who is NOT coming to confess and to seek absolution, but who is continuing in a persistent sin. Do I just let him go? Surely not.

As I have said, it seems "simple" enough in most cases to exercise church discipline, the binding key, and excommunication. But I am asking whether the circumstances and approach are to be any different in the case of someone who is struggling with besetting sin and continuing in the same out of despair rather than stubborn pride.

It seems to me that there is a difference in the persistence of a sin that has become a chronic addiction, as compared to the willful committing of a blatant wrong. It also seems to me that repentance will look different as a turning away from despair than as a turning away from pride.

Perhaps these clarifications will help to elicit further wisdom from my brothers and fathers in Christ.

Susan said...

Rick, I noticed in one of your comments here that you distinguished pride and despair. I'm wondering if that's part of the key to your answer. Pastor keeps telling us over and over that pride and despair are the same belief: "God loves me or not based on how good I am." Pride believes God loves me because I am so great. Despair believes God rejects me because I am so wretched. But it boils down to the same belief about who God is and what makes Him tick.

Maybe (??) you're looking at the symptom of the works-righteousness. "I can't overcome this sin. Why try? Why care? I am such a drunk [or philanderer or wife-beater or whatever] that there is no hope for me. Why not just give in to it?" The sin-that-is-committed is only a result or a symptom of the sin of unbelief. A person resigns himself to his sin because of what he believes about the gospel, not because of how powerful the sin is.

There's a tenderness and compassion that's necessary toward the one caught in his sins from which he cannot free himself. But there's also the law which must be preached -- not so much against the sinS but against the works-righteous pride that is manifesting itself as despair.

It sounds like the person is fully aware that the besetting sin IS sin, and you're struggling because you don't want to beat him over the head with "this is sin; stop it" when he already knows it is sin and CAN'T stop it. But does he need to be called to repentance for the despair which is behind his resignation to the sin? I don't know if this applies to what you are dealing with. But I do know that this is where Pastor has been most harsh with me, as he points out to me my arrogance in thinking that my sin is so big as to be beyond forgiveness, or that Jesus' blood may be great but not great enough to save me, or that I'm calling God a liar when He declares me a new creation.

WM Cwirla said...

Susan -Brilliant! Amen! Despair under the Law. People are afraid of freedom, afraid of being new creations, afraid of actually being justified. Beautiful!

Why do I keep thinking this "besetting sin" business has to do with sex. It always has to do with sex. It's our special, privileged category of sin. It's the one you have to stop doing before we forgive you.

Greed, gluttony, and drunkenness seem to be different matters entirely, judging by the behavior of most Lutherans.

When the publican went home from the temple justified after his Kyrie eleison, did he clean up his act?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I don't know why you keep thinking it has to do with sex, Pastor Cwirla. It doesn't in the sort of case to which I am referring.

And, again, I'm not aiming at how to "fix" anyone, or to clean up someone's act. I'm concerned with how to provide pastoral care to someone who, in all likelihood, will struggle with a particular addiction for the rest of his life.

I agree, Susan, and often say to my own members, that pride and despair are simply two sides to the same coin of unbelief. You've put this very nicely. That needs to be adddressed with the Law and the Gospel, no doubt. But do pride and despair call for the same preaching? If so, or if not, what might that look like, or sound like?

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Some people might benefit from the pastoral care you have suggested Pr. Stuckwisch. Others may not. For those who are spiritually mature, fasting may indeed be a helpful discipline to suggest.

When someone is afflicted by a particular vice, and wants to cease and desist but finds this very difficult even though he or she knows it is wrong, I do not think it is wrong for a pastor, in the context of conversation, to suggest tools to avoid the sin. That's what we're talking about here after all. The person has confessed his sin, knows it is wrong, wants to be free of it, but finds that it is too easy to slip back into his old ways and habits.

Does he need Law and Gospel? Yes. He also may need some help learning to do something about it when the urge arises again. I don't think this is a "return to the Law" but simply a pastor giving advice to a person on how he or she might avoid the thing that they do not want to be doing.

Part of this is learning to recognize the things that most often lead to a particular sin. Someone may say, "I didn't plan to do this--it just happened." A pastor might want to say: "Neither did you plan *not* to do it." In almost every case, there are common factors that can be identified which seem always to accompany a vice. This is where fasting I think can help. Eating, staying up late, being generally "slothful" can lead to many other sins.

The fact is, in these cases it is just not enough to know something is wrong, and avoid it. Only the most disciplined people can commit themselves to ceasing an action or behavior or habit and actually do it.

