published in the Church Times 3 September 2010

Beyond regret and guilt to true contrition


MY FATHER has a healthy ambiva­lence about religion, based on seven decades of living in a small village. Going to church, he maintains, does not seem to make a difference. It may not make us better people; in fact, the reverse may be true: we Christians find it difficult to admit that we make mistakes, and can often live with an idealised sense of who we are. 

This Sunday, most of us will be invited to confess our sins as part of worship. We bring all of ourselves into this worship, our experiences and emotions. In particular, we bring those parts of our lives that are in need of change. 

In the articulation of specific things that are the cause of regret, we should experience remorse, and even sorrow. We know that there is a gap between what we say and what we do. Contrition is central to our Christian spiritual life. 

We are most sensible of our contrition when we are actually in fellowship with the God and the people we have offended. We remind ourselves that there is, in reality, no escape from the eye of God. The psalmist expresses this: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139.7). Prayer is a place where we can both be and face ourselves as partial, dam­aged, and responsible for wrong­doing. 

Prayers such as the confessions and thanksgivings from the Book of Common Prayer wonderfully balance theological richness and precision with lyric and mood, as they express feelings of remorse. 

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and in­dignation against us. We do earn­estly repent, And are heart­ily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us, The burden of them is intolerable.


The first step on the road to change is to name our sins. We need to be honest in articulating the nature of our broken lives. We have used our power over people to intimidate or control. We choose to ignore some people because we find them irritating. We lash out at someone we love because we believe he can take our anger. We fail to to challenge someone who is gossiping. We use our sense of humour to belittle others. 

THIS concern can be expressed in a proposition: righteousness is good, and right for me. To be contrite is to see the action, thought, or feeling that occasions my contrition not as a mere mistake (as in mere regret), but as a culpable offence — a sin. 

But the real object of our con­trition is not, as in regret or remorse, a particular action, but ourselves: we are sullied and compromised. We have the capacity to inflict hurt on others by our attitudes and words. We need to want to change our lives and be ready to articulate our own contradictions. 

In our street, we watch a group of children picking on another child. They shout, prod, and humiliate. Suddenly, we notice that our child is part of the group. Tired and dis­tracted, we choose not to intervene, or, later on, confront our child about what was going on. Anything for a quiet life, we think. 

In the prayer, dramatic words such as “bewail”, “grievously”, and “intolerable burden” express the pain and moral seriousness that are characteristic of contrition. The references to God’s majesty, wrath, and indignation express the sense of having offended a holy God. 

Contrition requires an application of humility — we are responsible for the actions, the thoughts, and the shape of our own personality. We keep on sinning. We all fall short. We should consider this as part of our preparation for confession. We should keep going with the conversation between right and wrong in our own lives, ready to be confronted with the reality of who we are and how we behave. We do this in the conviction that it is in God’s nature to see with unavoidable gaze. 

Contrition, as contrasted with plain guilt, is characterised by confident hope in God’s mercy: construing ourselves as not lost because of our guilt; construing God as benevolent and a source of help. 

Contrition can even shade into joy, the full perception of God’s goodness and forgiveness. In the absolution of our sins, we never lose sight of ourselves as offenders, though we are reassured of God’s acceptance. How we live that approval can shape our workplace, commun­ity, family, and friendships. 

CONTRITION is a gracious affec­tion, a gospel emotion. We all stand before a God who listens with love to those who call on him for mercy. The Christian penitent construes God as one who, as the man Jesus of Nazareth, has mercifully stood before God in the place of all sinners, and borne the suffering and alienation that attend sin. 

We acknowledge that we are vulnerable to temptation. We can mistake God’s blessings as a blank cheque to behave in whatever way we wish. We hide behind our religion as an excuse to justify our narrow-mindedness and readiness to point the finger at others. 

Contrition is that state of mind in which we see the issues of our real self through the eyes of the heart. We do not need to pretend to be better than we are. We want to be better people. We see that the self of our sin is not our real self, and that we belong, through God’s forgiveness, to God and his Kingdom. 

Contrition is that state of mind in which we appreciate, with our spiritual selves, what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and in which we are moved to depart from our sin and consolidate ourselves in him. 

This may not convince the sceptic. Our discipleship can be enlivened by a healthier honesty about ourselves and our need to change for good. When saying the confession with others this Sunday, take time to ac­know­ledge the reasons for sin, apolo­gise, and move to transforming action. Contrition is a key that can unlock the possibilities of being more real, more human, and therefore more virtuous. 



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