Some time ago, when I was teaching at a Catholic University, I was a member of the steering committee. Our purpose was to establish the agenda for the next College Council meeting. I thought it would be appropriate to begin forthcoming meetings with a prayer. My colleague on the committee strenuously objected to the idea. He thought it would be “offensive.” As an atheist, he found anything that was inconsistent with his non-belief to be offensive to him and therefore, beginning a meeting with a prayer at a Catholic institution should be prevented. Pope Benedict has remarked that “There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.” My partner, I am afraid, was one of “those.”
This incident brings two things to mind. First, how easy it is these days to be offended. One almost feels obliged to be offended as a way of asserting his individuality. The second point is that it is now fashionable to be offended. By claiming to be offended by things are not inherently offensive, one receives the encouragement and approbation of society. The “offended” person usually expects an apology: “I am sorry I offended you, please forgive me.” One rarely, maybe never, says, “I am not going to apologize for something that is not in the least offensive.” We are trapped by the new etiquette and obediently follow the rules.
On another occasion, when speaking in New Haven, Connecticut, in order to avoid the accusation of being offensive, I carefully used a diverse array of people I quoted: one man, one woman, and the cast from Star Trek. After my talk, an angry woman approached me and berated me for using a “token woman” in my talk. A second woman, one who was more offensive resistant came up to me and said, alluding to the first woman, “She’s an idiot.”
Today it seems that everyone is offending everyone. Moral expectations are so high that virtually anything a person might say or do causes offense. A man in Quebec was offended because his social club began its meetings with a prayer. He sued and was awarded $25,000. There is money in being offended.
Despite the fact that being offended is pandemic, no one seems to care about offending God. In the Confiteor we say “Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended you.” This is reinforced later in the prayer when the penitent says, “I detest to all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because the offend Thee, my God.” Obviously, God should be honored and not offended.
But, we may ask, what does it mean to offend God? Does God really need our apologies?
Some common expressions that we have no trouble in understanding may be of some help. When we meet a truly outstanding person we might say, “You are a credit to your parents.” A person may be said to be a credit to his military unit. He does not want a dishonorable discharge. In both these instance, the person reflects the values of his superiors. He has put into practice what he has learned, which is what he is supposed to do. Also, a person should want to honor the institution that awarded him a degree. He should not want to besmirch its name by living a scandalous life. We represent those who formed us. We want to be a credit to all of them. But we should want even more to be a credit to God who was the first to form us.
God is our Father. He expects us to be, as much as we can be, like Him. After all, we are created in His image and likeness. We honor God when we resemble Him in our actions, when we behave in a “godly” manner. “The glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive”. We dishonor Him or “offend” Him when we do the opposite. A person dishonors his parents when he behaves badly.
It is a frightful and terrible thing to be given wonderful opportunities and then throw them away as if they were of no value. It is, in the first sense, an expression of ingratitude. But more than that, it is an affront to the Creator. And it is this affront, this dishonoring, that is how we offend God.
I should not be particularly sensitive about being offended by others, as much as I should be concerned about offending my Creator. One does not offend his best friend.
It is important to note that there is an important difference between an apology and a confession. It is not enough to apologize for offending God, we must ask forgiveness. We apologize for trivial mishaps, such as spilling milk, or being five minutes late for a meeting. When we confess a sin, which is not trivial matter, our sorrow must be heartfelt, accompanied with the intention of amending our life. People who are too easily offended pose as little gods who demand a fealty that they do not warrant.
Let us not offend God, the Giver of life. Let us abide with dignity and a measure of tolerance the trivial offenses that may come our way. Social relationships demand etiquette; God demands our love.
Image: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1791, by Benjamin West, Everett Collection.