For most others, however, distance and access are two essential elements. This is why alcoholics are told not even to enter a bar. They will be fine if they don't enter a bar, but if they do, it is a slippery slope. Distance and access. The further one can distance themselves from a vice, the better. Many of the things we do I think are done simply because there is access. At one time you had to suffer a little bit of public shame to buy a "nudy" magazine at a convenient store. Now one has instant and unbridled access to it on the internet, and you can do it without public shame.

The analogy of a car on a hill is helpful I think: a car at the top of a hill can be stopped if it begins to roll. Wait a few feet or yards, and it is near impossible. It picks up momentum as it goes. This is the same with besetting sins. Put a stop to it before it gets a chance to "pick up speed" and you may be able to avoid it. Allow it to "Pick up speed" and your chances of curbing it are much slimmer. Once you get to "the point of no return" it is hopeless.

I have found these tools to be helpful in dealing with Christians who struggle with besetting sins.

Pr. Thomas E. Fast said...

I think Susan's last comment was very helpful. At least it is to me, as I'm thinking this through with the limited information I have. Focus like a laser beam on the sin of despair. The cross that this person is called to bear isn't so much the besetting sin as it is the reaction to it in unbelief. Good stuff, Susan. Unbelief is the one sin which damns. Attention to that should receive the highest priority. But I guess I'm just begging the question here: how do we best treat that despair?

Hey, if I can't have Susan as my pastor, can I have her pastor as my pastor? I'm just sayin'

WM Cwirla said...

"Hey, if I can't have Susan as my pastor, can I have her pastor as my pastor? I'm just sayin'"

Or we could trade for Susan as a congregation member for two ushers and an elder to be named later.

WM Cwirla said...

Comments above were deleted for fuzzy thinking.

I agree with Paul's comment above. We absolve the drunk and point him to a program or some such discipline to deal with the temporalia of his sins.

A word of caution: Pastoral advice and counsel is not the same as pastoral proclamation and absolution. People are free to ignore our advice and suggestions, and most do, but they are not free to ignore the Word of God.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Perhaps this will help to clarify my question and concern:

The tax collector goes up to the temple and prays, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." He goes home righteous, because He is forgiven and justified by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

But my concern is for the tax collector who is not going up to the temple, and is no longer praying, "Lord, have mercy," but is becoming (or has become) resigned to continue in his sin; whether because of despair, or because he prefers the sin to the struggle against it.

How do I call that tax collector to repentance; that is to say, back to the temple and to the prayer of faith?

Because the sort of case I have in mind is one in which I perceive a person to be drifting further and further to the periphery of the Church's life, and moving more and more away from the Gospel and the means of grace; precisely because he is caught in the grips of a besetting sin, which seems to be wearing him down, despite the fact that he has consistently received the preaching of the Gospel and the Word of Absolution.

I'm NOT saying: well, the Gospel isn't working, now let's try the Law. I'm NOT looking for any such answer as that. I'm asking how, in such a case, the Law may be able to assist in the struggle against a besetting sin; not because I expect the sinner to be "fixed" or to become sinless, but because the sin is dragging the person away from the Gospel.

Pastor Weedon's advice concerning fasting and prayer is the most concrete response, and, in that respect, the most helpful to the particular case at hand. But how do I help and assist and encourage a person to undertake that struggle, when there appears to be a resignation to continue in sin?

Becoming resigned to one's sin seems a different attitude than resolving to sin. That is why I have asked if there is a different way of approaching a person who is persisting in sin out of despair in contrast to pride. I am speaking in broad and general terms here. I'm not attempting to offer psychological diagnoses, but to consider things theologically.

A proud unrepentant sinners needs to hear the Law in all its fierceness, and to be bound in his sin if he refuses to repent; for the sake of bringing him to repentance. Is it the same sort of case when a person is not proud but despondent?

When I speak of "repentance," I am thinking of both contrition and faith. Our Confessions hold forth Judas as an example of one who had contrition but not faith, and he hung himself in despair. In his case, he went to his (Jewish) pastors and confessed his sins, but they turned him back on himself. But what of the member, as I have previously said, who doesn't come to confess, but seems already to be drifting (or driving) to the death of despair by resigning himself to continue in sin, rather than resisting in repentant faith?

Has this helped to clarify the question? Or have I hopelessly muddled my concern? Or am I simply mistaken as to the needs of the sinner who appears to be caught up in a sin that is destroying his faith and life in Christ?

Pr. Thomas E. Fast said...

Dr. Stuckwisch,

Is this besetting sin one which is virtually impossible to bring under any control whatsoever, barring a miracle? Or do you believe at least a little ground can be gained in that regard, even if it is only a temporary respite? Reason I'm asking is that it sounds as if the loss of control looms so large as to make it impossible for the man to see the bigger picture, so to speak. To illustrate: the war might be won, but the individual battle so fierce that a man isn't able to consider the victory---he just wants to make it through the next few moments by hook or by crook.

