Why is Penance Needed?

During the Year of Mercy, the Church has placed great emphasis on not only our great need for forgiveness, but God’s desire to always welcome us into His loving arms.  This necessarily leads to a discussion of repentance and penance.  While most people understand the need for repentance, penance remains somewhat mysterious.  Given that, a reflection upon penance and its necessity can lead to an increase in grace during this Jubilee Year.

In order to understand the logic of penance, we must first understand the nature of sin.  When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, it was an act of disobedience.  But that is not all.  They also found pleasure in eating the forbidden fruit (c.f. Gn 3:6—finding “that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom”).  So that when we speak of sin we must always remember that there is a double element; the act of disobedience and the pleasure of the forbidden fruit.  In justice both must be restored through repentance and penance.  If we look to the natural order, we see why this makes sense.  If we do not follow a map and go the wrong way, then we must first turn-around (i.e. repent).   But turning around is not enough if we are to get back to the right path; we must also we must retrace those steps (penance).

This distinction is made especially clear when we look at King David’s act of adultery with Bathsheba and the consequent murder of her husband Uriah.  When David expresses his repentance, Nathan tells him that “For his part, the LORD has removed your sin…” (2 Samuel 12:14).  But this is only the forgiveness of the act of disobedience.  God imposes a penance as well “since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you will surely die” (2 Sam 12:15).

From God’s perspective the distinction leads to the two “punishments” for sin—eternal and temporal.  By keeping them connected it will help us to avoid the temptation to see these two “punishments” as vengeance inflicted upon us by God but instead as a natural consequence of sin (CCC 1472).  Christ’s act of atonement cleared the way for the forgiveness of the eternal punishment for sin, but not the temporal.  Instead He invites us to participate in our own redemption through penance.  Failing to realize this leads to great spiritual confusion because it fails to answer a fundamental question—if Christ came to remove all punishment for sin, then why do those who are justified suffer?

In other words, when I sin, it comes from me insisting on having my own way.  In suffering I receive something I don’t want and thus there is a cosmic balance of sorts that is restored.  But because the original act was one I freely chose, I must also freely accept the suffering as satisfaction for my sins.  This not only restores justice without but order is also restored within me.

Accepting temporal affliction imposed on us in loving patience is one of the ways that we make satisfaction for our sins according to the Council of Trent.  The Council Fathers call these “the greatest proof of love” (Council of Trent, 14th Session, Doctrina de sacramento paenitentiae).  Why are these the greatest proof of our love?  Because God’s will comes to us moment by moment and we can be sure that we are submitting to His will by submitting to the moment.  This habit of accepting difficulties with love and patience is what develops in us the virtue of penance.  This is exactly David’s response after the child he conceived with Bathsheba died–patient acceptance.  And the servants are all puzzled by his response (2 Sam 12:19-23).  Penance begins and ends with the attitude of mind that God sends all things our way for our good and that we must respond with generosity.

In this way we see they are also great proofs of God’s love for us.  Each affliction “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory,” (2 Cor 4:17) meaning that they have been hand-chosen by a loving Father for our sanctification.  To live with this conviction is where we find peace and joy in the midst of suffering; knowing that God has chosen the most gentle way for us to be sanctified through penance.  Even the suffering that God allows for us is an act of Divine Mercy.

This passive penance also does not always “feel” like we are doing penance and so it further conforms us to what all appearances was Christ’s great failure in the Crucifixion.  This is why we can examine the “success” of our penitential lives by looking for the fruits of humility and charity.  Penance then properly understood is a not an act of giving (or giving up) per se, but of receiving.  It would be fair to say that penance is the means by which we lay hold of the graces missed the first time round.

Scourging at the Pillar

This is also why we must be careful in selecting our means of active penance.   These are activities that are voluntarily undertaken as penance like fasting, giving up something otherwise good, mortification, putting a rock in your shoe, etc.  These too are necessary, but they come with a strong temptation as well especially if we do not have a positive view of penance.

Penance is discouraging for most of us because we approach it from the angle of it being a disagreeable hardship rather than a turning wholly to God.  There is something inherent in self-imposed and exterior penances in that we tend to look at the disagreeable portion and then try for something that is not too bad.  This in turn only makes us feel that there are parts that are not willing to undergo suffering for God, when, what we might really be experiencing is just the natural recoil at suffering.

We will also always have a tendency to choose those penances which are in some way agreeable to us and thus end up doing nothing but feeding our self-love.  Again the key is to look for the fruits of charity and humility.  Even with these temptations, it would be a mistake to avoid all forms of active penance especially since the devil will often trick us into avoiding them out of fear or by appealing to a misconceived humility.

In his book, Spirit of Penance, Path to God, Dom Hubert Van Zeller offers an extended commentary on Jesus’ commandment regarding our appearance when we are fasting.  He says that  “we must show washed and shining faces when we fast, indicating to the world that penance is not such a terrible burden as it is made out to be, and that if only people went in for it more, they would find they need lose nothing of their happiness.”  Likewise our passive penances when borne with peace and joy show them for what they truly are.  During this Year of Mercy let us go forth and preach the Mercy of God through Penance.

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