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On Sin and Repentance

Our secular ideas about guilt and absolution distort the language and values of Christianity.

· 9 min read
On Sin and Repentance

It is Lent. The time of year when a Christian is asked to contemplate her own sinfulness and mortality. We are given 40 days to do this. Take your time. No need to panic. This is a period of introspection. The prayers I recite pull away the layers of self-deceit and self-justifications that clamour within my inner voice. At this time of year, in particular, I become increasingly perplexed when I hear other people talk about who they are “on the inside.” I wonder what others find when they look within themselves. What do they see? I am baffled because I know what I find: my “true self” is typically lazy, vain, prideful, self-centered, insensitive almost to the point of cruelty, irresponsible, and arrogant. And that’s just a start. The things I do are so often done for selfish reasons. (I am writing this essay. Is it to say something true, or is it to satisfy my own desire for approval? Maybe it’s best not to answer.) When I take a close look at myself, I find I am hard to love. At times, I’m not even certain that I should be loved. 

Christianity runs against the therapeutic values of contemporary culture. Rather than encourage the individual to affirm one’s inner world, Christianity asks that we acknowledge our manifold shortcomings. Rather than demand that others validate and celebrate your inner self, Christianity asks that you repent. It might seem that the Christian would feel burdened by her own unworthiness—crushed by guilt and fall into despair, which is the final form of the sin of pride. There always is a danger of this happening.

But typically, the opposite is true. I feel lightened by my private confessions. The Church’s Lenten liturgy (I am Anglican) focuses on the mercy of God and on our gratitude for that mercy. In Lent, we worship God. God who sees us as we are, and loves us anyway, more than we could ever love ourselves. The effect of focusing on my sin and asking for repentance is to feel free and joyful. I purge myself of self-deception, a sin I am happy to be free of. And besides, the Church reminds me, I am going to die one day anyway. “Remember, oh daughter, that dust thou art, and to dust thou wilt return.” What a relief. Why all the fuss and worry about self-validation and self-improvement? I cannot escape death. Knowing this unburdens me of paranoid self-regard. 

The strange (I should maybe say miraculous) thing is that Christianity—in particular, knowing of and repenting for my sins—gives me a feeling of inner integrity and strength. It gives me agency, that much sought-after quality of modern life. Selfishness and moral failures confer dignity upon the individual. Being a sinner makes me see that I am not a victim. It makes me self-sovereign, gives me a real understanding that I am not a mere passenger in my life. The sinner is not a dupe of fate. Who is to blame for my moral failures of ingratitude, pride, and resentment? I am. Who is at fault for my self-deluding excuses? I am. Who hurts because of my own sinfulness? I do and so do others. Guilt is good. I have much to feel guilty for and ashamed of. Forty days doesn’t seem like nearly enough time. (Relative to my depravity, the Church is merciful even in Lent’s brevity.)

Despite statistics to the contrary, modern society is a religious culture. People who are religious have a keen sense of this, but many secular people have become aware of it too. We live in a society preoccupied by sin, though our secular faith has a different emphasis than that of Christianity’s focus on the shadowy corners of the human heart. One can hardly move through public spaces without being confronted by the sins of the nation and its past. The sins of systemic racism and settler colonialism. Of heteronormativity. Of unconscious biases. Of capitalism. Of privilege. Some of these sins are real. All of them now require some kind of public confession and secular liturgy.

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