Saturday, August 15, 2009


I was thinking about this today because of a post here.  It's written by a Protestant who frankly shares her shock and disbelief over the Catholic view of purgatory.  It's worth the read.  She does an excellent job of actually taking the time to look up the teaching so she can specifically respond to the actual Catholic view. In reading her post, the question that I felt compelled to try to answer is this: if Christ took on the punishment for our sins, and we're forgiven, what need could we possibly have of purgatory?  

The first thing that I did was to try to look up some Catholic teaching on the subject.

But those weren't really giving me the explanation I needed.  I mean, they're good explanations, and if you've never heard of purgatory before, it's a good idea to read those so that you can get a feel for what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject.  My problem is that these explanations are so sterile and clinical sounding.  It doesn't really capture the extent of what I believe about purgatory or why I believe it.  I certainly didn't feel that it answered the question.

I guess the main thing that I need to tell you is that I see spiritual life as a process.  Actually, I see it as being a lot like the physical therapy process.  If you come see me with upper back or neck pain, we're going to take a look at a lot of different things.  One of those, of course, is posture.  Bad posture starts a whole chain of crazy events.  Let's say you like to sit at a desk with your shoulders slumped.  If you do it once, it's not a big deal, but if you work at a computer 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and slump you shoulders the whole time it's going to be an issue.  The muscles that hold your shoulder blades back are going to get long and weak.  When that happens, they may start to spasm in protest of trying to hold up your heavy arms (even skinny arms are heavy for weak muscles).  The muscles in front (the pecs) are going to get stiff and tight.  Then if you try to pull the shoulder blades back with your weak and wimpy back muscles, you're trying to pull against extra tight front muscles.  When your shoulders are rounded forward, it leads to the arm bones lining up differently and pulling you forward even more.  And the neck!  Oh, your poor neck.  The neck comes forward, but since you can't see if your head is down, then you bring your face up level with the world.  That means that the bottom of your neck is too flexed and the top part of your neck is too extended.  And another whole set of muscles becomes imbalanced, weak on one side, and stiff on the other.

The first time you sit in this posture, it will affect you.  If you turn your head, it will not move like it's supposed to and stuff will rub that isn't supposed to and you will cause some damage.  You won't notice that damage.  It's only going to affect a few cells, which your body will be able to repair quickly. Do it over and over again, though.  Do it for years.  The gradual build up will lead to all kinds of fun stuff.  Arthritis, compression of the nerves, to name only a couple of things.

What took you years to do will not be undone in a week.  A week or two could make a difference, but there's still a lot to do.  Also, it will not be fixed in physical therapy alone, each person has the responsibility to actually do the exercises and make the changes.  Otherwise, they will get nowhere.

There it is.  The spiritual life.  The first time that I sin, it may not do to much.  It will cause some damage, but it won't be all that noticeable.  The more I sin, the more it will affect me, the more it will cause habits that lead to imbalances in the way that I see God and the world.  This is going to lead to damage that could cause big problems.

When I first correct someone's posture, they can often hold the better posture, but it takes work.  The first time that they correct the posture, it does not make all those muscle changes go away.  As they work on the exercises, gradually weak muscles get strong and tight muscles get stretched out.

God immediately forgives my sins when I am sorry, but He allows me to be part of the process of correcting the imbalances that are left.  I have to do the work and make the changes.  This is a very important part of His grace, not a place that I have to fill in the gaps where the grace ran out.  We all know that we have much more appreciation for something that we had to put our blood, sweat, and tears into than we do for something that was just handed to us.  God allows us, with free will, to choose Him freely and to take part in the struggle so that we truly have a vested interest in what is going on.

With this view in mind, this is why purgatory makes complete sense to me.  It's the gym where we get to work out the last areas of weakness.  In other words, it's the place where we get to get rid of any of the areas that we are still holding onto our worldly, fleshly view of things and replace them with Christ.  I think that the reason that we struggle with the idea of purgatory is that we have an instantaneous view of God's grace, rather than seeing the entire process as an outpouring of His grace from the cross.  

Finally, I leave you with this.  Whatever I am able to do, I am able to do through Christ.  It isn't that I can do some things poorly without Him, I can do NOTHING without Him.  However, in Him who strengthens me, I can do all things, even participate in working out my salvation. (Phil. 2:12)  All the things that I do in Him is a foundation of gold and precious jewels.  All things that I do without His grace is hay and straw.  Purgatory is simply the refiner's fire that burns away all that is left of me that has not been touched by Him. (1 Cor 3:11-15).


  1. Even as a Catholic, I'm still not quite able to wrap my mind around the "purgatory issue". I'm lean back and forth and have been struggling prayerfully with it for years. I've thought about posting on that struggle in my own blog but haven't gotten to it yet. I try to keep in mind that at the end of it all it isn't going to matter if there is or isn't such a place or condition. What is going to matter the is whether I've accepted this wonderful free gift of salvation and then went about living that truth during my life. The human being in me still wants to have that issue "figured out", I admit.

  2. I think all of the misconceptions about purgatory make it even harder to understand. I heard some doozies, and most were from Catholics! Like those that thought that if you made it to purgatory, that's where you were for eternity. So not true!

  3. Great post - and ironically my vacation this weekend was spent with family, including a sister in law who was repeatedly told to "stand up straight!" the entire weekend, since she is slumping badly to compensate for her unusual height. :)

    Here is one place that we agree - we are responsible, as believers, to continue to work out our salvation, to continue to grow. I think perhaps the worst think in both the Protestant and Catholic churches is the masses of people that think that simply because they say they are believers, they are "in".

    No - a believer is called to give ALL, and to walk a lifelong path of learning to submit to Christ, to be more like Him daily.

    In the end, what happens after we die will happen, whether or not our beliefs about it were correct. Regardless, I know that we are called to be disciples of Christ on a long journey to the heart of God.