Penance, Absolution, and Forgiveness of Sins

It’s Lent: a good time for Confession, although you have to be careful about the longer lines. I remember standing at the back of just such a long line waiting for confession once when I had this terrible thought. What if I jump the line, kneel down in the confessional and say: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I just jumped in front of everyone else.”

Would he deny me absolution? Probably not. But I was pretty sure he would say: “Now for your penance, go to the end of the line and say Hail Marys until everyone else is done.”

Confession is an odd thing. Not only do you go into a little room and say, out loud, all your deepest, darkest sins. But from a voice inside that little room, you hear words of forgiveness even before you’ve done your penance. Shouldn’t you have to do the penance first, and then get absolution?

The answer, of course, is no. Doing penance isn’t a way of earning God’s forgiveness; nor, for that matter, is going to Confession. Christ has already won that forgiveness for us by means of His sacrifice on the cross. And that forgiveness is made present for us by the work of His Holy Spirit.

But if God has already forgiven us, and if Confession makes that forgiveness present to us in concrete, visible, audible ways, what’s the penance for?

Even if someone forgives you, this by itself doesn’t mean you are yet, in yourself, different. “Forgiving” is something the other person does; what do I do? Have we internalized that forgiveness? Has it changed us? Have we truly said “yes” to God’s transforming love?

Let’s say I steal something from you. In stealing, I have made myself into a thief. Now let’s say that, because you love me, and because you want nothing more than to reconcile with me, make me your friend once again, and see me move forward and flourish, you forgive me. The question now is: Am I still going to be a thief?

A priest (Padre Pio) hears a confession
A priest (Padre Pio) hears a confession

Forgiveness opens the door to a changed relationship and a new life. But it would be a mistake for me to think that the forgiveness is the final step in the process when forgiveness is the first step. The next step is for that love to change my heart and set me on a new course in life. No one who truly loves you and forgives you wants to leave you in your sin, any more than people who love and forgive alcoholics want them to remain enslaved to alcohol.

Doing penance after Confession is about making those first few steps in a new direction. It’s about realizing that the Christ’s forgiveness isn’t just something out there, somewhere in the disembodied void – a chit I can trade in some day when I’m facing either heaven or hell. God’s transforming love doesn’t leave me in my sin; its goal is to transform me now. The grace of the sacrament works by changing my heart. And if my heart is truly changed, then I need to begin to live differently as well.

So after Confession, I take those first few “baby steps” in a new direction by doing my penance, fully and faithfully. Not because by doing these things I mistakenly imagine that I’m “earning” God’s love and forgiveness. No, we love, “because God has loved us first.” (1 Jn 4) It is only by accepting God’s love and forgiveness that I can be changed. I know from looking at the crucifix before I go into confession that He loves and has already forgiven me. I go to Confession not to change God, but to let God change me.

Usually that change won’t come instantly or easily. God’s grace works over time, and God works in His own time. God isn’t demanding we become perfect in an instant. What God asks, and what the priest tells us in his name is: “Take a few simple steps. And then have faith that I will be at work in your life, often in ways you won’t be able to see.”

Going to Confession can be hard. Sometimes it feels like a kind of death. And it is: a death to self. But that “death to self” is necessary if we are to “live in Christ.”

People ask me all the time: Why does God need a priest and Confession to forgive our sins? But of course, God doesn’t need a priest and Confession to forgive our sins. He’s already forgiven our sins. We need the priest and Confession. We are the ones who need to reflect deeply on our lives and become aware of the ways in which we have gone astray. We are the ones who need to get up the courage to pronounce our sins, out loud, in words, to an actual person, so that the sound will ring meaningfully in our ears and in our hearts. And we are the ones who need to hear the words of forgiveness, so we will know, in that moment of shame and humility, that God has forgiven us.

Sacraments make present God’s love for us in an embodied way. Asking whether we really “need” the embodied presence of a sacrament is a little like asking whether you really need to kiss your beloved. You could just love her from a distance, I suppose – “spiritually” – but it sort of takes a lot of the fun out of it. As embodied humans, a lot of people seem to think the kissing part is a good thing.

I am an adult convert to Catholicism who used to think confession was just about as crazy a thing as a human being could do. But I’ve found that the physical act of confession is one of the great things about being Catholic. It’s like the kiss of God.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.