It seems to me that if any assistance may be given to provide even marginal improvement for the man in relation to his sin, it might clear the air just enough to begin to also deal with the bigger coram Deo matters which are your chief concern.

IOW, the guys across the dinner table from me who is choking on a piece of meat doesn't need an absolution, he first needs the heimlich maneuver.

By way of thinking out loud, I wonder how many of our "delinquents" whom we are so eager to clean off our rolls are struggling in precisely the same way as the man you describe in this scenario?

rcbaker123 said...

Who has the issue? The penitent with a chronic sin? Or the confessor?
Robert at bioethike.com

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I'm not sure I follow your questions, Robert, but I'd welcome your thoughts on the matter.

For my part, the issue is how best to serve my members as their pastor. I desire to preach the Word of God to them faithfully, rightly dividing the Law and the Gospel, the Gospel predominating.

The question does pertain to the Office of the Keys, but not so much to Individual Confession and Absolution. I am wondering how to exercise the keys, and how to call someone to repentance, when that person is not coming to me as a penitent to his confessor.

If a person is caught in the grips of a besetting sin, such that he appears to be resigned to it, and in such a way that he tends to be avoiding the Word of God, should I (a.) simply let him go his own way, continuing to preach the Gospel at the back of his head as he disappears; (b.) put him under church discipline, binding his sins, and perhaps even excommunicating him; or, (c.) address his sins with the forgiveness of the Gospel, while also assigning some kind of discipline or "penance" for his flesh, so as to assist him in resisting the temptation to prefer his sin over the life of faith?

Pastor Fast, I suspect that, in a general way, the sort of case that I have attempted to describe may be more common than I have realized. Which makes me wonder what I maybe ought to be doing differently when a member drifts away from the life of the Church.

But it is late this evening, and my mind is very tired at this point. I am grateful for all those who have commented on this thread, and I would welcome any further insights or advice that may yet be offered.

Pr. Thomas E. Fast said...

"Pastor Fast, I suspect that, in a general way, the sort of case that I have attempted to describe may be more common than I have realized. Which makes me wonder what I maybe ought to be doing differently when a member drifts away from the life of the Church."

I'm with you on this all the way. I've paid little attention to those who have wandered away from the safety of the flock. It leads me to wonder who is truly delinquent. Methinks I bear the greater guilt.

On another note, I would be very careful about assigning disciplines such as prayer and fasting in this case. Not because those things are not helpful. Rather, because this man is already laid low by his repeated failures. The last thing he needs, it seems to me, is to be directed by his pastor to an activity which even the strongest of Christians often fail to carry out. Quite likely that will be received as "piling on."

With all that said, option "c" still seems the best to me, with minor modifications.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Well, yes, I tend to concur with your reservations about assigning a discipline of prayer and fasting in such a case; although it has also seemed like the most helpful specific advice thus far.

I am frankly at something of a loss, because the only real remedy for sin is the Gospel; but the Gospel cannot help if it is not heard and received. A besetting sin that persists in pulling one away from the Gospel strikes me as a particularly concrete example of the way that sin separates man from God and plunges him into death. I suppose that I am looking for some equally concrete means of throwing out the life-preserver; or, better yet, of decreasing the propensity of one to throw himself overboard.

Susan said...

the case in which I perceive a person to be drifting further and further to the periphery of the Church's life, and moving more and more away from the Gospel and the means of grace; precisely because he is caught in the grips of a besetting sin, which seems to be wearing him down,

Am I being too simplistic? Can you go to this person and talk to him about the concern you have about his drifting away? See, I really feel for you with what your struggling with, because I know how despairingly I would react if my pastor came to me and tried to call me to repentance for sin that I continually fought against, lost, regretted, and yet seemed powerless to overcome.

And yet, there is no hope anywhere but in the ministry of the Word. THAT is where your dear one's danger is. Can you go to him and say, "Satan is using this sin to put up barriers to your hearing God's word to you"? And then go from there?

Can I tell you a story when I see you next week? I'll probably forget, but remind me if we can find ten minutes to talk, okay?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Of course you can tell me a story, Susan. I've certainly been hoping for a chance to chat with you at the CCA. I'd be disappointed if I didn't have that privilege.

You should not suppose that I have not been doing the very sort of thing that you describe. My question has been whether there is some further way in which the Law might be used in service and support of repentance, unto faith in the Gospel of forgiveness.

Susan said...

You should not suppose that I have not been doing the very sort of thing that you describe.

Ohhhhh. Okay, this makes more sense. Because I just kept thinking, "This doesn't sound like the pastor that I know." So I was indeed being too simplistic. See you soon.