Admonishing the Sinner

August 1, 2016

Growing up on a farm, my best friend and I had a well-worn path on the gravel road between her house and mine. A long hill separated the mailboxes that marked our driveways. More than a few times, I remember toppling down the hill on my bicycle in a hurry to get to her house. Holding back tears, I would wipe away the dirt and keep on going. It was only when I arrived back home a few hours later that my mom would take one look at my skinned knees, and in her most loving yet insistent “mom voice” would beckon me over to the kitchen sink. “Get over here right now and let me wash you off! Don’t you know that you’re asking for an infection!”

Oh, how I resisted water and wash cloth rubbed against raw skin! The sting of soapy water was even more painful than the original fall. I would cry and cringe and pull away – all the while, my mom insisting, “This will only hurt a little bit! We have to get the dirt out.” Moms are usually right about these things. It stung like crazy, but within a few minutes she would be blowing cool air onto moist clean skin and sending me off with a stack of band-aids.

The Truth of a Soapy Water and a Washcloth: 

I don’t exactly remember how my spiritual director and I got into this difficult conversation. All I know is that it ended poorly – or better yet, messy – which is, in God’s eyes, another way of saying sacred and profound.

I’m sure that I was re-hashing the details of a stressful week. At one point, he asked me if I had brought my concerns to God in prayer, and I quickly dismissed his question as unimportant – or, at least, less important than my busy week at work.

Call it what you will – pride, ego, sin. I had once again found my way onto the slippery slope of self-importance, and my spiritual director did not hesitate to point this out to me. As I listened to him echo back to me the various ways I was resisting God’s presence, I could feel the sting of shame wash over me. We sat in silence for a long time, as I held back tears, confusion swirling in my mind. How did I get here, again? In my propensity to do everything (and do it all perfectly), I often forget that “God is God, and I’m not.”

I can always count on my spiritual director to be kind. But his words stung and the truth hurt – like soapy water and a rough wash cloth.

A Work of Mercy, Not a Work of Judgement:

It hurts when someone offers to wipe clean the wounds of sin and brokenness in our lives.

To admonish the sinner – with mercy – means that we are in a loving relationship with them It must be a relationship that desires their complete healing, and yet, allows the other individual complete freedom. None of us is perfect. Admonishing the sinner means journeying with people who are still learning from their mistakes, who are taking steps toward healing, who are making progress not leading perfect lives.

I have always found this work of mercy – admonishing the sinner – to be one of the most challenging. Both as a recipient of the mercy of admonishment, and as one who has humbly offered correction to another. Admonishing the sinner is not about projecting a holier-than-thou attitude or laying down the law like a know-it-all. At the same time, we cannot simply dismiss sinful behavior with an everything-goes attitude.

Admonishing the sinner is a work of mercy, not a work of judgement. We ought to be wise to the scriptures that tell us “the one among you who is without sin should be the first to caste a stone” (John 8:7) and to “remove the plank in our own eye before removing the speck in our neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

Only then are we able to look upon the other with the eyes of compassion, and to see our sinful brother or sister as someone who is deeply loved and cared for by God. In kindness, we offer a truth that leads to freedom. We also trust that God’s mercy extends beyond our understanding, and even beyond our ability to help someone onto the right path.

Our Need for A Savior:

I remember an experience of reconciliation with a priest who I had known for many years. Admittedly, I was fearful that he would caste judgment and think less of me after hearing my confession. Afterwards he said, “I’m glad to hear that you’re normal!” (We both laughed!) He continued, “If we were all perfect, we wouldn’t need the sacraments. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t need a savior.”

God loves you. God never stops loving you, even when you fall short. When our judgement of another is conveyed with love, it should invite us into a deeper relationship with God and a greater reliance on God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Putting Mercy Into Action:

  • Assume another person’s best intention and offer correction with kindness. (See point #2 in this article here.)
  • When offering correction, “Speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15).
  • “Remove the plank in your own eye.” – often times, that which we find most annoying or irritating in another human being is the exact behavior or attitude that we ourselves exhibit or possess. Consider what needs to be corrected in your own life before admonishing another.
  • Be a joyful witness to the sacrament of reconciliation. God’s forgiveness is a powerful tool!
  • Pray for God’s mercy, even in our own weakness:
    • 1 Timothy 1:12-17
    • 2 Corinthians 12:5-10


Becky is an Ignatian-trained spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and writer. She is the author of the Busy Lives and Restless Souls (March 2017, Loyola Press) and The Inner Chapel (April 2020, Loyola Press). She helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life through facilitating retreats and days of reflection, through writing, and through spiritual direction. With nearly twenty years of ministry experience within the Catholic Church, Becky seeks to help others discover God at work in the every day moments of people’s lives by utilizing St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the many gifts that our Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality provide.

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