I was speaking to an exasperated teenage father who had just caught his son smoking pot. As we talked, he frustratedly said, “How can I get mad at him because I did the same thing when I was his age?” In that conversation, I realized this man had not experienced the full grace of Christ, because he had not been set free from his previous missteps.
He was living—not in repentance—but remaining in the shadows of life filled with penance.
There is a big difference between penance and repentance.
Penance is a life of self-punishment in which you relive your past mistakes with a sense of regret or shame. You are constantly beating yourself up because of those indiscretions hoping that this self-inflicted pain will release the pressure. Penance hopes that somehow, through your own mechanism of punishment, you will one day be released from your past.
Last week, I learned that this well crafted letter is the newest scam targeting men.
In its simple brilliance, it is attacking the secrecy and shame most men keep their sins hidden under. It targets men looking to live in the shadow of penance. Though a “form” letter, the vagueness makes a man pause and wonder what might this stranger have discovered about him.
It targets a man’s worry that one day someone will find out about X. Therefore, the letter establishes a mechanism to pay penance for whatever indiscretion that man may be keeping hidden. It works because every man has something that he is worried one day his wife, his friends, his neighbors, or his children will discover about him.
Penance will never free us from our sin. Penance will only temporarily numb us from the pain, but very quickly the memories, the images, the shame and the emotion will return. The man above could not be a father to his son, because he still lived in a state of penance. He had not been released from the past.
Repentance, however, is an amazing grace that frees us from our past mistakes. It literally means “a turning away.” Repentance is an act of releasing past indiscretions, dropping them, turning away from them and walking away. If true repentance has occurred, then the misdeed no longer carries any weight in your memory. There is no shame, no regret, no pain, no anxiety, no worry that one day.
For repentance to have taken place, however, we must dig up these past mistakes and bring them to light through the process of confession to Christ. Like an auger digging a hole, it will hurt as it unearths these painful issues. The deeper it goes, the more it will unearth.
For most men, we begin by digging into the topsoil, which typically unearths issues regarding sex, pornography and lust. However, we must dig deeper, which causes other things to surface like selfish business tactics, self-protecting lies, deceitfulness, bitterness, distorted anger, jealousy, greed…
And as we see ourselves for who we truly are—selfish, sinful, wretched–we discover the despair of the Gospel. However, at that moment, with all that dirt exposed, rather than turning to a process of penance and self-flagellation, Jesus invites us to look at him upon the cross. What we discover is a deep delight in the glory of God, who does not run in disgust from these unearthed monstrosities, but actually draws us to come and see his love that paid the ultimate penance once and for all so we don’t have to.
To live in Christ is to live with no regret and shame over the past, and no anxiety or worry about the future. In doing so, it frees us to live in the moment with love.
Pretend that you received the above letter. Create a list of what you would be afraid to have others discover about you.
Now…pause and slowly reflect upon these scriptures…
- What a wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
- God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
- Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
- Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Finally take the list and destroy it, burn it, nail it to a tree outside, shred it, or share it with a spiritual advisor, and remove it from your mind.